Count Basie - Biography

By Stuart Kremsky


           The billing was still Bill Basie and his band when the Kansas City outfit took the stage at the Reno Club in 1935. Beer was a nickel, whiskey was 15 cents and the musicians were making $15 for a seven night week. A local radio station was experimenting with remote broadcasting from the nightspot when, as Basie later recalled, the announcer  “commented that Bill Basie was a rather ordinary name and that there were a couple of well-known bandleaders named Earl Hines and Duke Ellington. Then he said, 'Bill, I think I'll call you Count Basie from now on. Is that all right with you?' I thought he was kidding, shrugged my shoulders and replied, OK.” He was the Count from then on. Soon John Hammond, in Chicago, heard some of the broadcast on shortwave,  went to see the band in person in Kansas City, and started to spread the word. It was the beginning of an American institution. For the next half century, Basie would lead the swingingest bands in the land. And while his orchestras and small groups would set the standards for drive and swing, Basie’s own spare, distilled piano style, with the blues never far away, has been a key influence on several musical generations of keyboardists.


            William “Count” Basie was born in Red Bank, New Jersey on August 21, 1904. His father was a coachman and later a groundskeeper and handyman for several families in the area. His mother, who took in washing and baked cakes for sale, financed childhood piano lessons. Never much of a student, young Bill liked to hang out at the Palace Theater. When the regular pianist failed to appear, Basie took over the position, getting an early taste of performing by improvising to the silent films. Although he was more drawn to the drums in his youth, Basie’s acquaintance with the more skilled drummer Sonny Greer dissuaded him, and by the age of 15, he was firmly committed to the piano. Ending his formal education in junior high, Basie played in a stream of pick-up groups for amateur dance shows. Greer was often part of the gigs as well, until he left to play with the Duke Ellington orchestra in 1919. Five years later, Basie moved to Harlem. He ran into Greer and through him met the giants of stride piano, including Fats Waller. The great entertainer not only taught the youngster how to play organ, but also helped him get a job with a vaudeville act called Katie Crippen and Her Kids. Touring on the Theater Owners Bookers Association (TOBA) circuit got him traveling and meeting musicians in cities like St. Louis, Kansas City, and New Orleans. While working in a quartet fronted by Gonzelle White, Basie got stranded in Kansas City in 1927. For a while, it was back to playing for silent movies. Then in 1928, he became a member of bassist Walter Page’s Blue Devils, and the following year went over to the area’s premier ensemble, Bennie Moten’s Orchestra. Basie became a featured soloist, making his first recordings with Moten in October 1929 for Victor.


            By 1935, Basie had already tried his hand at bandleading but returned to the Moten group. Then when Moten died from a botched tonsillectomy, he struck out on his own again, using key members of the Moten group like vocalist Jimmy Rushing, baritone saxophonist Jack Washington, bassist Walter Page, and trombonist and arranger, Eddie Durham. Soon the contrasting tenor saxophonists Lester Young and Herschel Evans came aboard, along with, by 1936, trumpeter Buck Clayton and drummer Jo Jones. There was a stellar small group session made under the name of Jones-Smith Incorporated for Vocalion in November 1936, collected on Classic Columbia, OKeh, and Vocalion Lester Young with Count Basie 1936-1940 (2008 Mosaic).The orchestra began its own recording career with an outstanding series of performances for the Decca label in January 1937 (collected as The Complete Decca Recordings [1992 MCA]), including classics like “John’s Idea,” “Sent For You Yesterday,” “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” and the band’s long-time theme song, “One O’Clock Jump.”


            After Hammond had persuaded the group to come to Chicago, Basie decided to expand the group from nine to thirteen pieces. At Hammond’s urging, he added Freddie Green on guitar and Earle Warren on alto saxophone (Green would stay with the band for over fifty years). Even with Hammond’s avid promotion of the band, it took a couple of years, appearances at two Spirituals To Swing concerts (1938 and 1939), and a 1938 residence at New York’s Famous Door for the band to really take off. The early Basie band’s repertoire was based on blues and riffs, developed collectively by the band as head arrangements. Basie said that he always “wanted to play real jazz. When we played pop tunes--and, naturally, we had to--I wanted those pops to kick! Not loud and fast, understand, but smoothly and with a definite punch." Basie certainly got what he wanted, since everything the band touched had a definite punch; the leader and his cohorts in what became known as the All-American Rhythm Section saw to that.


            The war years were as unkind to the Basie orchestra as they were to most other swing orchestras, and the band underwent numerous personnel changes throughout the Forties. Joining the band during this period were such stylists as trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison, trombonist Vic Dickinson, and saxophonists Don Byas and Illinois Jacquet. By 1949, though, after sessions for Victor (collected Shoutin’ Blues, 1993 Bluebird), even a relatively popular band like the Count’s had to break up in the face of economic realities.


            For a couple of years, Basie led a octet featuring trumpeter Clark Terry, plus modernists like tenormen Wardell Gray and Charlie Rouse, baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff, and clarinetist Buddy DeFranco. Encouraged by prominent vocalist Billy Eckstine and entrepreneur Norman Granz, Basie put together a new big band in 1952. It was known by fans as the “New Testament” band to distinguish it from the rough and ready “Old Testament” group, and represented a slight change of direction. Although the band still had excellent soloists in men like trumpeters Thad Jones and Joe Wilder, and saxophonists Lucky Thompson, Frank Foster, Paul Quinichette, and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, to mention a few of the stars of the Fifties, it was the charts and swinging ensemble work that were now emphasized. Arrangers like Neal Hefti, Sammy Nestico, and Ernie Wilkins, under the firm editorial control of the Count, became key members of the organization. An improbable hit with “April In Paris” in 1954, and the addition of smooth blues singer Joe Williams to the group in 1955, re-established the band as a viable attraction. From then on, Basie seldom looked back.


            The Basie Orchestra made the first of its many tours of Europe in 1954. Recordings for Granz’s Clef and Verve labels and continual touring kept the band in the public eye. Basie made an important television appearance in late 1957 on a rare network show devoted to jazz, CBS’s The Sound Of Jazz, which also featured performances by Billie Holiday, Lester Young, and Thelonious Monk. The orchestra recorded regularly for the Roulette label from 1957-1962, collected in a pair of boxed sets devoted to The Complete Studio Recordings and The Complete Live Recordings (Mosaic). 


            The band also accompanied a bewildering array of singers during this period. Two particularly well-received collaborations were those with Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. In an album recalling the many band battles of the Thirties, the Basie Orchestra and the Duke Ellington Orchestra squared off on First Time! The Count Meets The Duke (1961 Columbia).


            Basie managed to pull the band through the jazz doldrums of the Sixties. Despite the fading market for big band and continuing personnel changes, the band maintained its drive and power with live performances through those hard years. On record, though, they were often reduced to recording pop songs like, “The Hucklebuck” and “Walk Right In” (on Pop Goes Basie , 1965 Reprise) or movie theme music as they did on Basie Meets Bond (1966 Reprise).


            Basie, along with a host of other jazz musicians, found his career revitalized during the Seventies when Norman Granz re-entered the jazz business with Pablo Records. The first result was a typical Granz extravaganza, Jazz At The Philharmonic - Jazz At The Santa Monica Civic ‘72 (1972 Pablo). It featured both the Count with his Orchestra backing Ella Fitzgerald, and the pianist himself in an all-star group with “Lockjaw” Davis, “Sweets” Edison, tenor saxophonist Stan Getz and bassist Ray Brown, among others. Granz committed himself to recording Basie as much as possible, both with the big band and in a generous helping of small group releases. The Count gladly entered the studio with musicians like old friends “Lockjaw,” “Sweets,” Ella, drummer Louis Bellson, trumpeters Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie, guitarist Joe Pass, singer Joe Turner, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, and many more. There were even a few albums with fellow pianist Oscar Peterson. In the Seventies, illness began to slow Basie down. In his final appearances in the early Eighties, he performed from a wheelchair. Unfailing swing, and a piano style that was characterized by frequent Pablo annotator Benny Green as “perfect in its deftness and emotional honesty,” were hallmarks of Basie’s music until the end.


            Perennial favorites among fans and critics alike, the Count and his big bands won a number of Grammy awards, as well as various polls over the years run by magazines like Esquire (1945); Down Beat (1955, 1957- 59), Metronome (1958-60), and Playboy (1959). As a pianist, Basie won the Metronome Poll in 1942 and 1943. In 1958, Basie was elected to the Down Beat Hall Of Fame, and in 1983, he was saluted as an NEA Jazz Master.


            Basie passed away in Hollywood, Florida, on April 26, 1984, but the band that bears his name lives on. Thad Jones came back to lead the group from 1985 until he died in 1986, when the reins were picked up by Frank Foster. As of this writing (2008), the orchestra still performs, now under the direction of Bill Hughes.

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