After Page had completed high school, he would then go on to study to become a music teacher at the University of Kansas at Lawrence. At college, Page completed a three year course in music in one year, in addition to taking a three-year course on gas engines. Between the years 1918 and 1923, he moonlighted as a tuba, bass saxophone, and string bass player with the Bennie Moten Orchestra.
- “Fridays and Sundays I played with Bennie Moten and Saturdays with Dave Lewis who was paying me $7.00 a night. Bennie was paying for my food and transportation, so when I’d be finished a weekend I’d made me $20.00 and had a ball.”
In 1923, Page left the Moten band and began an engagement with Billy King’s Road Show, touring the Theater Owners’ Booking Association (TOBA) circuit across the United States. Notably, the band included Page's future Basie band mates Jimmy Rushing and Basie himself. The band soon fell apart, however, which led to the formation of Walter Page and the Blue Devils in 1925. The Blue Devils were a territory band based out of the Oklahoma City-Wichita, Kansas area. Throughout various times its six year lifespan (1925-1931) the band featured such noteworthy figures as Count Basie, Jimmy Rushing, Buster Smith, Lester Young, and Hot Lips Page. In his autobiography, Count Basie recalls the first time he ever saw the Blue Devils Play:
- “The leader was the heavyset, pleasant-looking fellow playing the bass and doubling on the baritone. His name was Walter Page, and at that time the band was known as Walter Page and his Blue Devils. But you could also hear the musicians addressing him by his nickname, which was Big ‘Un. You could also tell right away that they didn’t just respect him because he was the boss; they really liked him and felt close to him because he was also one of them.”
Page wanted badly to have his band square off against Benny Moten’s band, which he states in an interview never happened. Gunther Schuller gives a different account though, writing that “…an encounter finally did take place in 1928, and on that occasion Page is reputed to have ‘wiped out’ the Moten band.” What is indisputable, however, is that Moten did seem to shy away from competition with the Blue Devils, opting to buy off individual members with higher salaries and absorb them into his own group rather than do battle directly. Count Basie and Eddie Durham defected in 1929, followed shortly after by Jimmy Rushing and Hot Lips Page. Despite this seemingly underhanded tactic, Page still felt that “ had one of the biggest hearts I knew of.” Page attempted to keep his Blue Devils intact, but after the departure of such key members of his band, the difficulties mounted. Unable to find suitable replacements, facing booking problems, and dealing with a musicians’ union conflict, Page eventually ceded control of the band to James Simpson. He then proceeded to join Moten’s band himself in 1931, staying on until 1934. Count Basie describes the immediate effect Walter Page had upon joining the Moten Band:
- “Big ‘Un in there on bass made things a lot different in the rhythm section, and naturally that changed the whole band and made it even more like the Blue Devils.”
In an interview published shortly before his death, Page recalls an encounter with Duke Ellington in 1934:
- “I remember Duke coming through on his way West that year. They were playing the Main Street Theatre and some of the boys in Duke’s band wanted to go hear Basie. Braud was in the band and he acted biggety, didn’t want to go, said, ‘What’s he got?’ We were playing at the Sunset Club and finally Duke and the rest crept around the scrim and started sitting in. I was playing right on top of Duke and he told Basie he was going to steal me out of the band. Basie told him I owed him $300.00 and that’s how I didn’t get to join Duke during all those good years he had. It was the smartest move Basie ever made…”
After his second stint with the Moten band, Page moved to St. Louis to play with the Jeter-Pillars band. Following the death of Bennie Moten in 1935, however, Count Basie took over the former Moten Band, which Page rejoined. Page stayed with the Count Basie Orchestra from 1935 to 1942, an integral part of what came to be called the "All-American Rhythm Section. Together with drummer Jo Jones, guitarist Freddie Green, and pianist Count Basie, the rhythm section pioneered the "Basie Sound", a style in which Page, as bass player, clearly established the beat, allowing his band mates to compliment more freely. Until this point, the rhythm of a jazz band was traditionally felt in the pianist's left hand and the kick of the bass drum on all four beats. In a sense, the classic Basie rhythm section were liberators. After his first departure from the Count Basie Orchestra, Page worked with various small groups around Kansas City. He returned to the Basie Band in 1946 for three more years. "Big 'Un just decided that he was ready to come back," recalled Count Basie. After his second stint with Basie, Page would work primarily as a freelancer until his life was cut short in 1957. The artists he worked with in the later portion of his career included former band mate and trumpeter Hot Lips Page, Jimmy McPartland, Eddie Condon, Ruby Braff, Roy Eldridge, Vic Dickenson, Buck Clayton, Jimmy Rushing, and others, including many Basie alumni.
Read more about this topic: Walter Page
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