The Troy Street Observer

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.

Photo of Count Basie
William Basie, Doctor of Swingology

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).

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March, 1940: Basie at the Southland Cafe

Basie at Southland
Basie at Southland (Joker LP SM3084)

Business was brisk and the talent considerable at the Southland Cafe in Boston, upstairs at 76 Warrenton Street (where the Charles Playhouse is today), as 1940 got underway. First Duke Ellington, then Jack Teagarden, then Teddy Powell, and on February 19, Count Basie rolled in for a four-week stay. Basie was broadcasting nationwide over the NBC Blue network in February and March that year.

Southland had been Boston’s top downtown spot for jazz since its opening in September 1937, and since April 1939 it had been booking name bands exclusively. For the bands, Southland was a prized booking, because the club booked for two- or even four-week engagements, giving the bands a respite from the buses and the one-nighters.

This was the Basie band in all its pre-war glory: Buck Clayton, Sweets Edison, Vic Dickenson, Dicky Wells, Lester Young, Buddy Tate, and others—as well as the now-immortal rhythm section of Freddie Green, Walter Page, Jo Jones, and Basie himself.

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