Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Basie, Count (William James)

Swing was the sound of William “Count” Basie for more than fifty years. At the keyboard, his spare yet exuberant style has been widely imitated. On the bandstand, he was the first to bring the jumping rhythms of Kansas City to a national audience.

                  Count Basie, photo by Herb Snitzer

William James Basie was born on August 21, 1904 in Red Bank, New Jersey, and died on April 26, 1984. His father, Harvey Lee, worked as a coachman and caretaker for a wealthy family. His mother, Lillian Ann Childs, was a cook and laundress. It was she who first encouraged him in music, and gave him his first lessons on the piano.

Young William developed into a confident and eager musician. He picked up the drums, then dropped out of junior high school to play at silent movie houses. By age twenty he was in New York, where he mingled with the creators of the Harlem stride piano style, including James P. Johnson, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Don Lambert, and a character named The Beetle.

Basie left New York to tour on the Theater Owner’s Booking Association (TOBA) vaudeville circuit with shows such as the Gonzelle White and Her Big Jazz Jamboree show. The show landed in Kansas City, where he discovered a different flavor of the blues, far from the urbane sophisticates he had idolized in Manhattan.

Basie’s skills at the piano quickly earned him a reputation in Kansas City’s bars and saloons, as well as some money on the side from his work with Gonzelle White. Before long, he took a stage name that spoke of the musical aristocracy he frequented in New York. Soon he carried a business card that read “COUNT BASIE. Beware the Count Is Here.”

When the Gonzelle White show broke up in 1927, Basie found himself stranded in Kansas City. Since his new inspiration came from the stomping style of swing prevalent around the Midwest, he remained there and joined bassist Walter Page’s group, The Blue Devils, in 1928. Based out of Oklahoma City, the band enjoyed modest success during this period, but broke up in 1931.

Some former Blue Devils joined pianist Bennie Moten’s Orchestra, gaining popularity with its hit ”Moten Swing.”Basie freelanced during this period, and in 1934 joined Moten as well. He found his way into Moten’s band as a staff arranger and occasional understudy at the piano. When Moten unexpectedly died during a tonsillectomy in 1935, Basie saw an opportunity to organize his own group.

From Moten’s band, Basie took musicians who had achieved the most potent swing and fluidity of rhythm known in jazz up to that point. These included drummer Jo Jones, vocalist Jimmy Rushing, guitarist and arranger Eddie Durham, alto saxophonist Buster Smith, and trumpeter Oran “Hot Lips” Page. The unique style of the band grew organically out of the repetitive, simple phrases that horn players would begin playing together underneath the featured soloist. These repetitive phrases, called “riffs,” were unifying elements that had a danceable, bluesy quality, and provided interesting counterpoint to the improvised ideas that each soloist would create.

Count Basie and the Barons of Rhythm were born, with the addition of one key musician, tenor saxophonist Lester Young, who proved to be the catalyst that moved Basie’s group to the forefront of jazz at the dawn of the Swing Era.

Young was a Mississippi native who grew up playing vaudeville shows and other carnival acts with a family band. His melodic inventiveness and elasticity in rhythm revolutionized improvisation on the saxophone, complementing the trend inspired by his contemporary Coleman Hawkins, who focused on rich harmonies and a full-bodied tone.

Young’s sound was influenced by the early altoist Frank Trumbauer, whose light, breezy timbre served as a foil to the cornet sound of Bix Beiderbecke, a central figure of early jazz in the 1920s.

The addition of Young’s tenor sound graced many of the Basie band's hits in the late 1930s, which included ”Lester Leaps In.” In 1941, Young left to start his own group, then returned to the band briefly in 1943 before being drafted during World War II.

Count Basie and His Barons of Rhythm were well known to audiences across the Midwest through radio broadcasts from Kansas City's Reno Club. One listener was promoter John Hammond, who heard the band on his car radio, and drove to Kansas City to persuade the band to move to Chicago and then New York.

In 1936, Basie brought the band to Chicago’s Grand Terrace Ballroom, formerly the home of bands led by King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. Since Basie had a dormant contract with Decca, Hammond recorded him for Columbia with a small group, known as “Smith-Jones Incorporated.” This group released four sides, including”Lady Be Good” and ”Shoe Shine Boy," which were the first to bring the Kansas City sound to a national audience. Adding members as they went, Basie’s band grew into a complete orchestra of five saxophones, four trombones, four trumpets, plus the trio of rhythm.

By 1937, the band was in New York, where they recorded”One O'Clock Jump.” the band’s official theme, and other tracks for Decca. With Hammond’s help, the band was booked to play in the city’s hottest jazz spots – the Roseland, the Savoy and the Apollo Theater – often head to head in battles against the city’s best bands.

The addition of guitarist Freddie Green, whose quarter-note strumming technique locked in the rhythm section further into their now-famous four-beat pulse, would eventually change the concept of big band rhythm sections. Green remained with Basie almost uninterrupted through the next fifty years. In 1938, the band had a steady gig at The Famous Door, a midtown nightclub that had made nationwide radio broadcasts. In 1939, Basie took the band on its first nationwide tour.

During the 1940s, Basie led the nation's most successful African-American jazz band, but lost many members to the draft in 1944. During the war years Basie’s group played at military bases and dances, and made special recordings that were sent to troops overseas.

Barred from recording by a musicians' union ban from 1942 to 1944, the band moved to Hollywood. The Count Basie Orchestra was featured in numerous “spots” within feature films during this period such as Reveille With Beverly, Choo Choo Swing, Crazy House, Top Man, Stage Door Canteen, and Hit Parade of 1943.

By 1950, Count Basie and his band had won numerous awards from critics’ and fans’ polls in Metronome, Downbeat, and had scored numerous chart-topping hits. But this acclaim from both fans and music critics did little to ease the financial troubles Basie, like all big band leaders, faced in the postwar period.

Count Basie broke up his orchestra between 1950 and 1951, and made his living playing with a small combo group. Slowly growing in size, this ensemble eventually collected all the personnel to create out a new, true big band.

While never relinquishing the signature swinging style of the first band, this “New Testament Band” played material in new arrangements that called for more ensemble precision. While keeping with the spirit of Basie's older riff-based hits, this new organization added songs such as Neal Hefti's ”Lil' Darlin'” and an arrangement of ”April in Paris”by Wild Bill Davis.

This “modern” ensemble also featured vocalist Joe Williams. His hit ”Every Day I Have The Blues” ushered in a second era of the Basie Band having a remarkable male vocalist sharing the stage. Williams stayed with Basie until early 1961, recording further hits, including “All Right, OK, You Win.”

Basie recorded with many of the top vocalists in jazz, including Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, the Mills Brothers, Sammy Davis, Jr., Tony Bennett, and Frank Sinatra, whose live recordings with Basie, such as Sinatra at the Sands, remain a mainstay of the singer’s recorded legacy.

Basie reunited for the last time with Lester Young in 1957, on stage at the Newport Jazz Festival. This meeting featured the Count Basie Orchestra along with soloists pulled from Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) touring group. Many JATP soloists, including trumpeter Roy Eldridge, saxophonist Illinois Jacquet, and vocalist Jimmy Rushing, were former alumni of Basie's band.

In the 1960s, Basie sought out projects that might revive his popularity, recording music from Broadway musicals with Frank Sinatra, such as ”I Believe In You”from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying , as well ”Do You Want To Know A Secret,”from an album of Beatles songs arranged by Chico O’Farrill.

One album that stands out from this period is 1968's Basie-Straight Ahead, a collaboration with master arranger Sammy Nestico, which presented hard-driving swing selections, lush and evocative ballads, and numerous features for its star soloists, most brilliantly from the Basie band's revitalized sax section of Marshall Royal on alto, and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Eric Dixon on tenor.

In 1979, the Basie Band recorded several live albums for Granz's Pablo Records from the Montreux Jazz Festival with Ella Fitzgerald. These albums, entitled A Perfect Match and Digital III at Montreux, showed the still-vital talents of both the vocalist and the band. However, Basie was less present, having suffered a heart attack in 1976.

In his last years, Basie toured less and audiences often saw him take the stage with the aid of a motorized scooter. He died in Hollywood from pancreatic cancer on April 26, 1984, having established his name in the pantheon of jazz royalty, for which he received numerous awards, including multiple Grammys, Hall of Fame inductions, and a Kennedy Center Honor in 1981.

After Basie's death, the orchestra has continued to tour as an active “ghost band.” It performs music by long-time staff arrangers Frank Foster, Quincy Jones, Thad Jones, Sammy Nestico, and Benny Carter, and with direction by Frank Foster, trombonist Grover Mitchell, and most recently trombonist Bill Hughes.

Recommended Listening:

The Complete Atomic Basie, Blue Note/EMI, 1957

Count Basie at Newport, Verve, 1957

Sinatra at the Sands, Warner Bros/WEA, 1966 Straight Ahead, GRP, 1968 First Time: The Count Meets the Duke, Columbia/Sony BMG Music Entertainment, 1961

Contributor: David Tenenholz