Count BasieJul 4th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Arts & Entertainment
1904-1984 William Basie used his training as an accompanist to develop one of the world’s greatest big bands with a “who’s who” of jazz singers, instrumentalists, composers, and arrangers. His precise piano style and swinging rhythm section set the standard for future artists, and attracted audiences and fans for over 50 years.
Stranded in Kansas City
Basie was born in Red Bank, New Jersey, in 1904. His father, a coachman and caretaker, also played the mellophone; his mother, a laundress, was a pianist who gave her only child early lessons. Basie dropped out of high school, a decision he would later regret. After an attempt at drums, he focused on piano and began playing for the tourist trade in Asbury Park while still in his teens. In 1924, he made his way to Harlem; there, he was strongly influenced and tutored on the organ by Fats Waller who was playing with vaudeville acts. Waller recommended Basie for one such act, and his career had begun. Before turning 20, Basie was performing with a variety of dancers, singers, and comedians.
One vaudeville tour stranded Basie in Kansas City in 1927, which had a thriving blues and jazz scene. Basie remained there, playing in silent film theaters. He then joined an established local band called Walter Page’s Blue Devils in 1928, which broke up shortly thereafter. After playing with two lesser bands during 1929, he and several other key members of Page’s band joined Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra that year. During this period, Basie married dancer Catherine Morgan, with whom he would have a daughter. On Moten’s death in 1935, Basie and several other core band members formed their own ensemble, the Barons of Rhythm. They took up a regular engagement at Kansas City’s Reno Club, and broadcast a nightly radio show. Introduced one night as “Count Basie” (probably with reference to the up-and-coming Duke Ellington), the name stuck with both Basie and the band.
Discovered on the Airways
The radio show was heard by music impresario John Hammond, and a professional relationship began immediately: Hammond secured national booking representation for Basie and a recording deal with Decca. After brief appearances in Chicago and Buffalo, New York, the expanded big band was taken by Hammond to New York City where they opened at the Roseland Ballroom in 1936. By the following year, they were one of the top swing bands in the country, and settled into a long-term run, broadcast by CBS Radio, at the Famous Door in New York. There, they perfected their signature style: Basie’s “All American Rhythm Section” (Freddie Green on guitar, Jo Jones on drums, Basie’s minimalist piano, and Walter Page on bass) drove an irresistible swing foundation, and the horn soloists (featured by the always humble band-leader) took advantage of the opportunity to soar. They included Lester Young, Herschel Evans, Buck Clayton, and Harry “Sweets” Edison. Vocalists included Jimmy Rushing, Helen Humes, Billy Holiday, and Joe Williams, and composers and arrangers such as Quincy Jones added to what quickly became the best jazz academy for new talent in the land. Within the decade, the band was internationally famous for such hits as “One O’clock Jump,” “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” “Taxi War Dance,” and “Stop Beatin’ Round the Mulberry Bush.” They also appeared several times each year at Harlem’s great Apollo Theater.
The early 1940s saw Basie touring extensively, but World War II travel restrictions led to a term in Los Angeles. There, his band appeared in five films, and continued releasing top 10 hits on the pop and R&B charts. By the late 1940s, the war’s aftermath and changes in the economy created difficult conditions for big bands, and Basie slimmed down in 1950 to more manageable six- or nine-piece ensembles. But by 1952, he had weathered the storm and reformed a new group at full size. Dubbed his “New Testament Band,” it picked up where he had left off and went on to even greater renown. With a base at New York’s famous Birdland club, Basie began touring internationally, playing for royalty and top-tier jazz festivals worldwide. He made his first European visit in 1954, went to Japan in 1963, and continued recording at a prolific rate with a constantly changing roster of all-star talent. In 1957, the band broke the color barrier at New York’s upscale Waldorf Astoria hotel. Hits of this era included “April in Paris,” and “Everyday I Have the Blues.”
In a later stage, with swing’s diminishing popularity, Basie turned to providing big band backing for a host of consummate popular vocalists. Records with Frank Sinatra on his Reprise label, Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett, and Sammy Davis, Jr., were criticized by jazz purists, but enjoyed by fans and acknowledged with multiple Grammy Award nominations and victories. At the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s, Basie returned to a jazz motif, even experimenting with avant garde and be-bop artists; and in 1975, he was back swinging on Pablo Records. Basie’s health was compromised by a heart attack in 1976; although he continued performing, he appeared in a wheelchair in the 1980s, reduced his activity, and concentrated on co-writing his autobiography, Good Morning Blues. Still active at the keyboard, Basie died of cancer at the age of 79 in 1984 in Hollywood, Florida.
Basie won nine Grammy awards and countless nominations throughout his career and across styles and sidemen. He established jazz as a legitimate art form, suitable for concert halls and theaters, while making swing a permanent part of his musical lexicon. His legacy is perpetuated by his extensive library of recordings covering a half-century of music; by the audible influence he had on every big band to date and modern jazz in general; and by the reunion band, the Countsmen, formed by Basie alumni to perform in the memory of the master.