May 16, 1942: Basie Awarded “Doctor of Swingology”
Count Basie received an honorary degree from Harvard on May 16, 1942, but not one you might expect. Just about the time America pitched headlong into war, Count Basie had two out-of-the-ordinary events in Boston, one in October 1941 and the other in May 1942. They involved a curious clutch of Bay Staters: a journalist, a socialite, and Basie’s road manager, Milt Ebbins, a master at creating press-worthy events.
In May 1942, Count Basie visited Harvard to receive an honorary degree, but not one bestowed by university itself. No, this presentation was entirely the work of a group of jazz-loving Yardlings acting on their own: They presented the Count with the “Doctor of Swingology” degree.
I’m not sure what brought Basie to the Boston area in early May, because he wasn’t scheduled at any of the regular venues. Perhaps he was playing a dance at Harvard itself. Nonetheless, Ebbins delivered Basie to Winthrop House on May 4 to receive his doctorate (the event made the press weeks later).
Of course there was music, provided by the student band of Russ Randolph, who were joined by Basie and singer Jimmy Rushing to render “Harvard Blues,” a tune Basie recorded in 1941. Its lyricist was Boston Herald columnist and former Down Beat correspondent George Frazier (class of ‘32), who was also on hand for the presentation. And very likely in attendance was Miss Sally Sears, the person responsible for the Basie event the previous October.
Sears was a member of a prominent Brahmin family who happened to be a serious jazz fan; she was the coauthor of “Sub-Deb Blues,” recorded by Basie in 1939, and praised lavishly by Frazier in his review. On October 4, 1941, the Sears family bypassed the usual society bands and hired Basie to play Sally’s debutante party—a $3,000 one-nighter, which would equal about $47,000 today. The band premiered a new tune, “Coming Out Party,” for the occasion, and Sears had a hand in writing that one too, along with Basie and Milt Ebbins. Basie recorded it in 1941. Forty years later, in his autobiography, Basie remembered Sally as “pretty hip.” You could do worse than be remembered by Count Basie as “pretty hip.”
Milt Ebbins had a hand in organizing and publicizing both of these events. Ebbins was born in Springfield, Mass. in 1912. He gave up the trumpet to become road manager first for Jack Jenney, and in 1940, for Count Basie. He was also an ASCAP songwriter. He left Basie in 1942 to concentrate on artist management, and in that line of work his ability to generate publicity served him well. Among those in music he managed were Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine, but his best-known client was Rat Pack member Peter Lawford, whom he managed for 35 years.
Here is the Doctor of Swingology himself, with his estimable bluesologist, performing “Harvard Blues.”