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Bennie Moten is today best-remembered as the leader of a band that partly became the nucleus of the original Count Basie Orchestra, but Moten deserves better. He was a fine ragtime-oriented pianist who led the top territory band of the 1920s, an orchestra that really set the standard for Kansas City jazz. In fact it was so dominant that Moten was able to swallow up some of his competitors' groups including Walter Page's Blue Devils, most of whom eventually became members of Moten's big band. Moten formed his group (originally a sextet) in 1922 and the following year they made their first recordings. Among Moten's 1923-1925 sides for Okeh was the original version of his greatest hit "South." During 1926-1932, Moten's Orchestra recorded for Victor and, although none of his original musicians became famous, the later additions included his brother Buster on occasional jazz accordion, Harlan Leonard, Jack Washington, Eddie Durham, Jimmy Rushing, Hot Lips Page, and (starting in 1929) Count Basie. So impressed was Moten by Basie's playing that Count assumed the piano chair for recordings from that point on (although in clubs Moten would generally play a feature or two). The most famous Bennie Moten recording session was also his last, ten songs cut on December 13, 1932 that found the ensemble strongly resembling Basie's five years later. In addition to Hot Lips Page, Durham, Washington, and Basie, the band at that point also starred Ben Webster, Eddie Barefield, and Walter Page and one of the high points was the debut of "Moten Swing."
Tragically, Bennie Moten died in 1935 from a botched tonsillectomy operation. Buster Moten briefly took over the band, but many of its top members (along with some important additions like Lester Young) eventually gravitated towards Count Basie.
Bennie Moten (November 13, 1894 – April 2, 1935) was a noted American jazz pianist and band leader born in Kansas City, Missouri.
He led the Kansas City Orchestra, the most important of the regional, blues-based orchestras active in the Midwest in the 1920s, and helped to develop the riffing style that would come to define many of the 1930s Big Bands.
His first recordings were made (for OKeh Records) in 1923, and were rather typical interpretations of the New Orleans style of King Oliver and others. They also showed the influence of the Ragtime that was still popular in the area. These OKeh sides (recorded 1923-1925) are some of the more valuable acoustic jazz 78's of the era and continue to be treasured records in many serious jazz collections.
They signed with Victor Records in 1926, and were influenced by the more sophisticated style of Fletcher Henderson, but more often than not featured a hard stomp beat that was extremely popular in Kansas City. Moten remained one of Victor's most popular orchestras through 1930. The song Kansas City Shuffle was recorded during this time. (The band recorded prolifically and many of their records were issued in Victor's regular series, therefore not specifically marketed to the Black community.)
By 1928 Moten's piano was showing some Boogie Woogie influences, but the real revolution came in 1929 when he recruited Count Basie, Walter Page and Oran 'Hot Lips' Page. Walter Page's walking bass lines gave the music an entirely new feel compared to the 2/4 tuba of his predecessor Vernon Page, coloured by Basie's understated, syncopated piano fills. Another boon to the band was adding Jimmy Rushing as their primary vocalist.
Their final session (10 recordings made at Victor's Camden, NJ studios on December 13, 1932, during a time when the band was suffering significant financial hardship) showed the early stages of what became known as the "Basie sound"; four years before Basie would record under his own name. By this time Ben Webster and Jimmy Rushing had joined Moten's band, but Moten himself does not play on these sessions. These sides (mostly arranged by Eddie Durham) include a number of tunes that later became swing classics:"Toby""Moten Swing""The Blue Room""Imagination" (vocals: Sterling Russell Trio)"New Orleans" (vocal: Jimmy Rushing)"The Only Girl I Ever Loved" (vocals: Sterling Russell Trio)"Milenberg Joys""Lafayette""Prince of Wails""Two Times" (recorded with six musicians and with vocalist Josephine Garrison)
After Moten's death in 1935 after an unsuccessful tonsillectomy, Basie took many of the leading musicians from the band to form his own orchestra.
Moten's popular 1928 recording of "South" (V-38021) stayed in Victor's catalog over the years (reissued as 24893 in 1935 as Victor phased out any remaining V-38000 series that were still in the catalog) and became a big jukebox hit in the late 1940s (by then, reissued as 44-0004). It remained in print (as a vinyl 45) until RCA stopping making vinyl records!