Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Page, Walter (Sylvester)

The walking bass is one of the defining sounds of jazz, and no one did more to establish this than “The Big One,” bassist Walter Page. When the Count Basie Orchestra stormed the national stage in 1936, it was Page's thumping, moving bass lines which buoyed the band's infectious sense of swing.

Walter Sylvester Page was born on his family’s farm in Gallatin, Missouri, on February 9th, 1900 to Edward and Blanche Page. By 1910 he and his mother had moved to nearby Kansas City. At home, Walter was exposed to folksongs and spirituals which helped foster an early love of music. His aunt, Lillie Page, was a music teacher, but it is unclear what if any role she played in his musical development.

Page’s first performance experience came playing bass drum and tuba with a neighborhood band. He received his first formal musical training at Lincoln High School under Major N. Clark Smith, a retired military band leader. It was Smith who first directed Page to the string bass. As is often the case, the high school band was short a double bass player, so the Major encouraged the boy to pick up the instrument, and he did.

Page stated in interviews that most opportunities to perform on bass at this time called for either a bass horn or for a player who could play both string bass and tuba. A career as an upright bass player was not yet on the horizon.

After high school, Page attended the University of Kansas at Lawrence, where he studied to become a music teacher. At the university Page began his first foray into the music business, playing tuba, bass sax and some string bass with Bennie Moten's band on weekends between 1918 and 1923.

It was around this time that Walter Page heard his first great inspiration, Wellman Braud, whose powerful sound laid the foundation for Page's style. Braud, who later played with Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, was with a touring show out of Chicago when Page first heard that “oomp, oomp, oomp of bass," Page recalled in 1958. "Braud hit those notes like hammers and made the jump right out of that box.”

In 1923 Page left Bennie Moten’s band to join a group that toured the Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA) circuit, a string of eighty theaters between Philadelphia and Texas. Page eventually settled in Oklahoma City, where he formed his first, and only, band, Walter Page and the Blue Devils in 1925.

The Blue Devils quickly became one of the hottest acts in the Midwest and Southwest. By 1928 Page had recruited such future greats as trumpeter Hot Lips Page (no relation), Eddie Durham, singer Jimmy “five by five” Rushing, and even his future boss William “Count” Basie on piano.

The Blue Devils had established a reputation as one of the best bands in the Southwest, perhaps second only to Moten’s group out of Kansas City. The Blue Devils only recorded once, a session for the Vocalion label on November 11th, 1929 at the studios of radio station WDAF in Kansas City.

Two sides of a 78 rpm disc were recorded that day, “Squabblin’” and “Blue Devil Blues” featuring Jimmy Rushing. The band did not survive much longer, as by 1931 many of the Blue Devils had migrated over to Moten's group. The Blue Devils folded later that year after a contractual dispute with a piano player led to Page being fined two hundred and fifty dollars.

Page was reunited with his former bandmates in 1932, when Moten made him a generous offer to join his band. Page made his first recording with Bennie Moten on December 13th, 1932. Among the tunes on this session was the now classic “Moten Swing."

If a listener compares "Moten Swing" to sides recorded just a year or two earlier, such as “New Moten Stomp” and “Ya Got Love,” it is easy to hear the immediate impact Page’s driving, powerful bass playing made on the band. By 1934, Count Basie had taken over the band, and by 1936 the core of the classic Basie band was nearly compete, with the addition of tenor saxophonist Lester Young, Carl “Tatti” Smith, and the yin to Page’s yang, drummer Jo Jones. Page, Jones and Basie transformed the sound of the rhythm section from a stiff and often clumsy pounding out of the beat to a smooth and flowing, yet driving accompaniment.

Prior to the “Basie sound,” the beat of a band was established by the bass drum and the pianist's left hand, with the bass player playing along with one or both. Page's ability to strongly define the beat freed Basie to provide accents at the piano, and Jones, too, was free to compliment and work around the pulse of the music on his cymbals, hi hat and snare, no longer needing to pound out every beat on the bass drum.

This nucleus, with the later addition of Freddie Green on guitar, became the model for virtually all rhythm sections in the Swing Era and beyond. While it is hard to pinpoint a single cause of this collaborative miracle, Page's contributions to the sound are evident. Jo Jones was once quoted as saying “Without him, I wouldn’t know how to play drums.”

The earliest examples of this new sound come from a small group session cut on November 9th, 1936, credited to "Jones-Smith Inc.," since Basie was under contract with another label at the time. Two sides from this session, “Shoe Shine Boy” and “Lady Be Good” not only give the listener a taste of this innovative approach to rhythm but also feature Lester Young’s first recorded solos.

Walter Page stayed with the Count Basie Orchestra for the rest of the thirties and most of the 1940s, with a three-year hiatus between 1943 and 1946. Page’s big sound features prominently on the band's biggest hits, including “One O’ Clock Jump," “Lester Leaps In," “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,”as well as in a supporting role to Lester Young and Billie Holiday on “I Can’t Get Started” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me."

In Page's years after leaving the Basie band Walter Page continued to work prolifically, playing regular stints with Eddie Condon, Sidney Bechet, Ruby Braff, and former colleagues from the Basie band, including “Hot Lips” Page, Buck Clayton and Jimmy Rushing. While he greatly reduced his time on the road Page was still playing around New York City and recording just a few months before his death. On December 20th, 1957, Walter Page died at Belleview Hospital in New York City from pneumonia. The February 6th, 1958 issue of Down Beat magazine claims that Page caught the ailment trying to get to a recording session in a snowstorm.

Walter Page brought a fresh, melodically original, and rhythmically driving approach to the bass that established a fundamental vocabulary for his instrument, which laid the foundation for the modern understanding of jazz. His playing provided the essential link between the days when the bass was considered an optional color in a band to an era where it was an absolute necessity.

Select Discography

The Real Kansas City Jazz (Columbia/Legacy CK64855)

Bennie Moten and his Kansas City Orchestra, Band Box Shuffle (Hep 1070-2)

The Essential Count Basie, Vol. 1 (Sony Jazz 4600612)

Count Basie, America's #1 Band: The Columbia Years (Sony, box set)

Lady Day & Pres 1937-41 (Frémeaux FA013)

Jimmy Rushing, Complete Goin' to Chicago and Listen to the Blues (Lonehill Jazz)

Contributor: Sean Lorre