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Good Morning Blues : The Autobiography of Count Basie as Told to Albert Murray (Random House: $19.95; 399 pp.)

March 16, 1986|Leonard Feather | Feather is a free-lance jazz music critic.

Show business autobiographies are generally of two types. Some aim at sensationalism, letting it all hang out. Others are more discreet, omitting or altering facts to suit the author's wishful recollection. Count Basie's story falls into the latter category. Even Albert Murray's skill and professionalism cannot overcome this handicap.

Readers unfamiliar with the Basie story will find 'Blues' Murray's work richly anecdotal and evocative of the Zeitgeist in the early New Jersey, New York and Kansas City years. Much of the writing, however, is as elliptical as was Basie's piano. One problem is that it reads too much like Basie in conversation, as if, for authenticity's sake, Murray took it off the tapes, verbal warts and all.

At one point, I began checking off the sentences that included, "I don't remember" or "I can't recall" or, worse, "I'm not going to get into that." I tired of the process after losing count.

Basie's unique story deserved an honest retelling. His was a classic instance of an artist who had greatness thrust upon him. A capable soloist who once played good stride piano, he was limited in his schooling ("I didn't go any higher than junior high school . . . that was the worst mistake I ever made"), in his musical education (he had trouble reading music), and in his ambition: Leading a band was more the result of chance than of any burning success drive.

All he wanted was to be around show people and remain a part of their world.

The early years as a sideman with Walter Page's Blue Devils and with the Bennie Moten Orchestra, in which he and Moten played piano, make an absorbing documentation of black urban life. The further the story moves along, however, the more we are inundated with irrelevant details ("The movie that week was Ricardo Cortez in 'City Girl' ") and dubious facts.

Having known Basie almost as long as his discoverer, John Hammond (I met him during his $21-a-week Reno Club days in Kansas City, saw him frequently until his death in 1984, and even wrote a couple of arrangements for the band), I found it particularly easy to spot the gaps in Basie's recall.

The introduction states that he will avoid gossip but will not "leave out anything just because it is personal." Yet a glaring personal omission is the great trauma in the lives of Katy and Bill Basie: Their only child, Diane, was severly handicapped and still requires constant care.

The errors of commission, though minor at times, could have been checked. Jeanne Taylor is described as "our new girl singer" in 1947 (an amazing coup if true, since Taylor is a very blond white woman; she was with Basie only on a record date). Hot Lips Page, the trumpeter, is described as "the emcee" of a 20th anniversary party for the band, which I attended; Page that night was dying in a New York hospital.

Marshall Royal, Basie's lead saxophonist for 20 years, "became ill" and quit the band, though, in fact, he was inexplicably fired and was quite bitter about it. This misstatement typifies the book's faults; it tells what Basie would like us to believe.

Racial problems are dealt with only glancingly, but this reflects one of Basie's strengths; he tried to ignore race and transcend bigotry. The words black and Negro are avoided, and the old fashioned sepia is substituted.

If the objective in leaving so many details fuzzy is to show us how absent-minded Basie was, Murray has succeeded. In 1960, when I was researching a booklet to accompany one of the band's albums, his road manager told me: "One thing you can be sure about on a road tour with Basie. Basie won't know where he's going, who he's playing for, or how to get there."

What does emerge in these pages is Basie's easy-going, kindly attitude, a disposition that enabled him to retain an ensemble with an unprecedented team spirit.

Lena Horne once said: "Basie isn't just a man, or even just a band. He's a way of life." Much of that feeling comes across, despite the flaws in Basie's dictation and Murray's documentation.

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