William James "Count" Basie (August 21, 1904 – April 26, 1984) was an American jazz pianist, organist, bandleader, and composer. His mother taught him to play the piano and he started performing in his teens. Dropping out of school, he learned to operate lights for vaudeville and to improvise accompaniment for silent films at a local movie theater in his home town of Red Bank, New Jersey. By 16 he increasingly played jazz piano at parties, resorts and other venues. In 1924 he went to Harlem, where his performing career expanded; he toured with groups to the major jazz cities of Chicago, St. Louis and Kansas City. In 1929 he joined Bennie Moten's band in Kansas City, and played with them until Moten's death in 1935.
William Basie was born to Harvey Lee and Lillian Basie in Red Bank, New Jersey. His father worked as a coachman and caretaker for a wealthy judge. After automobiles replaced horses, his father became a groundskeeper and handyman for several wealthy families in the area. Both of his parents had some type of musical background. His father played the mellophone, and his mother played the piano; in fact, she gave Basie his first piano lessons. She took in laundry and baked cakes for sale for a living. She paid 25 cents a lesson for piano instruction for him.
Not much of a student in school, Basie dreamed of a traveling life, inspired by touring carnivals which came to town. He finished junior high school but spent much of his time at the Palace Theater in Red Bank, where doing occasional chores gained him free admission to performances. He quickly learned to improvise music appropriate to the acts and the silent movies.
Though a natural at the piano, Basie preferred drums. Discouraged by the obvious talents of Sonny Greer, who also lived in Red Bank and became Duke Ellington's drummer in 1919, Basie at age 15 switched to piano exclusively. Greer and Basie 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 at the Jersey Shore, and played at the Hong Kong 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; and 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 jazz musicians, including Louis Armstrong. Before he was 20 years old, he toured extensively on the Keith and TOBA vaudeville circuits as a solo pianist, accompanist, and music director for blues singers, dancers, and comedians. This provided an early training that was to prove significant in his later career.
Back in Harlem in 1925, Basie gained 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 by arranging gigs at "house-rent parties," introducing him to other leading musicians, and teaching him some piano technique.
The following year, in 1929 Basie became the pianist with the Bennie Moten band based in Kansas City, inspired by Moten's ambition to raise his band to the level of Duke Ellington's or Fletcher Henderson's. Where the Blue Devils were "snappier" and more "bluesy," the Moten band was classier and more respected, and played in the "Kansas City stomp" style. In addition to playing piano, Basie was co-arranger with Eddie Durham, who notated the music. Their "Moten Swing", which Basie claimed credit for, was widely acclaimed and was an invaluable contribution to the development of swing music, and at one performance at the Pearl Theatre in Philadelphia in December 1932, the theatre opened its door to allow anybody in to hear the band perform. During a stay in Chicago, Basie recorded with the band. He occasionally played four-hand piano and dual pianos with Moten, who also conducted. The band improved with several personnel changes, including the addition of tenor saxophonistBen Webster.
When the band voted Moten out, Basie took over for several months, calling the group "Count Basie and his Cherry Blossoms." When his own band folded, he rejoined Moten with a newly re-organized band. When Moten died in 1935 after a surgical procedure, the band unsuccessfully tried to stay together but couldn't make a go of it.
Basie formed a new band that year, which included many Moten alumni, with the important addition of tenor 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 to Chicago, where they honed their repertoire at a long engagement at the Grand Terrace Ballroom. 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 Young complained of Herschel Evans' vibrato, Basie placed them on either side of the alto players, and soon had the tenor players engaged in "duels". Many other bands later adapted the split tenor arrangement.
In that city in October 1936, the band had a recording session which the producer John Hammond later described as "the only perfect, completely perfect recording session I've ever had anything to do with". Hammond had heard Basie's band over short-wave radio and went to Kansas City to check them out. He invited them to record, in performances which were Lester Young's earliest recordings. Those four sides were released under the band name of Jones-Smith Incorporated; the sides were "Shoe Shine Boy", "Evening", "Boogie Woogie", and "Oh, Lady Be Good". Basie had already signed with Decca Records, but did not have his first recording session with them until January 1937.
By then, Basie's sound was characterized by a "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. He called Basie "Holy Man", "Holy Main", and just plain "Holy".
When Basie took his orchestra to New York in 1937, they made the Woodside Hotel in Queens their base (they often rehearsed in its basement). Soon, they were booked at the Roseland Ballroom for the Christmas show. Basie recalled a review, which said something like, "We caught the great Count Basie band which is supposed to be so hot he was going to come in here and set the Roseland on fire. Well, the Roseland is still standing". Compared to the reigning band of Fletcher Henderson, Basie's band lacked polish and presentation.
The producer John Hammond continued to advise and encourage the band, and they soon came up with some adjustments, including softer playing, more solos, and more standards. They paced themselves to save their hottest numbers for later in the show, to give the audience a chance to warm up. His first official recordings for Decca followed, under contract to agent MCA, including "Pennies from Heaven" and "Honeysuckle Rose".
Hammond introduced Basie to Billie Holiday, whom he invited to sing with the band. (Holiday didn't record with Basie, as she had her own record contract and preferred working with small combos). The band's first appearance at the Apollo Theater followed, with the vocalists Holiday and Jimmy Rushing getting the most attention. Durham returned to help with arranging and composing, but for the most part, the orchestra worked out its numbers in rehearsal, with Basie guiding the proceedings. There were often no musical notations made. Once the musicians found what they liked, they usually were able to repeat it using their "head arrangements" and collective memory.
Next, Basie played at the Savoy, which was noted more for lindyhopping, while the Roseland was 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 the singer Ella Fitzgerald. As Metronome magazine proclaimed, "Basie's Brilliant Band Conquers Chick's"; the article described the evening:
"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 big band battle, before and after, gave the Basie band a boost and wider recognition. Soon after, Benny Goodman recorded their signature "One O'Clock Jump" with his band.
A few months later, Holiday left for Artie Shaw's band. Hammond introduced Helen Humes, whom Basie hired; she stayed with Basie for four years. When Eddie Durham left for Glenn Miller's orchestra, he was replaced by Dicky Wells. Basie's 14-man band began playing at the Famous Door, a mid-town nightspot with a CBSnetwork 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.
On 19 February 1940, Count Basie and his Orchestra opened a four-week engagement at Southland in Boston, and they broadcast over the radio on 20 February.On the West Coast, in 1942 the band did a spot in Reveille With Beverly, a musical film starring Ann Miller, and a "Command Performance" for Armed Forces Radio, with Hollywood stars Clark Gable, Bette Davis, Carmen Miranda, Jerry Colonna, and the singer Dinah Shore. Other minor movie spots followed, including Choo Choo Swing, Crazy House, Top Man, Stage Door Canteen, and Hit Parade of 1943. They also continued to record for OKeh Records and Columbia Records. The war years caused a lot of members turn over, and the band worked many play dates with lower pay. Dance hall bookings were down sharply as swing began to fade, the effects of the musicians' strikes of 1942–44 and 1948 began to be felt, and the public's taste grew for singers.
Basie occasionally lost some key soloists. However,throughout the 1940s, Basie maintained a big band that possessed an infectious rhythmic beat, an enthusiastic team spirit, and a long list of inspired and talented jazz soloists.
In 1958, the band made its first European tour. Jazz was especially appreciated in France, The Netherlands, and Germany in the 1950s; these countries were the stomping grounds for many expatriate American 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 "Lil Darlin'". By the mid-1950s, Basie's band had become one of the preeminent 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 Count Basie 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. He was a guest on ABC's The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom, a venue also opened to several other black entertainers. In 1959, Basie's band recorded a "greatest hits" double album The Count Basie Story (Frank Foster, arranger) and "Basie and Eckstine, Inc.": album featuring Billy Eckstine,Quincy Jones (as arranger) and the Count Basie Orchestra. It was released by Roulette Records, then later reissued by Capitol Records.
Later that year, Basie appeared on a television special with Fred Astaire, featuring a dance solo to "Sweet Georgia Brown", followed in January 1961 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.
Count Basie (left) in concert (Cologne 1975)
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 1980s. Basie made a few more movie appearances, such as the Jerry Lewis film Cinderfella (1960) and the Mel Brooks movie Blazing Saddles (1974), playing a revised arrangement of "April in Paris".
During its heyday, "The Gong Show" (1976-80) used Basie's "Jumpin' at the Woodside" during some episodes, while an NBC stagehand named Eugene Patton would dance on stage; Patten became known as "Gene Gene, the Dancing Machine".
Basie was a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity. On 21 July 1930, Basie married Vivian Lee Winn, in Kansas City, Jackson County, Missouri. They were divorced sometime before 1935. Sometime in or before 1935, the now single Basie returned to New York City, renting a house at 111 West 138th Street, Manhattan, as evidenced by the 1940 census. He married Catherine Morgan on 13 July 1950 in the King County courthouse in Seattle, Washington. In 1942 [reference?], they moved to Queens. On April 11, 1983, Catherine Basie died of a heart attack at the couple's home in Freeport, Grand Bahama Island. She was 67 years old.
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 Vaughan. One of Basie's biggest regrets was never recording with Louis Armstrong, though they shared the same bill several times. In 1968 Basie and his Band recorded an album withJackie Wilson titled "Manufacturers of Soul".
Count Basie introduced several generations of listeners to the Big Band sound and left an influential catalog. Basie is remembered by many who worked for him as being considerate of musicians and their opinions, modest, relaxed, fun-loving, dryly witty, and always enthusiastic about his music. In his autobiography, he wrote, "I think the band can really swing when it swings easy, when it can just play along like you are cutting butter."
In Red Bank, New Jersey, the Count Basie Theatre, a property on Monmouth Street redeveloped for live performances, and Count Basie Field were named in his honor.
Mechanic Street, where he grew up with his family, has the honorary title of Count Basie Way.
By 2011, four recordings of Count Basie had been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, a special Grammy award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least 25 years old, and that have "qualitative or historical significance."