(William) Count Basie (1904-1984) was an extremely popular figure in the jazz world for half a century. He was a fine pianist and leader of one of the greatest jazz bands in history.
The story of Count Basie is very much the story of the great jazz band that he led for close to 50 years (1935-1984), an orchestra with a distinctive sound, anchored by a subtle but propulsive beat, buoyed by crisp ensemble work, and graced with superb soloists (indeed, a catalogue of featured players would read like a Who's Who of jazz). But perhaps the most startling aspect of the band's achievement was its 50-year survival in a culture that has experienced so many changes in musical fashion, and especially its survival after the mid-1960s when jazz lost much of its audience to rock music and disco.
William Basie was born in Red Bank, New Jersey, on August 21, 1904. His mother was a music teacher, and at a young age he became her pupil. But it was in Harlem, New York City, that he learned the rudiments of ragtime and stride piano, principally from his sometime organ teacher, the great Fats Waller. Basie made his professional debut as an accompanist for vaudeville acts. While on a tour of the Keith vaudeville circuit he was stranded in Kansas City. Here, in 1928, after a short stint as house organist in a silent movie theater, he joined Walter Page's Blue Devils, and when that band broke up in 1929, he was hired by Bennie Moten's Band and played piano with them, with one interruption, for the next five years.
Moten's death in 1935 altered Basie's career dramatically. He took over the remnants of the band (they called themselves The Barons of Rhythm) and, with some financial and promotional support from impresario John Hammond, expanded the personnel and formed the first Count Basie Orchestra. Within a year or so the band had developed its own variation of the basic Kansas City swing style—a solidly pulsating rhythm underpinning the horn soloists, who were additionally supported by sectional riffing (i.e., the repetition of a musical figure by the non-soloing brass and reeds). This familiar pattern is evident in the band's theme song, "One O'Clock Jump, " written by Basie himself in 1937, which has a subdued, expectant introduction by the rhythm section (piano, guitar, bass, and drums), then bursts into full orchestral support for a succession of stirring solos, and concludes with a full ensemble riffing out-chorus. Like any great swing band, Basie's was exciting in any tempo, and in fact one of the glories of his early period was a lugubrious, down-tempo blues called "Blue and Sentimental, " which featured two magnificent solos (one by Herschel Evans on tenor saxophone and the other by Lester Young on clarinet) with full ensemble backing.
A Huge Success
By 1937 Basie's band was, with the possible exception of Duke Ellington's, the most highly acclaimed African American band in America. In the racially segregated context of the pre-World War II music business, African American bands never achieved the notoriety nor made the money that the famous white bands did. But some (Ellington's, Earl Hines's, Jimmy Lunceford's, Erskine Hawkins's, Chick Webb's, and Basie's, among them) did achieve a solid commercial success. Basie's band regularly worked some of the better big city hotel ballrooms and shared with many of the other 1,400 big bands of the Swing Era the less appetizing one-nighters (a series of single night engagements in a variety of small cities and towns that were toured by bus).
Some of the band's arrangements were written by trombonist Eddie Durham, but many were "heads"— arrangements spontaneously worked out in rehearsal and then transcribed. The band's "book" (repertory) was tailored not only to a distinctive orchestral style but also to showcase the band's brilliant soloists. Sometimes the arrangement was the reworking of a standard tune—"I got Rhythm, " "Dinah, " or "Lady, Be Good"—but more often a bandsman would come up with an original written expressly for the band and with a particular soloist or two in mind: two of Basie's earliest evergreens, "Jumpin' at the Woodside" and "Lester Leaps In" were conceived primarily as features for the remarkable tenor saxophonist Lester Young (nicknamed "Pres, " short for "President") and were referred to as "flagwavers, " up-tempo tunes designed to excite the audience.
Unquestionably the Swing Era band (1935-1945) was Basie's greatest: the superior arrangements (reflecting Basie's good taste) and the sterling performers (reflecting Basie's management astuteness) gave the band a permanent place in jazz history that even severe personnel setbacks couldn't diminish. Herschel Evans's death in 1939 was a blow, but he was replaced by another fine tenorist, Buddy Tate; a major defection was that of the nonpareil Lester Young ("Count, four weeks from tonight I will have been gone exactly fourteen days."), but his replacement was the superb Don Byas; the trumpet section had three giants— Buck Clayton, Harry "Sweets" Edison, and Bill Coleman— but only Edison survived the era as a Basie-ite.
Perhaps the band's resilience in the face of potentially damaging change can be explained by its model big band rhythm section, one that jelled to perfection—the spare, witty piano of Basie; the wonderful rhythm guitar of Freddie Green (who was with the band from 1937 to 1984); the rock-solid bass of Walter Page (Basie's former employer); and the exemplary drumming of Jo Jones. Nor was the band's excellence hurt by the presence of its two great blues and ballads singers, Jimmy Rushing and Helen Humes.
"April in Paris"
The loss of key personnel (some to the military service), the wartime ban on recordings, the 1943 musicians' strike, the economic infeasibility of one-nighters, and the bebop revolution of the mid-1940s all played a role in the death of the big band era. The number of 12 to 15 piece bands diminished drastically, and Basie was driven to some soul-searching: despite his international reputation and the band's still first-rate personnel, Basie decided in 1950 to disband and to form a medium-sized band (first an octet and later a septet), juggling combinations of all-star musicians, among them tenorists Georgie Auld, Gene Ammons, and Wardell Gray; trumpeters Harry Edison and Clark Terry; and clarinetist Buddy DeFranco. The groups' recordings (Jam Sessions #2 & #3) are, predictably, of the highest quality, but in 1951 Basie reverted to his first love—the big band— and it thrived, thanks largely to the enlistment of two Basie-oriented composer-arrangers, Neil Hefti and Ernie Wilkins; to the solo work of tenorists Frank Wess and Frank Foster and trumpeters Joe Newman and Thad Jones; and to the singing of Joe Williams. Another boost was provided in the late 1950s by jazz organist Wild Bill Davis's arrangement of "April in Paris" which, with its series of "one more time" false endings, came to be a trademark of the band for the next quarter of a century.
A stocky, handsome, mustachioed man with heavy-lidded eyes and a sly, infectious smile, Basie in his later years took to wearing a yachting cap both off and on the bandstand. His sobriquet, "Count, " was a 1935 promotional gimmick, paralleling "Duke" (Ellington) and "Earl" (Hines's actual first name). He was a shrewd judge of talent and character and, ever the realist, was extremely forbearing in dealing with the behavioral caprices of his musicians. His realistic vision extended as readily to himself: a rhythm-centered pianist, he had the ability to pick out apt chord combinations with which to punctuate and underscore the solos of horn players, but he knew his limitations and therefore gave himself less solo space than other, less gifted, leaders permitted themselves. He was, however, probably better than he thought; on a mid-1970s outing on which he was co-featured with tenor saxophone giant Zoot Sims he acquitted himself nobly.
Among Basie's many recordings perhaps the most essential are The Best of Basie; The Greatest: Count Basie Plays … Joe Williams Sings Standards; and Joe Williams/Count Basie: Memories Ad-Lib. There are also excellent pairings of Basie and Ellington, with Frank Sinatra, with Tony Bennett, with Ella Fitzgerald, with Sarah Vaughan, and with Oscar Peterson.
In 1976 Basie suffered a heart attack, but returned to the bandstand half a year later. During his last years he had difficulty walking and so rode out on stage in a motorized wheelchair, his playing now largely reduced to his longtime musical signature, the three soft notes that punctuated his compositional endings. His home for many years was in Freeport, the Bahamas; he died of cancer at Doctors' Hospital in Hollywood, Florida, on April 26, 1984. His wife, Catherine, had died in 1983; they had one daughter. The band survived Basie's death, with ex-Basie-ite trumpeter Thad Jones directing until his death in 1986.
The best source for early Basie is Ross Russell's Jazz Style in Kansas City & The Southwest (1971). Two studies of the life of the band are Ray Horricks' Count Basie & His Orchestra and Stanley Dance's The World of Count Basie (1980), the latter a composite study of Basie and the band through bandsmen's memoirs. There is also a short biography, Count Basie (1985), by British jazz critic Alun Morgan. Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie as told to Albert Murray was published posthumously in 1985. □
"Count Basie." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/count-basie
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Count Basie was an extremely popular figure in the jazz world for half a century. He was a fine pianist and leader of one of the greatest jazz bands in history.
William Basie was born in Red Bank, New Jersey, on August 21, 1904. His parents, Harvey and Lillian (Childs) Basie, were both musicians. Basie played drums in his school band and took some piano lessons from his mother. But it was in Harlem, New York City, that he learned the basics of piano, mainly from his sometime organ teacher, the great Fats Waller (1904–1943).
Basie made his professional debut playing piano with vaudeville acts (traveling variety entertainment). While on one tour he became stranded in Kansas City, Missouri. After working briefly as house organist in a silent movie theater, he joined Walter Page's Blue Devils in 1928. When that band broke up in 1929, he Bennie Moten's band hired him. He played piano with them, with one interruption, for the next five years. It was during this time that he was given the nickname "Count."
After Moten died in 1935, Basie took what was left of the band, expanded the personnel, and formed the first Count Basie Orchestra. Within a year the band developed its own variation of the Kansas City swing style—a solid rhythm backing the horn soloists, who were also supported by sectional riffing (the repeating of a musical figure by the non-soloing brass and reeds). This familiar pattern was evident in the band's theme song, "One O'Clock Jump," written by Basie himself in 1937.
Success in the swing era
By 1937 Basie's band was, with the possible exception of Duke Ellington's (1899–1974), the most famous African American band in America. Basie's band regularly worked some of the better big city hotel ballrooms. With many of the other big bands of the swing era he also shared the less appealing one-nighters (a series of single night performances in a number of small cities and towns that were traveled to by bus).
Many of the band's arrangements were "heads"—arrangements worked out without planning in rehearsal and then written down later. The songs were often designed to showcase the band's brilliant soloists. Sometimes the arrangement was the reworking of a standard tune—"I Got Rhythm," "Dinah," or "Lady, Be Good." Sometimes a member of the band would come up with an original, written with a particular soloist or two in mind. Two of Basie's earliest favorites, "Jumpin' at the Woodside" and "Lester Leaps In," were created as features for saxophonist Lester Young. They were referred to as "flagwavers," fast-paced tunes designed to excite the audience. The swing era band (1935–45) was unquestionably Basie's greatest. The superior arrangements (reflecting Basie's good taste) and the skilled performers (reflecting Basie's sound management) gave the band a permanent place in jazz history.
The loss of key personnel (some to military service), the wartime ban on recordings, the 1943 musicians' strike, the strain of onenighters, and the bebop revolution of the mid-1940s all played a role in the death of the big-band era. Basie decided to form a medium-sized band in 1950, juggling combinations of all-star musicians. The groups' recordings were of the highest quality, but in 1951 Basie returned to his first love—the big band—and it thrived. Another boost was provided in the late 1950s by the recording of "April in Paris," which became the trademark of the band for the next quarter of a century.
A stocky, handsome man with heavy-lidded eyes and a sly smile, Basie was a shrewd judge of talent and character, and he was extremely patient in dealing with the egos of his musicians. He and his band recorded with many other famous artists, including Duke Ellington (1899–1974), Frank Sinatra (1915–1998), Ella Fitzgerald (1917–1996), and Sarah Vaughan (1924–1990). Perhaps the most startling of the band's achievements was its fifty-year survival in a culture that experienced so many changes in musical fashion, especially after the mid-1960s, when jazz lost much of its audience to other forms of music.
In 1976 Basie suffered a heart attack, but he returned to the bandstand half a year later. During his last years he had difficulty walking and so rode out on stage in a motorized wheelchair. He died of cancer in Hollywood, Florida, on April 26, 1984. His wife, Catherine, had died in 1983. They had one daughter. The band survived Basie's death, with trumpeter Thad Jones directing until his own death in 1986.
For More Information
Basie, Count. Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie. New York: Random House, 1985.
Dance, Stanley. The World of Count Basie. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1980.
Kliment, Bud. Count Basie. New York: Chelsea House, 1992.
"Basie, Count." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/basie-count
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Count Basie (William Basie) (bā´sē), 1904–84, American jazz pianist, bandleader, and composer, b. Red Bank, N.J. After working in dance halls and vaudeville in New York City, Basie moved to Kansas City, a major jazz center. There he joined Walter Page's Blue Devils in 1927, moving to Bennie Morton's band in 1929. He formed his own band in 1935, and for 40 years it has produced a distinctive sound marked by a powerful yet relaxed attack. Basie's provocative piano style is characterized by a predominant right hand. Among the many pieces he has composed for his band is "One O'Clock Jump."
"Basie, Count." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/basie-count
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"Basie, Count." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/basie-count
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In his monumental second volume on the history of jazz, The Swing Era, Gunther Schuller delays his attempt to define swing until, some two hundred pages into the book, he introduces Count Basie in a section titled “The Quintessence of Swing.” Schuller states: “That the Basie band has been from its inception a master of swing could hardly be disputed…. For over forty years [Basie] has upheld a particular concept and style of jazz deeply rooted in the Southwest and Kansas City in particular. It draws its aesthetic sustenance from the blues, uses the riff as its major rhetorical and structural device, all set in the language and grammar of swing.”
Indeed, from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s the “All-American Rhythm Section” —Walter Page, bass; Jo James, drums; and Freddie Green, guitar—combined with leader and pianist Count Basie to propel Basie’s band from relative obscurity in a Kansas City nightclub to world renown as the leading purveyor of swing. Though blessed with an estimable array of soloists throughout the big band era, the Basie band originated an infectious pulse whose essence was a clean, unified, four-beats-to-the-bar swing. Though celebrated for the simplicity of the riff-oriented, call and response interaction of the brasses and reeds in its head arrangements, the band drew its virility from the rhythm section, even after Page and Jones left (c. 1948). Though energized in later years by brilliant writing and arranging, the Basie band housed a secret ingredient: the leader’s quite but forceful insistence upon an uncluttered, swinging sound, anchored by the rhythm section and accented by his own “less is more” solos.
Page combined a walking bass line with fine tone and a correct choice of notes. Jones, dancing on the high hat cymbal rather than thumping on the bass drum, allowed the lively bass lines to breathe. Green, the latecomer, strummed the chords that inspired two generations of great soloists. Schuller says of Green that he is “a wonderful anacronism, in that he has (almost) never played a melodic solo and seems content to play those beautiful ’changes’ night after night.” Basie quarterbacked, accented, edited, filled, chorded, and prodded, often pitting the soloists against one another to expose their fire. And what a group of soloists it was: tenor saxophonists Lester Young (he of the lean, dry phrases, precursor of the “cool” school), Herschel Evans, Paul Gonsalves, Illinois Jacquet, Lucky Thompson, Charlie Rouse, and Don Byas; trumpeters Buck Clayton and Harry Edison; trombonists Vic Dickenson, Dicky Wells, Bennie Morton, and J.J. Johnson; and vocalists Jimmy Rushing, Helen Humes, and Billie Holiday. Later bands would include trumpeters Clark Terry and Thad Jones, trombonist Al Grey, and reedmen Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Frank Foster, Marshal Royal,
Full name, William James Basie; born August 21, 1904, in Red Bank, N.J. ; died of pancreatic cancer, April 26, 1984, in Hollywood, Fla.; ashes interred at Pine Lawn Cemetery, Farmingdale, N.Y.; son of Harvey (a gardener) and Lillian (a domestic; maiden name, Childs) Basie; married Catherine Morgan (manager of Count Basie Enterprises), July 1942; children and adopted children (some informally): Diane, Aaron, Woodward III, Lamont Gilmore, Rosemarie Matthews, Clifford. Education: Attended public schools until about the ninth grade; studied piano during 1920s with Thomas “Fats” Waller.
Pianist with touring group, Gonzell White and the Big Jamboree, 1926-28; pianist with Walter Page’s Blue Devils, 1928-29; pianist with Benny Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra, 1929-35; pianist-leader of the Barons of Rhythm, 1935-36; pianist-leader of the Count Basie Orchestra, 1937-49, and 1952-84; pianist and leader of octet, 1950-51.
Awards: Recipient of Esquire magazine’s All American Band Award, 1945; winner of down beat magazine’s International Critics’ Poll, 1952-56; recipient of Esquire magazine’s Silver Award, 1955; winner of down beat magazine’s readers’ poll, 1955; winner of the Metronome Poll, 1956; Governor of State of New York declared September 22, 1974, Count Basie Day; received honorary doctorate from Philadelphia Music Academy, 1974; named to Ebony magazine’s Black Music Hall of Fame, 1975; named to Playboy magazine’s Hall of Fame, 1976; named to Newport Jazz Hall of Fame, 1976; received Kennedy Center Performing Arts Honors Medal, 1981; recipient of Black Music Association Award, 1982; winner of nine Grammy Awards.
and Frank Wess, and singer Joe Williams. Personnel changes in Basie’s band were gradual as, from 1936 until his death in 1984 (with the exception of 1950-51, when it was reduced to an octet), Count Basie led the quintessential big swing band with which his name will always be associated.
From his Red Bank, New Jersey, home, Basie gravitated to the music parlors of 1920s Harlem, where he met fabled pianists James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, picking up some informal instruction on both piano and organ from the latter. As a piano soloist and accompanist to several acts, he worked his way to Kansas City with a troupe that became stranded there. After some service as a silent film organ accompanist, Basie played with several of the local bands including that of Bennie Moten, the area’s best-known leader. Some time after Moten’s death, Basie assumed command of the nucleus of that band in 1935, and with a nine-piece group embarked on a long run at the Reno Club, making it one of Kansas’s City’s hottest spots. A radio announcer there dubbed Basie “Count” and the title prevailed.
Jazz impresario John Hammond heard one of the band’s regular broadcasts on an experimental radio station and helped to arrange bookings in Chicago and later New York. Basie increased the size of the band to thirteen pieces, trying to retain the feel of the smaller group, but initial reaction was disappointing. Finally, in 1937, several elements coalesced to launch the band on its nearly half-century of success. Freddie Green’s guitar solidified the rhythm section. Booking agent Willard Alexander finessed an engagement at the Famous Door in the heart of New York’s 52nd Street, a booking complete with a national NBC radio wire. Basie’s Decca recordings—” One O’Clock Jump,” “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” “Swingin’ the Blues,” “Lester Leaps In” and others—began to catch on. As word fanned outward, Basie’s band attracted wildly cheering audiences, often in excess of the capacity of the venues.
Basie’s bands before and after the 1950-51 octet hiatus were quite different. The early band relied almost exclusively on head arrangements, those that often evolved over a period of time as the leader and the players experimented with short phrases (riffs) and accents that bounced from the trumpets to the reeds to the trombones, showcasing the parade of outstanding soloists. In the early 1940s the band benefited mightily from the writing and arranging of Buster Harding, Buck Clayton, and Tab Smith. Their work no doubt paved the way for the later band’s heavy reliance upon brilliant writing and arranging, chiefly by Neal Hefti, Frank Foster, Ernie Wilkins, and Sam Nestico. It, too, showcased excellent soloists, but the Basie ensemble sound, now grown to sixteen pieces, was its hallmark and the rhythm section, with Basie and Green ever-present, was its heartbeat.
Prolific recording dates, tours to Europe and Asia, regular appearances at Broadway’s Birdland, and an endless stream of dances, festivals, and concerts led to many honors for Basie and his band, including royal command performances in England and recognition by Presidents Kennedy and Reagan. In addition to some of the seminal hits, later audiences demanded to hear such new Basie staples as “Li’l Darlin’,” “Cute,” “Every Day I Have the Blues,” “All Right, OK, You Win,” and “April In Paris.” Despite their differences, both bands exhibited a devotion to blues-based swinging and an uncluttered pulse; both also relied on effective use of dynamics, more subtle in the early band, more dramatic in the later, when Green’s unamplified guitar chords often gave way to shouting brass.
Basie’s bandstand demeanor appeared laid-back in the extreme—some called it laissez faire; others just plain lazy. Testimony of his bandmen and arrangers belie this. Perhaps Basie’s greatest skill was that of editor, first in the matter of personnel, then in the selection of repertoire. As John S. Wilson quoted Basie in The New York Times: “I wanted my 13-piece band to work together just like those nine pieces…to think and play the same way…. I said the minute the brass got out of hand and blared and screeched instead of making every note mean something, there’d be some changes made.” Basie told his autobiography collaborator, Albert Murray, “I’m experienced at auditions. I can tell in a few bars whether or not somebody can voice my stuff.”
Francis Davis’s Atlantic tribute column observed, “Basie apparently demanded of his sidemen a commitment to basics as single-minded as his own.” The writers and arrangers for the later band became accustomed to Basie’s editing out all material that he considered contrary to the ultimate goal: to swing. In the case of Neal Hefti’s “Li’l Darlin’,” Basie’s insistence on a much slower tempo than Hefti had envisioned resulted in one of the band’s greatest and most enduring hits. Basie’s conducting arsenal included such simple movements as a pointed finger, a smile, a raised eyebrow, and a nod—all sufficient to shift the “swing machine” into high gear.
Though Basie’s piano did surface significantly in later recordings with smaller groups, including piano duets with Oscar Peterson, he most often considered himself simply a part of the rhythm section. His spartan, unadorned solos, usually brief, cut to the essence of swing. With the full band, increasingly he was content to support and cajole soloists with carefully distilled single notes and chords of introduction and background. A genuine modesty about his pianistic skills combined with Basie’s understanding of the role of the big-band piano to form his style. Several critics and musicologists have observed that Basie’s spare playing inspired such important artists as John Lewis, music director of the Modern Jazz Quartet, and Thelonious Monk, one of the architects of the Bop Era. Additionally, Mary Lou Williams and Oscar Peterson attest to Basie’s influence upon their playing. As many mature jazz practitioners aver, great playing consists not only of the notes one chooses to play, but those that one leaves out. In this respect Count Basie stands out as the acknowledged master.
Whether viewed as its pianist, leader, composer, arranger, paymaster, chief editor, inspiration, or soul—Count Basie will always be inextricably associated with the Basie Band. Despite crippling arthritis of the spine and a 1976 heart attack, Basie continued to call the tune and the tempo until his death from cancer in 1984. It will be the burden of all big bands, past, present, and future, to stand comparison with the Basie band. It has been the standard for half a century. One reason may well be that Count Basie, he of the impeccable taste, was not only its leader, but the bands greatest fan. He would not permit it to play less than its best. He loved it so.
With Bennie Moten
The Complete Bennie Moten, Volumes 3/4, French RCA Victor.
The Complete Bennie Moten, Volumes 5/6, French RCA Victor.
The Best of Count Basie, MCA.
The Indispensable Count Basie, French RCA Victor.
One O’Clock Jump, Columbia Special Products.
April in Paris, Verve.
Basie Plays Hefti, Emus.
16 Men Swinging, Verve.
88 Basie Street, Pablo.
With Dizzy Gillespie
The Gifted Ones, Pablo.
With Oscar Peterson
Satch and Josh, Pablo.
Basie, Count, with Albert Murray, Good Morning Blues, Random House, 1985.
Chilton, John, Who’s Who of Jazz, Time-Life Records, 1978.
Dance, Stanley, The World of Count Basie, Scribner, 1980.
Feather, Leonard, The New Edition of The Encyclopedia of Jazz, Bonanza Books, 1960.
McCarthy, Albert, Big Band Jazz, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1974.
Rust, Brian, Jazz Records 1897-1942, 5th Revised and Enlarged Edition, Volume I, Storyville Publications, 1982.
Schuller, Gunther, The Swing Era, Oxford University Press, 1989.
Simon, George T., The Big Bands, Macmillan, 1967.
Atlantic, August, 1984.
down beat, July, 1984.
Ebony, January, 1984.
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"Basie, Count." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/basie-count
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Basie, Count 1904–1984
Count Basie 1904–1984
As leader of his own orchestra for several decades of the twentieth century, William “Count” Basie was considered a member of the swing royalty, along with “king of swing” Benny Goodman and Basie’s longtime rival and friend, Duke Ellington. A talented keyboardist, Basie developed a style rife with loose, rolling cadences and infectious hooks that became synonymous with his name. “His piano work showed that rhythm and space were more important than technical virtuosity,” wrote the Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, while “his composing gave many eminent soloist their finest moments…. Modern jazz stands indubitably in Basie’s debt.”
An only child, William James Basie was born in Red Bank, New Jersey in 1904 to musically gifted parents. His father, who was a gardener by profession, played horn, while his mother played the piano. Basie began his musical career as a drum player for his high school band. However, because a rival percussionist from Red Bank was earning a great deal of attention for his talents, Basie abandoned the instrument. This rival, Sonny Greer, became the drummer for Duke Ellington’s band in 1919 and remained with the band for the next three decades.
Red Bank was located directly across the Hudson River from New York City. As a teenager, Basie frequently visited Harlem and its African American performance venues to listen to ragtime and other early forms of jazz. He was particularly fascinated with pianists who perfected their own loose style called the “Harlem stride.” Basie also enjoyed listening to Thomas “Fats” Waller perform on the organ at the Lincoln Theater. He would often sit as close to Waller as possible in order to observe his technique. Eventually, Waller noticed Basie watching so intently and began giving him informal lessons on the side.
Waller also recommended Basie for his first job in the music industry, as pianist for a black touring act called Katie Crippen and Her Kids in the early 1920s. During these years, Basie also performed in skits for the Theatre Owners’ Booking Association (T.O.B.A.), an organization that created tours for the black vaudeville circuit. He returned to New York City for a time, but began touring with the Gonzel White vaudeville act in 1926. The White show went bankrupt in 1927, leaving Basie and the other performers stranded in Kansas City.
Born William James Basie, August 21, 1904, in Red Bank, NJ; died of cancer, April 26, 1984, in Hollywood, FL; son of Harvey (a gardener) and Lillian (a domestic worker) Basie; married, c. 1943; wife’s name, Catherine (died, 1983); five children.
Career: Played pi no in black vaudeville, 1920s; joined Walter Page’s Blue Devils, 1928; formed forerunner of Count Basie Orchestra, 1935; signed to Decca Records, 1937; signed with Vocalion (Columbia) Records, 1939; appeared in the film Stage Door Canteen, 1943; made first tour of Europe, 1954; performed at the inaugural ball for President John F. Kennedy, 1961.
Awards: Congressional Medal of Freedom, 1985.
Kansas City was a rather carefree town during the 1920s. Local vice laws were often loosely enforced, which created a thriving environment for jazz musicians. Basie found work in the city’s movie theaters as a pianist, and his cool demeanor earned him the nickname “Count.” In July of 1928 he joined Walter Page’s Blue Devils, a band which epitomized the so-called Kansas City style of jazz. During his stint with the Blue Devils, Basie met vocalist Jimmy Rushing. The two men became good friends, and often worked together during the course of several decades.
By 1929, Basie had left the Blue Devils to join the Kansas City Orchestra, which was led by Benny Moten. For the next several years, he performed with the orchestra. When Moten died unexpectedly in 1935, Basie and Moten’s nephew Buster reformed the group as The Barons Of Rhythm. “Unfettered drinking hours, regular broadcasts on local radio and Basie’s feel for swing honed the band into quite simply the most classy and propulsive unit in the history of music,” declared The Guinness Encyclopedia. “Duke Ellington’s band may have been more ambitious, but for sheer unstoppable swing Basie could not be beaten.”
The Barons of Rhythm played often at the Kansas City’s Reno Club, and featured Walter Page on bass, Lester Young on tenor sax, Jo Jones on drums, Freddie Green on guitar, and Buck Clayton on trumpet. Basie played the piano and lead the band. The band was eventually renamed the Count Basie Orchestra, and their sound was distinct from the other big bands of the day, with a far more bluesy, less polished feel. Basie and Green’s combined tempo-keeping set the pace for this unique style. “Like all bands in the Kansas City tradition, the Count Basie Orchestra was organized about the rhythm section, which supported the interplay of brass and reeds and served as a background for the unfolding of solos,” explained the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.
Around 1935, Basie and his orchestra were discovered by producer John Hammond during one of their live radio broadcasts. Hammond, who was one of the first American record executives to foresee the commercial viability of recorded jazz, wrote about the Count Basie Orchestra in Down Beat magazine. He also arranged invitations for the band to play at the Grand Terrace in Chicago and New York’s Roseland Ballroom. Basie and his band completed their first recording, “One O’Clock Jump,” in early 1937, and were signed to a contract with Decca Records. This contract also required Basie to record twenty-four sides (twelve records in all) for the sum of only $750, with no royalties. Hammond would later help Basie renegotiate this unfair contract. In 1939, Basie and his orchestra signed a new contract with the jazz division of Columbia Records.
Both “One O’Clock Jump” and another recording, “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” were huge commercial successes. “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” which featured solos from Earl Warren on alto sax and Herschel Evans on clarinet, “could be taken as a definition of swing,” declared the Guinness Encyclopedia. Another recording, “Taxi War Dance,” also sold well, and epitomized the big-band sound. “The band’s recordings between 1937 and 1941 for Decca and Vocalion (Columbia) are among the finest of the period,” stated the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Fans appeared in droves to dance the jitterbug and listen to Basie’s big band sound, with its characteristically unfettered rhythms. On one occasion, the Count Basie Orchestra performed in a North Carolina warehouse before 16,000 fans. When several thousand fans waiting outside were told that they would not be able to enter, a disturbance erupted and the National Guard was summoned to maintain order.
Basie appeared in musical films during World War II, most notably the 1943 review Stage Door Canteen. Following the end of the war in 1945, the big-band sound began to decline in popularity. The Count Basie Orchestra, which was plagued by financial problems and poor management, broke up for a time. In the interim, Basie formed an eight-member band that included Clark Terry, Wardell Gray on tenor, and Buddy DeFranco on clarinet. However, in 1952, he resurrected the Count Basie Orchestra. With the addition of singer Joe Williams, the band enjoyed success with records like “Every Day (I Have the Blues)” and “April in Paris.” The band embarked on a tour of European cities, and performed before enthusiastic crowds. In 1957, the Count Basie Orchestra became the first African American band to play the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City.
During the 1950s, Basie’s band remained remarkably steady in its line-up, and he was a well-liked, modest man despite his regal nickname. “Bill Basie’s keyboard style is one of the happiest and most readily identifiable sounds in jazz,” wrote Nat Shapiro in 1957 in The Jazz Makers. “To the casual listener, it is no more than a formless and spontaneous series of interjections, commas, hyphens, underlines, quotation marks and interrogation and exclamation points.” The orchestra had a standing gig at Birdland in New York, and “there was no better place to hear Basie in peak form, surrounded by his most loyal fans,” wrote Dan Morgenstern in Rolling Stone. “Sometimes the band swung so hard that he would lift his hands from the keyboard and just sit there, beaming-the image of a man delighted with his work, which, simply put, was to make people feel good.”
In addition to his musical career, Basie owned a bar on 132nd Street in Harlem. For 25 years, he and his wife Catherine lived in the Queens neighborhood of St. Albans with their five children. Eventually, the Basie family moved to Long Island. Basie performed regularly during the 1960s. He also recorded albums and toured with singers such as Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. The Count Basie Orchestra played at the 1961 inaugural ball for President John F. Kennedy, and made frequent television appearances during the decade. In 1965 Basie signed with Reprise, Frank Sinatra’s label, and began adapting pop tunes to the big-band sound, which was a great commercial success.
During the 1970s, Basie signed with Pablo Records and recorded many big-band standards. However, he also began to experience various health problems. In 1976, Basie was forced to retire for a time after suffering a heart attack. He returned to the recording studio in 1979 and released On the Road and Afrique, an avant-garde jazz album. Basie was later diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and soon lost the ability to walk on his own. He passed away on April 26, 1984. Basie’s funeral at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church was attended by two thousand mourners, and hundreds more stood outside in homage. His ashes were interred at Pine Lawn Cemetery in Farmington, Long Island, New York.
Swinging at the Daisy Chain, Decca, 1937.
One O’Clock Jump, Decca, 1937.
Good Morning Blues, Decca, 1937.
Every Tub, Decca, 1938.
Doggin’ Around, Decca, 1938.
Jumpin’ at the Woodside, Decca, 1938.
Jive at Five, Decca, 1939.
Oh! Lady Be Good, Decca, 1939.
Rock-a-Bye Basie, Vocalion, 1939.
Taxi War Dance, Vocalion, 1939.
Miss Thing, Vocalion, 1939.
Tickle-toe, Vocalion, 1940.
The World Is Mad, Vocalion, 1940.
Diggin’ for Dex, Vocalion, 1941.
The King/Blue Skies, Vocalion, 1945.
The Count, Camden, 1947-49.
Dance Session, Clef, 1953.
Sixteen Men Swinging, Verve, 1953-54.
Basie Plays Hefti, Roulette, 1958.
Chairman of the Board, Roulette, 1959.
The Count Basie Story, Roulette, 1960.
Basie at Birdland, Roulette, 1961.
Basie Jam, Pablo, 1973.
On the Road, Pablo, 1979.
Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie as Told to Albert Murray, Da Capo, 1996.
The Jazz Makers, edited by Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff, Rinehart, 1957, pp. 232-242.
Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, edited by Colin Larkin, Guinness Publishing, 1992.
New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Stanley Sadie, Macmillan, 1980, pp. 236-237.
Down Beat, July, 1984, p. 11; February, 1994, p. 31. New York Times, April 27, 1984, p. 1; May 1, 1984, p. 1.
Rolling Stone, June 7, 1984, p. 68.
"Basie, Count 1904–1984." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/basie-count-1904-1984
"Basie, Count 1904–1984." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved February 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/basie-count-1904-1984