Basie, Count (1904-1984)

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Basie, Count (1904-1984)

One of the most imitated piano players, Count Basie brought a minimalist, subtle style to his powerful work at the keyboard and was the driving force behind a star-studded band that influenced the course of jazz during the big band era of the late 1930s and early 1940s. Its style of interspersing the Count's intricately timed piano chords with blasting ensemble passages and explosive solos made it one of the most admired of big bands for more than 30 years.

By sheer accident, Basie came under the influence of the Kansas City jazz style, the essence of which was "relaxation." Franklin Driggs writes that the "Southwestern style" had "intense drive and yet was relaxed." Notes might be played "just before or just after" the beat while the rhythm flowed on evenly. These are characteristics any listener to Basie's "One O'Clock Jump" would understand. At age 24, Basie was stranded in Kansas City when a vaudeville act he accompanied disbanded. Born William James Basie in Red Bank, New Jersey, he had become interested in jazz and ragtime in the New York area and had studied briefly with Fats Waller. Adrift in Kansas City, he played background to silent movies and then spent a year with Walter Page's Blue Devils, a band that included blues singer Jimmy Rushing, whose career would merge with the Count's.

The Blue Devils disbanded in 1929, and Basie and some of the other members joined bandleader Bennie Moten, who had recorded his Kansas City-style jazz on Okeh Records. After Moten died in 1935, Basie took the best of his jazzmen and started a band of his own. Basie gradually upgraded the quality of his personnel, and when jazz critic John Hammond happened to hear the band on a Kansas City radio station, he persuaded Basie to bring the band to New York in 1936. He recorded his first sides for Decca in January, 1937, and within a year the band's fame was becoming international.

There were a number of distinctive qualities about the Basie band other than the Count's unique piano style. The rhythm section—featuring Jo Jones, drums, Walter Page, bass, and Freddie Greene, guitar—was widely admired for its lightness, precision, and relaxed swing. Jimmy Rushing's alternatively virile and sensitive style of blues singing on such band numbers as "Sent for You Yesterday (Here You Come Today)" and "Goin' to Chicago" were longstanding hits. The Count recruited a bandstand-full of outstanding side men, whose solo improvisations took the band to ever higher plateaus. They included Lester Young and Herschel Evans on tenor sax, Earl Warren on alto, Buck Clayton and Harry Edison on trumpets, and Benny Morton and Dickie Wells on trombone. The band's chief arranger was Eddie Durham, but various members of the band made contributions to so-called "head" arrangements, which were informally worked out as a group and then memorized.

The soul of Count Basie's music was the blues, played in a style described by Stanley Dance as "slow and moody, rocking at an easy dancing pace, or jumping at passionate up-tempos." Most of the band's greatest successes have been blues based, including "One O'Clock Jump" and numbers featuring the vocals of Jimmy Rushing. Woody Herman, whose first band was known as "The Band That Plays the Blues," was strongly influenced by the Basie sound.

In the 1950s, Basie and his band toured Europe frequently, with great success. During his second tour of Britain, in the fall of 1957, his became the first American band to play a command performance for the Queen. He set another precedent that fall by playing 13 weeks at the roof ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel as the first African American jazz orchestra to play that prestigious venue.

During his long tenure at the head of a band that appealed to a wide variety of fans—both the jazz buffs and the uninitiated—swing music was becoming increasingly complex, rhythmically and harmonically, but Basie had no interest in the be-bop craze. George Simon writes that the Basie band "continued to blow and boom in the same sort of simple, swinging, straight-ahead groove in which it has slid out of Kansas City in the mid-1930s." He adds that the Count "displayed an uncanny sense of just how far to go in tempo, in volume, and in harmonic complexity."

Stanley Dance summed it up when he wrote in 1980 about the importance of Basie's "influence upon the whole course of jazz. By keeping it simple and sincere, and swinging at all times, his music provided a guiding light in the chaos of the past two decades."

—Benjamin Griffith

Further Reading:

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

Dance, Stanley. The World of Count Basie. New York, Scribner's, 1980.

Driggs, Franklin S. "Kansas City and the Southwest." Jazz. Edited by Nat Hentoff and Albert J. McCarthy. New York, Da Capo Press, 1974.

Simon, George T. The Big Bands. New York, MacMillan, 1974.