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Jazz icon Count Basie was born William James Basie on August 21, 1904 in Red Bank, New Jersey. Count Basie is considered one of the greatest bandleaders of all times. He was the arbiter of the big-band swing sound, and his unique style of fusing blues and jazz established swing as a predominant music style. Basie changed the jazz landscape and shaped mid-20th century popular music, duly earning the title “King of Swing” because he made the world want to dance.
His father, Harvey Lee Basie, was a coachman and a groundskeeper, and his mother, Lillian Childs Basie, was a laundress. The family had a piano, and Basie’s mother paid 25 cents per lesson for his piano lessons at an early age. After dropping out of junior high school, Basie learned to operate lights for vaudeville and to improvise piano accompaniment for silent films at the local movie theater in his hometown that would eventually become the Count Basie Theatre. He quickly made a name for himself playing the piano at local venues and parties around town until he moved to New York City in search of greater opportunities.
After a decade-long courtship, Basie married dancer Catherine Morgan, his second wife, on his birthday in 1942. They had one daughter, Diane, in 1944. The couple were true socialites – often gathering with friends including celebrities Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lewis, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Basie protégé Quincy Jones. They had direct lines to presidents, occasionally exchanging personal telegrams giving well wishes. In 1949, the Basie family moved to one of the premier neighborhoods open to African American families – Addsleigh Park in St. Albans, Queens, New York. Their neighbors included Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Jackie Robinson, and Milt Hinton. While Count Basie worked over 300 nights a year, Mrs. Basie was very active in charitable and civil rights organizations, and was recognized for her work by the major leaders of the day. In the early 1970s, the Basies moved to the warmer climate of Freeport, Bahamas.
Around 1924, Basie moved to Harlem, a hotbed for jazz, where his career started to quickly take off. Shortly after moving, he got a gig replacing Fats Waller with a touring vaudeville act. When he returned to Harlem, Fats Waller taught him to play the organ, and Willie “the Lion” Smith took him under his wing. Basie toured on the vaudeville and Theatre Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A.) circuits again until his performance group disbanded in the mid-1920s, leaving him in Kansas City. It was here that he was introduced to the big-band sound when he joined Walter Page’s Blue Devils in 1928. Basie now called Kansas City home.
Basie heard Bennie Moten’s band and longed to play with them. However, Moten was an expert piano player himself, so Basie fashioned a job for himself as the band’s staff arranger. He couldn’t write music at the time, but his ear was perfect. Eventually, Moten generously let Basie sit in on piano.
A year later, Basie joined Moten’s band and played with them until Moten’s death in 1935. Basie then formed his own nine-piece band, Barons of Rhythm, with many former Moten members including Walter Page (bass), Freddie Green (guitar), Jo Jones (drums), Lester Young (tenor saxophone), and Jimmy Rushing (vocals).
The Barons of Rhythm were regulars at the Reno Club and often performed for a live radio broadcast. During a broadcast, the announcer wanted to give Basie’s name some style, so he called him “Count.” Little did Basie know this touch of royalty would give him proper status and position him with the likes of Duke Ellington and Earl Hines.
Famed record producer and journalist John Hammond heard the band’s broadcast and began writing about the orchestra to gain their attention. He then traveled from New York to Kansas City just to hear the band and to meet Count Basie. He soon started booking the band and shopping them to agents and record companies, forging their big break. In 1937, Basie took his group, Count Basie and His Barons
of Rhythm, to New York to record their first album with Decca Records under their new name, The Count Basie Orchestra.
The Count Basie Orchestra had a slew of hits that helped to define the big-band sound of the 1930s and ’40s. Some of their notable chart toppers included “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” “April in Paris,” and Basie’s own composition, “One O’Clock Jump,” which became the orchestra’s signature piece.
Basie and his orchestra appeared in five films, all released within a matter of months in 1943: Hit Parade, Reveille with Beverly, Stage Door Canteen, Top Man, and Crazy House. He also scored a series of Top Ten hits on the pop and R&B charts, including “I Didn’t Know About You,” “Red Bank Blues,” “Rusty Dusty Blues,” “Jimmy’s Blues,” and “Blue Skies.”
In 1950, financial restraints forced Basie to disband the orchestra. For the next two years, he led small bands between six and nine pieces. Basie reorganized the orchestra in 1952, and this new band was in high demand and toured extensively around the world. (This became known as the “New Testament Band,” while the first Orchestra was the “Old Testament Band.”) They played command performances for kings, queens, and presidents and issued a large number of recordings both under Basie’s name and as the backing band for various singers, most notably Frank Sinatra.
Basie was a true innovator leading the band for almost 50 years and recording on over 480 albums. He is credited for creating the use of the two “split” tenor saxophone, emphasizing the rhythm section, riffing with a big band, using arrangers to broaden their sound, and beautifully layering masterful vocalists. Basie was often recognized for his understated yet captivating style of piano playing and his precise, impeccable musical leadership.
Basie earned nine Grammy Awards® and made history in 1958 by becoming the first African American to receive the award. He has had an unprecedented four recordings inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame: “One O’Clock Jump” (1979), “April in Paris” (1985), “Everyday I Have the Blues” (1992),
and “Lester Leaps In” (2005), along with a slew of other awards and honors not only for his music, but for his humanitarianism and philanthropy around the world.
Basie died April 26, 1984 in Hollywood, Florida, but his legacy is still swinging strong.