Basie, Count(real name, William)

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Basie, Count(real name, William)

Basie, Count(real name, William), seminal big-band leader, pianist; b. Red Bank, N.J., Aug. 21, 1904; d. Hollywood, Calif., April 26, 1984. His mother was a pianist, but Basie originally played drums in a local kids’ band. He later concentrated on piano, taking regular lessons from a local teacher and receiving some instruction from Fats Waller. He worked summers in Asbury Park and played at Leroy’s in N.Y. He performed briefly with June Clark’s Band and Elmer Snowden, then began a long spell of touring theatres and accompanying variety acts, including Kate Crippen and Her Kids and the Hippity Hop Show. Basie spent two years with the Gonzelle White Show, leaving it in Kansas City in 1927, where he remained; after a serious illness, he began accompanying the Whitman Sisters and working in local theatres. He joined Walter Page’s Blue Devils in Dallas in July 1928, remaining with them about a year, and then played briefly with Elmer Payne and his Ten Royal Americans during the summer of 1929. He then joined Bennie Moten’s Band; he left Moten early in 1934 to lead own band (under Moten’s auspices) in Little Rock, Ark.; he later rejoined Bennie Moten and, after that leader’s death in 1935, continued to work for a short time under Buster Moten’s leadership. He returned to Kansas City where he worked as a soloist, and then with his own trio, before jointly leading the Barons of Rhythm with altoist Buster Smith. Under Basie’s leadership, the band broadcast over Station WSXBY from their residency at the Reno Club, Kansas City; from that time, Bill Basie was dubbed “Count.” John Hammond heard the band and initiated their first national tour, which required Basie to expand to a larger group. The band left Kansas City, took up a short residency at the Grand Terrace, Chicago, played at the Vendóme Hotel, Buffalo, then into Roseland, N.Y. (December 1936). During the following year, the band was reshuffled and achieved wide success after its residency at Savoy Ballroom, N.Y. in January 1938; this success was consolidated during their stay at The Famous Door from January 1938-January 1939. The band then played in Chicago for six months before returning to N.Y; afterwards, they left for West Coast engagements in the fall of 1939.

Throughout the 1940s, the Basie Band appeared at most of the major ballrooms and theatres throughout the U.S. Basie also recorded with the Benny Goodman Sextet and made many solo appearances on various radio programs. The Basie Band was featured, along with Mary Lou Williams and Teddy Wilson, at a Fats Waller Memorial concert held at Cafe Society Uptown on Dec. 21, 1943. The band was featured in numerous films during their several Hollywood residencies, among them Top Man, Choo-Choo Swing, Reveille with Beverly, Stage Door Canteen, Hit Parade of 1943, and Made in Paris (1966). In January 1950, Basie disbanded the big band due to financial problems and began touring with a small band starting in April of that year; they accompanied Billie Holiday at one point. He reformed the big band regularly in 1952, touring Scandinavia (1954) and Europe (1956). Basie did his first tour of Great Britain in April 1957, then returned later that year to play a command performance for the Queen; from then on, he made regular tours of Europe. The “new testament” band (as it was dubbed by Basie biographer Albert Murray) was very successful, notably after vocalist Joe Williams joined; they had hits with “April in Paris” (1956) and with the album Chairman of the Board (1960). During 1963, the band toured Japan. From the mid-1960s, the Basie Band frequently toured and recorded with various vocalists, including Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. In 1976, Basie suffered a heart attack, but after a period of recuperation, returned to an active career. In 1981, he received the Kennedy Center honors for achievement in the performing arts; at a White House reception that followed, President Ronald Reagan said that Count Basie had revolutionized jazz. In 1985, Reagan awarded him the Medal of Freedom (posth.).

Count Basie’s band had a powerful groove that was partly due to his taste as a leader and editor (though not composer) of arrangements. He was a technically accomplished pianist, as he demonstrated on early recordings, but he chose to solo in a sly, concise, and witty style. IIe was as natural leader, firm but funny and warm, and was one of the most beloved figures in jazz. Billy Mitchell likes to tell about the time that he chided Basie in the middle of a solo for playing a wrong note on the piano. Basie responded “It don’t matter none,” and kept playing; a half-chorus later, he added, “But if you play one like it, you’re fired.” After Basie’s death, the band continued under various leaders. Thad Jones first took the reins in 1985, but he died soon after in early 1986; he was replaced by Frank Foster, who led the band for nearly a decade until 1995, and then Grover Mitchell took over.


At the Chatterbox (1937); “One O’Clock Jump” (1937); “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” “Good Morning Blues,” “Rock-A-Bye Basie,” “Jive at Five” (all 1938); At the Famous Door (1938); Lester Leaps In (1939); Broadway (1940); One Night Stand with Count Basie and His Orch. (1944); V Discs, Vol. 1, 2 (1945); The King, Rambo (1947); At Birdland, Vol. 1, 2 (1953); Swings with Joe Williams (1955); April in Paris (1955); In London (1956); Basie Roars Again! (1956); Count Basie at Newport (1957); Complete Roulette Studio Count (1957); Atomic Mr. Basie (1957); Sing Along with Basie (1958); Basie Plays Hefti (1958); Everyday I Have the Blues (1959); Chairman of the Board (1959); Basie: Eckstine (1959); Basie Swings, Bennett Sings (1959); Kansas City Suite: The Music of Benny Carter (1960); Chairman of the Board (1960); Legend (1961); The Count Basie Story (1961); First Time! The Count Meets the Duke (1961); Basie at Birdland (1961); Complete Roulette Live Recordings (c. 1961); Sinatra-Basie (1962); On My Way and Shoutin’ Again (1962); Live in Sweden (1962); Lil’ Ol’ Groovemaker (1962); Kansas City 7 (1962); Ella and Basie! (1963); Our Shining Hour (1965); Basie’s Beat (1965); Straight Ahead (1967); Afrique (1970); Bosses (1973); Satch and Josh (1974); For the First Time (1974); Kansas City 3: For the Second Time (1975); Fun Time (1975); Basie and Zoot (1975); Basie Jam at Montreux 75 (1975); Satch and Josh..Again (1977); Prime Time (1977); Gifted Ones (1977); Basie Jam: Montreux ’77 (1977); Live in Japan (1978); Milt Jackson and C B., Vol. 1 (1978); C. B. Meets Oscar Peterson (1978); On the Road (1979); Milt Jackson and C. B., Vol. 2 (1979); Warm Breeze (1981); Kansas City 6 (1981); Farmers Market Barbecue (1982); 88 Basie Street (1983). Moten: “Small Black” (1929); “Moten Swing” (1932).


With A. Murray, Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie (N.Y., 1985).


A. Morgan, Count Basie (Spellmount, N.Y., 1984).

—John Chilton, Who’s Who of Jazz/Lewis Porter