William "Count" Basie (August 21, 1904 – April 26, 1984) was an American jazz pianist, organist, bandleader, and composer. Widely regarded as one of the most important jazz bandleaders of his time, Basie led his popular Count Basie Orchestra for almost 50 years. Many notable musicians came to prominence under his direction, including tenor saxophonists Lester Young and Herschel Evans, trumpeters Buck Clayton and Harry "Sweets" Edison and singers Jimmy Rushing and Joe Williams. Basie's theme songs were "One O'Clock Jump" and "April In Paris".
Basie was not much of a student and instead dreamed of a traveling life, inspired by the carnivals which came to town. He only got as far as junior high school. He would hang out at the Palace theater in Red Bank and did occasional chores for the management, which got him free admission to the shows. He also learned to operate the spotlights for the vaudeville shows. One day, when the pianist didn’t arrive by show time, Basie took his place. Playing by ear, he quickly learned to improvise music appropriate to silent movies.
Though a natural at the piano, Basie preferred drums. However, the obvious talents of another young Red Bank drummer, Sonny Greer (who was Duke Ellington's drummer from 1919 to 1951), discouraged Basie and he switched to piano exclusively by age 15. They played together in venues until Greer set out on his professional career. By then Basie was playing with pick up groups for dances, resorts, and amateur shows, including Harry Richardson’s “Kings of Syncopation”. When not playing a gig, he hung out at the local pool hall with other musicians where he picked up on upcoming play dates and gossip. He got some jobs in Asbury Park, playing at the Hongkong Inn, until a better player took his place.
Basie toured in several acts between 1925 and 1927, including Katie Krippen and Her Kiddies as part of the Hippity Hop show, on the Keith, the Columbia Burlesque, and the Theater Owners Bookers Association (T.O.B.A.) vaudeville circuits, as a soloist and accompanist to blues singers Katie Krippen and Gonzelle White. His touring took him to Kansas City, St. Louis, New Orleans, and Chicago. Throughout his tours, Basie met many great jazz musicians, including Louis Armstrong.
Back in Harlem in 1925, Basie got his first steady job at Leroy’s, a place known for its piano players and its “cutting contests”, The place catered to “uptown celebrities”, and typically the band winged every number without sheet music (using “head” arrangements). He met Fats Waller, who was playing organ at the Lincoln Theater accompanying silent movies, and Waller taught him how to play that instrument (Basie later played organ at the Eblon Theater in Kansas City). As he did with Duke Ellington, Willie “the Lion” Smith helped Basie out during the lean times arranging gigs at house-rent parties, introducing him to other top musicians, and teaching him some piano technique.
In 1928 Basie was in Tulsa and heard Walter Page and his Famous Blue Devils, one of the first big bands, which featured Jimmy Rushing on vocals. A few months later, he was invited to join the band, which played mostly in Texas and Oklahoma. It was at this time that he began to be known as "Count" Basie (see Jazz royalty).
When the band voted Moten out, Basie took over for several months as Count Basie and his Cherry Blossoms until the band folded, when he returned to Moten's newly re-organized band. When Moten died in 1935 after a surgical procedure, the band unsuccessfully attempted to stay together. Then Basie formed a new band, which included many Moten alumni, with the important addition of tenor saxophone player Lester Young. They played at the Reno Club and sometimes were broadcast on local radio. Late one night with time to fill, the band started improvising. Basie liked the results and named the piece "One O'Clock Jump". According to Basie, “we hit it with the rhythm section and went into the riffs, and the riffs just stuck. We set the thing up front in D-flat, and then we just went on playing in F”. It became his signature tune.
At the end of 1936, Basie and his band, now billed as Count Basie and His Barons of Rhythm, moved from Kansas City and honed their repertoire at a long engagement at the Grand Terrace Ballroom in Chicago. Right from the start, Basie’s band was noted for its rhythm section. Another Basie innovation was the use of two tenor saxophone players; at the time, most bands had just one. When Lester Young complained of Herschel Evans' vibrato, the two were split apart and placed one on each side of the alto players, and soon Basie had the tenor players engaged in “duels”. Many other bands later adapted the split tenor arrangement.
In that city in October 1936, members of the band participated in a recording session which producer John Hammond later described as "the only perfect, completely perfect recording session I've ever had anything to do with". Hammond, according to Basie, had heard Basie’s band over short-wave radio, then he went to Kansas City to check them out. It was Lester Young’s earliest recordings. Those four sides were released under the name Jones-Smith Incorporated because Basie had already signed with Decca Records but had not started recording for them (his first Decca session was January 1937). The sides included: "Shoe Shine Boy", "Evening", "Boogie Woogie", and "Oh, Lady Be Good". By now, Basie's sound was characterized by his trademark "jumping" beat and the contrapuntal accents of his own piano. His personnel around 1937 included: Lester Young and Herschel Evans (tenor sax), Freddie Green (guitar), Jo Jones (drums), Walter Page (bass), Earle Warren (alto sax), Buck Clayton and Harry Edison (trumpet), Benny Morton and Dickie Wells (trombone). Lester Young, known as “Prez” by the band, came up with nicknames for all the other band members. Basie became known as “Holy Man”, “Holy Main”, and just plain “Holy”.
Basie favored blues, and he showcased some of the most notable blues singers of the era: Billie Holiday, Jimmy Rushing, Big Joe Turner, Helen Humes, and Joe Williams. He also hired arrangers who knew how to maximize the band's abilities, such as Eddie Durham and Jimmy Mundy.
Hammond introduced Basie to Billie Holiday and soon she sang with the band. (Holiday didn’t record with Basie, however, as she had her own record contract and preferred working with small combos). The band’s first appearance at the Apollo Theater followed, with vocalists Holiday and Rushing getting the most attention. Eddie Durham came back to help with arranging and composing, but for the most part their numbers were worked out in rehearsal, with Basie guiding the proceedings, and the results written out little if at all. Once they found what they liked, they usually were able to repeat it using their collective memory.
Next, Basie played at the Savoy, which was noted more for jitterbugging while the Roseland was more of a place for fox-trots and congas. In early 1938, the Savoy was the meeting ground for a “battle of the bands” with Chick Webb’s group. Basie had Holiday and Webb countered with Ella Fitzgerald. As Metronome magazine proclaimed, “Basie’s Brilliant Band Conquers Chick’s”, then it went on in detail, “Throughout the fight, which never let down in its intensity during the whole fray, Chick took the aggressive, with the Count playing along easily and, on the whole, more musically scientifically. Undismayed by Chick’s forceful drum beating, which sent the audience into shouts of encouragement and appreciation and casual beads of perspiration to drop from Chick’s brow onto the brass cymbals, the Count maintained an attitude of poise and self-assurance. He constantly parried Chick’s thundering haymakers with tantalizing runs and arpeggios which teased more and more force from his adversary”. The publicity over the battle, before and after, gave the Basie band a big boost and they gained wider recognition, as evidenced by Benny Goodman’s recording of One O’Clock Jump shortly thereafter.
A few months later, Holiday left for Artie Shaw’s band, and was replaced by Helen Humes; she was also ushered in by John Hammond, and stayed with Basie for four years. Co-arranger and trombone player Eddie Durham left for Glenn Miller’s orchestra and was replaced by Dicky Wells. Basie’s 14-man band began playing at the Famous Door, a mid-town nightspot, with a CBS network feed and air conditioning. Their fame took a huge leap. Adding to their play book, Basie received arrangements from Jimmy Mundy (who had also worked with Benny Goodman and Earl Hines) particularly for "Cherokee", "Easy Does It", and "Super Chief". In 1939, Basie and his band made a major cross-country tour, including their first West Coast dates. A few months later, Basie quit MCA and signed with the William Morris Agency, who got them better fees.
In 1942, Basie moved to Queens with Catherine Morgan, after being married to her for a few years. On the West Coast, the band did a spot in Reveille With Beverly, a musical starring Ann Miller, and also a "Command Performance" for Armed Forces Radio with Hollywood stars Clark Gable, Bette Davis, Carmen Miranda, Jerry Colonna, and singer Dinah Shore. Other minor movie spots followed including Choo Choo Swing, Crazy House, Top Man, and Hit Parade of 1943. They also started to record with RCA. The war years caused a lot of turn over and the band worked many play dates with lower pay. Dance hall bookings were down sharply as swing began to fade, the bebop revolution began, and the era of the pop singer was about to take hold.
Basie added touches of bop “so long as it made sense”, and he required that “it all had to have feeling”. Basie’s band was sharing Birdland with bop greats Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis. Behind the occasional bop solos, though, he always kept his strict rhythmic pulse, “so it doesn’t matter what they do up front; the audience gets the beat”. Basie also added flute to some numbers, a novelty at the time that became widely copied. Soon, they were touring and recording again. The new band included: Paul Campbell, Tommy Turrentine, Johnny Letman, and Idris Sulieman (later Joe Newman) (trumpet); Jimmy Wilkins, Benny Powell, Matthew Gee (trombone); Paul Quinchette and Floyd Johnson (tenor sax); Marshall Royal and Ernie Wilkins (alto sax); and Charlie Fowlkes (baritone sax). Downbeat said, Basie “has managed to assemble an ensemble that can thrill both the listener who remembers 1938 and the youngster who has never before heard a big band like this”.
In 1954, the band made its first European tour. Jazz was especially strong in France, Holland, and Germany in the 1950’s; These countries were the stomping grounds for many ex-patriate jazz stars who were either resurrecting their careers or sitting out the years of racial divide in the United States. Neal Hefti began to provide arrangements, notably "Li’l Darlin’". By the mid-1950s, Basie's band had become one of the pre-eminent backing big bands for some of the most prominent jazz vocalists of the time. They also toured with the “Birdland Stars of 1955”, whose lineup included Sarah Vaughan, Erroll Garner, Lester Young, George Shearing, and Stan Getz.
In 1957, Basie released the live album At Newport. April in Paris (arrangement by Wild Bill Davis) was a best-selling instrumental and the title song for the hit album. The Basie band made two tours in the British Isles and on the second, they put on a ”Command Performance” for Queen Elizabeth II, along with Judy Garland, Vera Lynn, and Mario Lanza. In 1959, Basie’s band recorded a “greatest hits” double album The Count Basie Story (Frank Foster, arranger). Later that year, Basie appeared on a television special with Fred Astaire, featuring a dance solo to Sweet Georgia Brown, followed in January 1960 by Basie performing at one of the five John F. Kennedy Inaugural Balls. That summer, Basie and Duke Ellington combined forces for the recording First Time! The Count Meets the Duke, each providing four numbers from their play books.
During the balance of the 1960s, the band kept busy with tours, recordings, television appearances, festivals, Las Vegas shows, and travel abroad, including cruises. Some time around 1964, Basie adopted his trademark yachting cap. Through steady changes in personnel, Basie led the band into the 1970s. Basie made a few more movie appearances, such as the Jerry Lewis film Cinderfella (1960) and the Mel Brooks movie Blazing Saddles (1974), playing his arrangement of "April in Paris".
Frank Sinatra recorded for the first time with Basie on 1962's Sinatra-Basie and for a second studio album on 1964's It Might as Well Be Swing, which was arranged by Quincy Jones. Jones also arranged and conducted 1966's live Sinatra at the Sands. In November 1970, Sinatra performed in London's Royal Festival Hall with the Basie orchestra, in a charity benefit for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The shows were taped for a BBC special, Sinatra: In Concert at The Royal Festival Hall. Sinatra later said of this concert "I have a funny feeling that those two nights could have been my finest hour, really. It went so well; it was so thrilling and exciting".
Basie also recorded with Tony Bennett in the early 1960s — their albums together included the live recording at Las Vegas and Strike Up the Band, a studio album. Basie also toured with Bennett, including a date at Carnegie Hall. Other notable recordings were with Sammy Davis, Jr., Bing Crosby, and Sarah Vaughn. One of Basie’s biggest regrets was never recording with Louis Armstrong, though they shared the same bill several times.
Other cultural connections include Jerry Lewis using "Blues in Hoss' Flat" from Basie's Chairman of the Board album, as the basis for his own "Chairman of the Board" routine in the movie The Errand Boy, in which Lewis pantomimed the movements of a corporate executive holding a board meeting. (In the early 1980s, Lewis revived the routine during the live broadcast of one of his Muscular Dystrophy Association telethons). Blues in Hoss' Flat, composed by Basie band member Frank Foster, was also the longtime theme song of San Francisco and New York radio DJ Al "Jazzbeaux" Collins. In addition, Basie is one of the producers of the "world's greatest music" that Brenda Fricker's "Pigeon Lady" character claims to have heard in Carnegie Hall in 1992's Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. Drummer Neil Peart of the Canadian rock band Rush recorded a version of "One O'Clock Jump" with the Buddy Rich Big Band, and has used it at the end of his drum solos on the 2002 Vapor Trails Tour and Rush's 30th Anniversary Tour.
The Count Basie Theatre in his hometown of Red Bank, New Jersey was named in his honor.
|Count Basie Grammy Award History|
|1982||Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Big Band||Warm Breeze||Jazz||Winner|
|1984||Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Big Band||88 Basie Street||Jazz||Winner|
|1980||Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Big Band||On The Road||Jazz||Winner|
|1977||Best Jazz Performance By A Big Band||Prime Time||Jazz||Winner|
|1976||Best Jazz Performance By A Soloist (Instrumental)||Basie And Zoot||Jazz||Winner|
|1963||Best Performance By An Orchestra - For Dancing||This Time By Basie! Hits Of The 50's And 60's||Pop||Winner|
|1960||Best Performance By A Band For Dancing||Dance With Basie||Pop||Winner|
|1958||Best Performance By A Dance Band||Basie||Pop||Winner|
|1958||Best Jazz Performance, Group||Basie||Jazz||Winner|
|Count Basie Grammy Hall of Fame Awards|
|Year Recorded||Title||Genre||Label||Year Inducted|
|1939||Lester Leaps In||Jazz (Single)||Vocalion||2005|
|1955||Everyday (I Have the Blues)||Jazz (Single)||Clef||1992|
|1955||April in Paris||Jazz (Single)||Clef||1985|
|1937||One O'Clock Jump||Jazz (Single)||Decca||1979|
|Count Basie Award History|
|2007||Long Island Music Hall of Fame||Inducted|
|2005||Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame||Inducted|
|2002||Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award||Winner|
|1983||NEA Jazz Masters||Winner|
|1981||Grammy Trustees Award||Winner|
|1981||Kennedy Center Honors||Honoree|
|late 1970s||Hollywood Walk of Fame||Honoree||at 6508 Hollywood Blvd.|
|1958||Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame||Inducted|