Book excerpts that chronicle famous encounters among twentieth-century cultural icons
Stanley Crouch writes about the 1935 Kansas City jam session in which the great local musician Buster Smith was challenged by fellow clarinetist Benny Goodman
Excerpted from Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker
Buster Smith had gotten to know Kansas City as a Blue Devil, and his reputation for taste and craft made an impression. As Jay McShann said of him, “We all knew what we were saying when we called him Prof, and the people before us knew, too. It’s just what the man should have been called. He was a professor….He knew a lot of music and he knew how to write his music, and he wrote so great and he could play so great.” Trumpeter Orville Minor saw the same thing in Smith: “He wasn’t a rough-edged guy. Any time you saw him, he was a tie-and-shirt man. He didn’t talk a whole lot of foolishness and all that. Buster Smith was the kind of man you would look up to. If you didn’t, Prof could show you why you should look up to him.”
McShann recognized that Smith was one of those players who brought virtuosos skill to the blues. “Buster had a good bringing up. He played correct. He played piano correct, wasn’t no wrong chords, and he played good. He played clarinet, he played all the saxophones, he played violin. Buster played bass. He was just one of those kinds of musicians.” Even early on, he displayed a proficiency that would be an obvious influence on Charlie Parker. “If you had a chance to hear Buster stretch out, it would have sounded something like Bird did later on. It’s just that Buster didn’t care about stretching out. That guy was phenomenal. I think he was so much of a gentleman that he didn’t really want to be bothered with what you had to go through to become a star. He knew what he could do.” And that was enough.
But there was also something cautious about Buster Smith, something that kept him in the background, away from the footlights. “He wasn’t one to chase after anything. No, Prof just laid it back cool. You had to push him to find out what he could do.” After Moten’s death, he teamed up with Bill Basie, at the Reno Club. When John Hammond came along to lure Basie’s band back east, though, Buster opted out. Perhaps he was reluctant because of his experience with the Blue Devils, but just as likely it was because he knew how badly Moten’s band had done on that eastern tour in ’32. They made some great records in New Jersey during that tour – “Toby,” “Moten Swing,” “The Blue Room” – but as good as they were, those sides were cold comfort after the painfully heavy dues they paid along the way, plenty of rocks in their pathway. Plenty. By the end of the trip, they were reduced to eating a rabbit stew off a pool table. The road was fickle, success as fragile as those shellac discs. If two bands as strong as Moten’s and the Blue Devils could run into such trouble, shy should Basie expect anything more? Buster Smith was skeptical and stuck around Kansas City, safe and sound but ready for whatever came his way.
Orville Minor, who played with both Buster Smith and Charlie Parker, remembered seeing Buster at a jam session before Basie pulled up stakes and rolled on out. “One night Benny Goodman got his horn out and came up on the stand with Lester Young, Jo Jones, Herschel Evans, Buck Clayton at the Reno. Benny Goodman started playing – and that was a night when Buster chewed him up and spit him out! I think it was that John Hammond [who] brought him down there. Benny wanted to hear Basie because the white men knew that if you wanted to learn something you went down there to hear what those colored musicians have to say. He learned something that night…He found out what a whole lot of people found out when they got to messing around in Kansas City. Benny Goodman found out how it felt when being a star didn’t mean nothing. You needed to be more than that to stand up against that rough stuff they had for you in Kansas City.”
Buster Smith made short work of Goodman that night; he seemed to pop out of the ground with two guns of imagination, hungry for bear. “That night was the Buster Smith everybody respected. Prof was cool about what he could do, but when he got to doing it, he could start spinning and spitting that stuff out. He could run a cyclone of fire up your butt.”