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Count Basie: A Phenomenal Jazz Big Band Leader and Pianist

William James “Count” Basie was a New Jersey Jazz icon and the leader of the Count Basie Orchestra. He was a music composer, organist, and pianist; and is also considered a phenomenal bandleader.

Count Basie at a piano

Early Life

William was born on the 21st of August, 1904 to Harvey and Lillian Basie in Red Bank Borough of New Jersey. Harvey Basie was initially the personal caretaker and coachman of a wealthy local judge and soon switched the profession of handyman after horse carriages became obsolete. He also played the mellophone, while his partner, Lillian, was proficient with the piano. The young William received his musical education at a young age from his parents.

William was also an extremely bright student who loved traveling. He frequented the touring carnivals that visited Red Bank and also the local Palace Theater. He performed occasional chores there in exchange for free entry to their performances. He quickly gained adequate knowledge regarding silent movies and musical improvizations. Basie was a natural piano player, but his choice of instrument was drums. However, the talent and influence of the legendary Sonny Greer made him rationalize and led to his permanent switch back to the piano.

Musical Journey

In 1919, Sonny Greer was already a part of Duke Ellington’s band, while Basie was performing at amateur shows, resorts, and group dances. Basie also hung out with other local musicians in his spare time and often landed gigs in such situations. He also played at the Hong Kong Inn and at the Asbury Park in Jersey Shore as stopgaps. In 1920, William went to Harlem, a hotbed of Jazz at that time, and settled near the Alhambra Theater. Soon, he met the Harlem greats who were gaining popularity - James P. Johnson, Willie “The Lion” Smith, and Sonny Greer himself.

During the early 1920s, Basie was frequenting several acts as both an accompanist and soloist. He was an integral part of the vaudeville circuits of “Theater Owners Bookers Association,” “Columbia Burlesque,” and “Hippity Hop” show with Katie Crippen. He was regularly touring Chicago, New Orleans, St. Louis, and Kansas City. This whole experience was crucial in his early musical training and proved quite significant for his career. By the end of 1925, he was back in Harlem and performing at Leroy's, a place habituated by uptown celebrities who were extremely interested in the “cutting contests” held there regularly. The piano players had to make do without sheet arrangements, which made the competition more intense. Next, Basie met Fats Waller, who taught him to play the organ. Willie “the Lion” Smith generously introduced him to the Jazz circle and also helped him with gigs, especially for house-rent parties.

In 1928, Basie visited Tulsa, where he saw Walter Page and his band “Blue Devils” in action. He even received an invitation to join the band and also received the moniker “Count” Basie around this time. In 1929, Basie joined the Bennie Moten band as a pianist. The group was respected in the Jazz circuit and performed the refined “Kansas City stomp” technique. Basie also worked as a  co-arranger alongside Eddie Durham. They developed the “Moten Swing” style, which was integral in the evolution of Swing music and was subsequently performed at  Philadelphia’s Pearl Theatre. In 1930, Basie tied the knot with Vivian Lee Winn. Their marriage lasted five years, after which Basie got engaged to Catherine Morga.

Soon, Moten was voted out of the band, which regrouped under Basie as “Count Basie and his Cherry Blossoms.” However, it didn’t last long, and he again collaborated with Moten to form a new band. In 1935, Moten passed away and paved the way for another band called “Barons of Rhythm” a nine-piece group with Basie at the helm. One of their pieces, called “One O’Clock Jump” was a result of late-night improvisation and gained much popularity.

In 1936, Basie renamed his band “Count Basie and His Barons of Rhythm,” and shifted to Chicago. They bagged a long-term contract at the Grand Terrace Ballroom and subsequently met the  In that city in October 1936, the band had a recording session with the music producer John Henry Hammond II. Soon, Hammond invited them for a project under Vocalion Record, which was titled “Jones-Smith Incorporated.” The album had four sidetracks, “Oh Lady Be Good,” “Boogie Woogie,” “Evening,” and “Shoe Shine Boy.” In 1938, Vocalion was bought by Columbia Records, and the parent company released an album titled “Boogie Woogie” with the four compilations.

In 1937, the group went to New York and performed at the Roseland Ballroom. Hammond continued advising them as the orchestra started making subtle adjustments - they focused on solo numbers, played softer and standard music, and also started playing their hottest numbers at the end of their shows for more traction. Basie was also contracted with Decca  records, with whom he released “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Pennies from Heaven.” The band soon started playing at the The Savoy Ballroom, which was also the host of a competition called “Battle of the Bands.” They had some memorable battles with  Chick Webb’s musical group, which further propelled them to fame. In 1939, Benny Goodman soon released their signature “One O’Clock Jump,” while Basie and his counterparts embarked on a cross-country tour. Next, Basie joined the William Morris Agency. In 1942, the band started working spots in movies and musicals, notably - “Reveille With Beverly,” “Hit Parade,” “Stage Door Canteen,” and “Command Performance.”

Count Basie in Stage Door Canteen

After the Second World War, the big band era appeared to subside as Basie dissolved his group. He started performing in orchestras and combos as a solo artist and even featured in a short musical titled “Sugar Chile Robinson, Billie Holiday, Count Basie and His Sextet.” In 1952, he formed a new sixteen-piece orchestra and named it the “New Testament Band.” As the jukebox era unfolded, Basie and his ensemble adapted to the new blues and rhythm players. They even incorporated flute music into some compositions, a technique that also influenced other musicians. In 1957, their instrumental “April in Paris” became the best-selling number as part of a live album called “Count Basie at Newport.” In 1958, the group performed all across Europe and earned rave reviews in Germany, Netherlands, and France. A year later, they returned to America and recorded “The Count Basie Story,” a compilation of their greatest hits. The band continued until the 1980s with frequent changes in personnel. On the 26th of April, 1984, Count Basie passed away in Hollywood after suffering from pancreatic cancer.

Recognitions and Usage in Popular Culture

  • In 1963, “Reiseradioen,” a famous Norwegian radio show, adopted Basie’s “The Kid From the Red Bank” as its signature theme. It is still aired during the summer and retains the same music.  
  • In 1974, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Berklee College of Music. 
  • In the movie titled “The Errand Boy,” Jerry Lewis utilized Basie’s “Blues in Hoss’ Flat” for his rendition of “Chairman of the Board.” 
  • Al ‘Jazzbeaux’ Collins, a radio DJ, also used “Blues in Hoss’ Flat” as a theme song during his New York and San Francisco gigs.  
  • In 1992, the famous movie “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” paid tribute to Casie.   
  • In 2002, Neil Peart, the drummer of the rock band “Rush” recorded his own rendition of “One O’Clock Jump.” He has since utilized it for his drum solos and even played it during the band’s 30th Anniversary Tour. 
  • In 2016, Emily Atkins paid another tribute to Basie in the movie “The Matchbreaker.” She narrated the story of how Basie eventually married his wife after predicting it in their first-ever conversation. 
  • In 2009, 160th Street in Washington Heights was renamed “Count Basie Place.” It is considered a National Historic Landmark of the USA, where Basie himself resided.  
  • In 2010, Count Basie was included in the New Jersey Hall of Fame.
  • In 2013, the Content Management System WordPress code-named its new 3.7 version as Count Basie. 
  • In 2018, Dance Gavin Dance, a post-hardcore band, released a song called “Count Bassy” in their album titled “Artificial Selection.” 
  • The Count Basie Theatre in New Jersey was redeveloped along with the “Count Basie Field” for live performances and sports, respectively. 
  • In 2019, Count Basie was named by The New York Times Magazine as one of the 100 artists whose work was reportedly lost in the Universal fire of 2008.
  • In 2019, Count Basie was also named in the “Blues Hall of Fame.”
  • In 2019, Asteroid 35394 was named “Countbasie” as a tribute to the pianist.

Count Basie Theatre

Coup de Jazz

William Basie ensured jazz was taken seriously as an art form. He also established the position of swing in the jazz repertoire and also acted as a bridge between blues and jazz. His arrangements were rather straightforward and based on a simple melody that was performed by the soloists. He collaborated with the crème de la crème of the 20th century, including Frank Sinatra, Benny Carter, Quincy Jones, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine, and Jimmy Rushing. He also won a record nine Grammys, becoming the first African-American on the prestigious list.

A true innovator, he was credited for incorporating the usage of two “split” on the tenor saxophone. Basie heavily emphasized the rhythms, often utilizing arrangers and vocalists to expand the sound. His piano style was highly captivating yet undervalued. Modern jazz pianists now consider it as a mark of impeccable and precise musical leadership. His orchestra and ensembles were distinct and extraordinary. The sheer concoction of outstanding arrangers, composers, and musicians pointed towards a steady and sustainable brain in the background - one that always knew when to strike the right note. A mesmerizing swing sound that blossomed and completely changed the world of jazz. His music was conversational. His music was warm. His music was infectious. A pioneer and jazz revolutionary stood behind it all.


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