You are here: / Jazz Players & Historic Jazz Clubs / Media / Count Basie

Count Basie

Count_Basie_Jazz_History

Swingin’ the Blues, 1941 HOT big band swing jazz

COUNT BASIE Excerpts from the oddly titled “Dance of the Gremlins” (thanks to mfb25890 & mbdavis10025 for the song I.D.), and “Swingin’ the Blues”, c. 1941. This is some of the HOTTEST big band swing of the 40s! Don Byas on tenor, Harry “Sweets” Edison & then later Buck Clayton, trumpet, Jo Jones drums.

220px-Count_Basie_in_Rhythm_and_Blues_RevueCount Basie – from the 1955 film Rhythm and Blues Revue

William James “Count” Basie (August 21, 1904 – April 26, 1984) was an American jazz pianistorganistbandleader, 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.

That year Basie formed his own jazz orchestra, and in 1936 took them to Chicago for a long engagement and their first recording. He led the group for almost 50 years, creating innovations like the use of two “split” tenor saxophones, emphasizing the rhythm section, riffing with a big band, using arrangers to broaden their sound, and others. Many notable musicians came to prominence under his direction, including the tenor saxophonists Lester Youngand Herschel Evans, the guitarist Freddie Green, trumpeters Buck Clayton and Harry “Sweets” Edison and singers Jimmy Rushing and Joe Williams. Basie’s theme songs were “One O’Clock Jump,” developed in 1935 in the early days of his band, and “April In Paris.”

Biography – Early life and education

haddix-count-basie-750pxWilliam 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.

Early Career

51Fv4q5clhLAround 1920, Basie went to Harlem, a hotbed of jazz, where he lived down the block from the Alhambra Theater. Early after his arrival, he bumped into Sonny Greer, who was by then the drummer for the Washingtonians, Duke Ellington‘s early band.  Soon, Basie met many of the Harlem musicians who were “making the scene,” including Willie “the Lion” Smith and James P. Johnson.

Basie toured in several acts between 1925 and 1927, including Katie Krippen and Her Kiddies as part of the Hippity Hopshow; 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 CitySt. LouisNew Orleans, and Chicago. Throughout his tours, Basie met many great 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 got 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 top musicians, and teaching him some piano technique.

In 1928 Basie was in Tulsa and heard Walter Page and his Famous Blue Devils, one of the first big bands, which featured Jimmy Rushing on vocals.  A few months later, he was invited to join the band, which played mostly in Texas andOklahoma. It was at this time that he began to be known as “Count” Basie (see Jazz royalty).

Kansas City Years

albumcoverCountBasie-KansasCityPowerhouseThe 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 saxophonist Ben 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.

John Hammond and First Recordings

Basie and band, with vocalist Ethel Waters, from the film Stage Door Canteen (1943)

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.

count_basieIn that city in October 1936, the band had a recording session which the producerJohn 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.”

Count_Basie-1Basie favored blues, and he would showcase some of the most notable blues singers of the era after he went to New York:Billie HolidayJimmy RushingBig Joe TurnerHelen Humes, and Joe Williams. He also hired arrangers who knew how to maximize the band’s abilities, such as Eddie Durham and Jimmy Mundy.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Count_Basie

PureHistory
PureHistory.org ℗ is your source to learn about the broad and beautiful spectrum of our shared History.