Dream Lucky: When Franklin Was in the White House,
Count Basie was on the Radio, and Everyone Wore a Hat
Smithsonian Books/HarperCollins 2008
978-0-06-089750-5 $25.95 ($27.95 CAN)
A vivid evocation of late 1930s America, Dream Lucky delves into politics, race, art, sport, and religion, but the central focus is its soundtrack—big band jazz—and the rapid rise to fame of the big-hearted piano player William “Count” Basie. Other stories weave in and out: Amelia Earhart pursues her dream of flying “around the world at its waistline.” Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. stages a “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” boycott on 125th Street. And Mae West shocks radio listeners as a naked Eve tempting the snake.
“A firecracker of a book as tight, ebullient and raucous as a classic Basie arrangement.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Orgill unleashes verve and rhythmic riffs to capture the mood of the pre-WWII years, when ‘the radio was always on.’” —Publishers Weekly
“Like the jazzmen and swell gals from the swinging late 1930s that she resuscitates with verve and moxie, Roxane Orgill is a kick—to read and to watch—riffing on a whole era and its cool heroes. This book is danceable.” —Raymond Sokolov, columnist, The Wall Street Journal
Basie stood on the corner of Broadway and Fifty-first Street with slim, smiling Jo Jones, his drummer, at his side and a flier in his hand. “Yes, there is a Santa Claus, and he is bringing you Count Basie at the Roseland Ballroom for Christmas,” the flyer read.
Willard Alexander had done his job, all right. "Without any doubt the greatest band in the country." “The biggest Christmas present you can get.” Talk about a build-up. Willard had plastered posters around town and put ads in the papers, too: “Western Orchestra Sensation,” in the Daily News, right above the ad for today's “luncheon” at the Automat, pot roast with choice of two fresh vegetables, roll and butter, for thirty-five cents. There probably wasn’t a writer, record producer, club owner, or swing-crazed kid who didn’t know that Count Basie, the bandleader out of Kansas City, had arrived and was ready to take on New York.
Or be taken, more probably. The Basie band had barely survived Chicago. The men weren’t playing together and they weren’t playing in tune, even after a string of one-nighters. They weren’t used to being thirteen instead of nine.
Basie stuffed the flier in his pocket, drew his jacket in close against the chill. He breathed in the odor of cold concrete and damp brick and, for the first time, looked around. He was standing in the very heart of the midtown action, and he hadn't seen a thing! People brushed past him in a steady stream: long-legged chorus girls, zig-zagging drunks, first-nighters with white silk mufflers flapping, a man talking with his mouth full of donut, college boys in letter sweaters, a faker selling strings of “pearls” for seventy-nine cents, a musician bent under the weight of his double bass, a beggar with a paper cup. Seemed like everybody in New York except the shuffling beggar was in a rush.
On the street a trolley without a trolley (they called it a surface car) rumbled up the Great White Way from Times Square, while a clutch of battered “20 and 5” taxicabs glided downtown. Wheels screeched; motorcars honked their horns. A white-gloved traffic cop tooted his whistle—one blast, stop; two blasts, go! New York was noisy!
The scent of a steaming hot-dog stand reached Basie's nose about the same time as the whiff of chop suey from one of the Chinese joints. Mmmm. New York smelled good.
And the lights! It was only just dusk, but everywhere Basie looked lights blazed—it took four million light bulbs, they said, to illuminate Times Square … —from “Basie: Big Apple Welcome (Dec. 24, 1936)”
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