Basie, William James "Count"

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Basie, William James "Count"

August 21, 1904
April 26, 1984

Born in Red Bank, New Jersey, jazz pianist and bandleader William "Count" Basie took up drums as a child, performing at informal neighborhood gatherings. He began to play piano before his teens, and in high school he formed a band with drummer Sonny Greer. In 1924 Basie moved to New York, where he was befriended by two of the greatest stride piano players of the day, Fats Waller and James P. Johnson. Basie himself became a fine stride pianist, as well as a proficient organist, learning that instrument while observing Waller's performances at the Lincoln Theater in Harlem. Basie left New York in the mid-1920s to work as a touring musician for bands led by June Clark and Elmer Snowden, and as accompanist to variety acts such as those led by Kate Crippen and Gonzelle White. When White's group broke up in Kansas City in 1927, Basie found himself stranded. He supported himself as a theater organist, but more importantly, he also began performing with many of the southwest "territory" bands. In 1928 he joined bassist Walter Page's Blue Devils, and the next year he joined Bennie Moten's band in Kansas City.

After Moten's death in 1935, Basie took over the group, now reorganized as Count Basie and the Barons of Rhythm. Producer John Hammond heard the band on a 1935 radio broadcast from the Reno Club in Kansas City, and the next year brought the band to New York City. During this time the Basie band became one of the country's best-known swing bands, performing at the Savoy Ballroom, at the Famous Door on 52nd Street, and at the Woodside Hotel in Harlem, a stay immortalized in "Jumpin' at the Woodside" (1938). The band's recordings from this time represent the best of the hard-driving, riff-based Kansas City style of big-band swing. Many of these recordings are "head" arrangements, in which the horns spontaneously set up a repeating motif behind the melody and solos. Memorable recordings from this period include "Good Morning Blues" (1937), "One O'Clock Jump" (1937), "Sent for You Yesterday" (1937), "Swinging the Blues" (1938), "Every Tub" (1938), and "Taxi War Dance" (1939). In 1941 the Basie band recorded "King Joe," a tribute to boxer Joe Louis, which had lyrics by Richard Wright and vocals by Paul Robeson. In 1943 the band appeared in two films, Stage Door Canteen and Hit Parade of 1943.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Basie group was primarily a band of soloists. The leading members included tenor saxophonists Herschel Evans and Lester Young, alto saxophonists Buster Smith and Earle Warren, trumpeters Harry "Sweets" Edison and Wilbur "Buck" Clayton, and trombonists Eddie Durham and William "Dicky" Wells. Jimmy Rushing, Helen Humes, and Billie Holiday provided vocals. In the 1940s Basie also added saxophonists Buddy Tate and Don Byas, trumpeters Clark Terry and Joe Newman, and trombonists Vic Dickenson and J. J. Johnson. Throughout, the band's "all-American rhythm section" consisted of Basie, drummer Jo Jones, bassist Walter Page, and guitarist Freddie Green, who remained with the band for more than fifty years. Together, they provided the sparse and precise, but also relaxed and understated, accompaniment. Basie himself was one of the first jazz pianists to "comp" behind soloists, providing accompaniment that was both supportive and prodding. His thoughtful solos, which became highly influential, were simple and rarefied, eschewing the extroverted runs of stride piano, but retaining a powerful swing. That style is on display on Basie's 19381939 trio recordings ("How Long, How Long Blues" and "Oh! Red"). He also recorded on the organ in 1939.

With the rise of the bebop era, Basie had difficulty finding work for his big band, which he dissolved in 1949. However, after touring for a year with a bebop-oriented octet, Basie formed another big band, which lasted until his death. The "second" Basie band was very different from its predecessor. The first was famed for its simple and spontaneous "head" arrangements. In contrast, arrangers Neal Hefti, Johnny Mandel, and Ernie Wilkins, with their carefully notated arrangements and rhythmic precision, were the featured musicians of the second Basie band. The latter also had many fine instrumentalists, including saxophonists Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and Paul Quinichette, Frank Wess and Frank Foster playing saxophone and flute, trombonist Al Grey, trumpeter Thad Jones, and vocalist Joe Williams.

Basie's second band toured extensively worldwide from the 1950s through the 1970s. Basie had his first national hit in 1955 with "Every Day I Have the Blues." Other popular recordings from this time include April in Paris (1955, including "Corner Pocket" and "Shiny Stockings"), The Atomic Basie (1957, including "Whirly Bird" and "Lil' Darlin"), Basie at Birdland (1961), Kansas City Seven (1962), and Basie Jam (1973). During this period the Basie band's popularity eclipsed even that of Duke Ellington, with whom they made a record, First Time, in 1961. The Basie band became a household name, playing at the inaugural balls of both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson and appearing in such films as Cinderfella (1959), Sex and the Single Girl (1964), and Blazing Saddles (1974).

In the 1980s, Basie continued to record, in solo, small-group, and big-band settings (Farmer's Market Barbecue, 1982; 88 Basie Street, 1984). He lived for many years in the St. Albans section of Queens, New York, with Catherine Morgan, a former dancer he had married in 1942. Health problems induced him to move to the Bahamas in his later years. He died in 1984 in Hollywood, Florida. His autobiography, Good Morning Blues, appeared the next year. Basie's band has continued performing, led by Thad Jones until 1986 and since then by Frank Foster.

See also Holiday, Billie; Robeson, Paul; Savoy Ballroom


Basie, Count, and Albert Murray. Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie. New York: Random House, 1985.

Dance, Stanley. The World of Count Basie. New York: Da Capo Press, 1980.

Sheridan, C. Count Basie: A Bio-Discography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986.

michael d. scott (1996)