In the ‘20s and ‘30s Kansas City was a hotbed of jazz, and pianist/bandleader Bennie Moten was at the heart of it. The recordings with his Kansas City Orchestra from 1923 to 1935 document the evolution of his style as he moved from ragtime to jazz in the mid-to late ‘20s, establishing what came to be known as the “Kansas City style.” He began raiding another established K.C. band, Walter Page’s Blue Devils. By the end of the decade Count Basie, Jimmy Rushing, Hot Lips Page, Eddie Durham and Ben Webster had left the Blue Devils to join Moten. When Moten died suddenly in 1935, Basie took over leadership and the group eventually developed into the Count Basie Orchestra.
In A New History of Jazz, Alyn Shipton describes the development of Moten’s style. “Whereas his first discs show a rhythmic stiffness and a debt to ragtime, despite a reliance on the harmonic structure of the blues, he went on to define the loose, blues-influenced style, with a four-bar pulse, which became the predominant local jazz genre, and underpinned the work of later Kansas City bands like those of Count Basie and Jay McShann.” Additionally, “...his later discs make use of the repetitive phrases or riffs that were to become a hallmark of Basie’s first nationally successful band.” Shipton also points out that “the late-1920’s Moten orchestra had a very well-developed sense of orchestral color. Some of the charts approached Ellington’s for their creative use of timbre....”
Bennie’s nephew, Ira “Buster” Moten, pianist and accordion player for the Kansas City Orchestra, collaborated on “Moten Swing” with Bennie, and they recorded it in 1932. While “Moten Swing” did not chart, an earlier composition by Bennie Moten and trombonist Thamon Hayes called “Moten Stomp” (1927) made the charts in 1928 where it remained for two weeks, reaching #16. The titles are sometimes confused. (See Chris Tyle’s history notes.)
In the notes to his book Jazz Styles: History and Analysis author Mark C. Gridley says, “‘Moten Swing’ is a thirty-two measure AABA form that is based on the chord progression to a song called ‘You’re Driving Me Crazy.’” In this respect Moten anticipated the beboppers whose compositions frequently used the chord changes of established songs.
In the documentary Jazz ’34, filmed in 1996 on location, director Robert Altman recreates the era of Kansas City jazz. He invited 21 of the finest contemporary musicians to interpret the music of that period. They perform such compositions as Lester Young’s “Tickle Toe,” Ellington’s ”Solitude,” Basie’s “Blues in the Dark,” and “Moten Swing.”
“Moten Swing” has been recorded by vibraphonist Cal Tjader, pianist Oscar Peterson, trumpeter/bandleader Shorty Rogers, saxophonist Ernie Watts, the Barrett Deems Big Band, guitarist Kenny Burrell, and violinist Claude “Fiddler” Williams. The Basie band recorded it on their famous April in Paris album. Bassist Lynn Seaton included it on his 2000 release Solo Flights, and pianists Abdullah Ibrahim and Roger Kellaway featured the composition on their CD’s released respectively in 2003 and 2006.