On December 13, 1932, Bennie Moten brought a new band into the studio for what would become a watershed moment in American music. The band cut a whopping ten sides that day, including “The Blue Room, Lafayette, Toby” and “Moten Swing.”
The reconstituted Moten band plays with a smooth, flexible beat not heard on its previous recordings. The players have internalized Louis Armstrong’s rhythmic-narrative concepts and the riff-based arrangements galvanize Hot Lips Page, Ben Webster and Count Basie. String bass, the equivalent of the opposable thumb in jazz evolution, has also replaced tuba in the rhythm section.
These records would influence generations of musicians, come to be considered classics of the Kansas City style, inspire pages of commentary and regularly gain entry into Smithsonian compilations and other jazz history digests. Commentators still discuss this band and this date as though it were the one that finally got things right.
The remainder i.e. the bulk of Moten’s nine-year discography is often discussed as some vestigial step on the way to greatness. At best, it’s heard as charming in a naive, even primitive manner but merely of “historical interest.” More often terms like “stiff, lacking in virtuosity” and “hokum” (read, “commercial” and therefore “insincere”) are batted around.
Personally, I could listen to the entire Moten discography all day long but keep coming back to a few sides from 1929.
More stomp than swing, with Vernon Page’s tuba (!) proudly puffing two (!) beats per bar and the influence of ragtime, shouting blues, marching bands and snippets of vaudeville on top of a chunky, chugging rhythm, this Moten ensemble makes its 1932 Platonic form seem slick by comparison. Slow tunes unfold like the laziest country drawl and faster numbers burn with an agitated feel that never completely settles down but still satisfies on its own terms. The less-than-airtight sections have all the warmth one might expect from ten familiar musicians jamming together, rather than the lean, tightly drilled aesthetic that would dominate the swing era and continues to shape big bands.
Its soloists had heard Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington and Paul Whiteman and may have enjoyed that music but still stick to their guns in terms of tone, phrasing and even technique. Trumpeter Ed Lewis’s playing is not between the beats or beyond the bar lines but still punchy, with a crackling tone and its own strutting delivery. Woody Walder, critically despised for his novelty effects on the earliest Moten sides (which might have scored more points had they come from an Ellington sideman or an avant-garde composer) turns out to be a convincing blues player on clarinet and tenor sax, with his own intense, sweaty and completely ballsy voice. Trombonist Thamon Hayes doesn’t get the same amount of solo space but his gutty approach reveals another confident musician working with the tools at his disposal. That’s praise for what he played, not condescension at what he didn’t play. More than a matter of stylistic conservatism or musical immaturity, the band simply has its own unique, very personal sound.
That sound worked well for Moten and his audiences for several years. Walder and Hayes had played with Moten since his first recording session and the band mostly revolved around a core of the same players. Yet after a disappointing tour, Moten fired Walder as well as tuba player Page, lead alto Harlan Leonard and lead trumpet Booker Washington. Lewis and Hayes resigned shortly after and Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra had room for some new faces. Moten was ready for a change and it paid off for him in terms of posterity.
Decades of jazz history syllabi make it easy to say that Moten did the right thing, but it’s more accurate to say that he just tried something different. What was different for Moten is now the basis for the jazz of a post-Armstrong/Basie/Parker continuum. Meanwhile, Moten’s “regular old band” is now the surprise to us. Yet jazz is supposedly all about surprise, and it worked for Bennie Moten, didn’t it?