I’m about 70 pages into Joe Posnanski’s book The Soul of Baseball, which is about a year spent traveling and listening to Buck O’Neil, whose two great loves were jazz and baseball.
“Buck always said the two greatest things in this world are baseball and jazz,” Posnanski wrote, and if Buck was wrong, it’s not by much. They’re certainly in the top five.
O’Neil was once a star player before blacks could play in the major leagues, so he was a Kansas City Monarch in the Negro Leagues, which brought him into close contact with the Kansas City jazz scene of the time.
O’Neil was in his 90s when he told Posnanski his stories a little more than a decade ago, so who knows if he embellished at all or took literary license. If he did, there wasn’t anyone around to correct him.
Once Duke Ellington led O’Neil into a club where the saxophone player was a “chubby Kansas City kid.” Of course it was Charlie Parker, at a time when if you yelled Bird at a jazz club, patrons would look up and not at the stage.
And once Joe Louis and Billie Holiday were having breakfast at the hotel O’Neil was staying at. O’Neil didn’t say if they were talking about left hooks or “What A Little Moonlight Could Do.”
Which brings O’Neil back to One O’Clock Jump. The song was written in the 30s (“Basie’s name ended up on the copyright, but alto saxophonist Buster Smith and arranger Eddie Durham likely wrote it,” according to allmusic.com) and Basie spent lots of time in Kansas City, so it’s possible O’Neil had an insider’s knowledge. The story has been retold similarly elsewhere, but not as well.
Basie’s orchestra was playing, in a bar, for a radio station. They played a song they called “Blue Balls,” and the radio announcer asked the name of the song. O’Neil didn’t specify what year it was, but it was before integration and Howard Stern, and it’s safe to assume a song called “Blue Balls” by a black bandleader wouldn’t get an encore.
“(Basie) looked at the clock and saw it was 1 a.m.,” wrote Posnanski, in O’Neil’s retelling. ” ‘We call it One O’Clock Jump,’ Basie said.”
Thus was Count Basie’s most famous song named. Who knows how it would have endured as Blue Balls.