Known for his minimal, blues-influenced style of piano, Count Basie is renowned for helping to define the mid-century big band sound. As the leader of one of the largest and most influential jazz bands of the era, he has an important place in American musical history.
From Red Bank to Kansas City
William Basie’s earliest musical education was in ragtime and vaudeville music. He started playing piano as a young child in New Jersey, studying first with his mother and later with famed organist and stride pianist Fats Waller.
In the mid-1920s, Basie was performing with a traveling vaudeville show when the act abruptly dissolved, leaving him stranded in Kansas City. For a time, he found work as an accompanist in a silent movie theater. He later joined the Walter Page Blue Devils, and then Bernie Moten’s Kansas City Band. Playing with the Blue Devils was Basie’s first experience with big band music, a style that would go on to define his career.
It was around this time that Basie acquired his stage name. According to legend, a radio DJ wanted to give Basie’s name a little extra flair, so he gave him an aristocratic title like those of contemporaries Duke Ellington and Earl Hines. “Count Basie" stuck, and he was billed that way for the rest of his career.
Basie the Bandleader
After Moten’s death in 1935, Basie started his own band, Count Basie and the Barons of Rhythm. The group made use of a musical style that has since become a jazz standard: call-and-response, in which different musicians trade riffs and improvise variations. Coupled with Basie’s deceptively simple style of piano, the Barons of Rhythm had a unique sound.
“Compared to the more complex, almost symphonic compositions and arrangements of some of the other leading bandleaders and composers of his time, most notably Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson, the Basie band's arrangements were usually straightforward "head arrangements," based on a simple riff or melody (the "head") made up and memorized by the band in rehearsal, and later played in performance as the background for soloists. The "first" Basie band was without peer in this regard, and many of their tunes began life as head arrangements.
For instance "One O'clock Jump" was made up on the spot at the end of a radio broadcast. With ten minutes to spare in the broadcast, the announcer asked Basie what the next tune would be. The band had already played everything in its book for the evening, so Basie, noticing that it was almost one o'clock in the morning, said, "Call it 'One O'clock Jump,'" and launched into the stride influenced opening of the tune with the rhythm section. The band followed the rhythm section and the cues of each other, deploying and building upon riffs developed in their rehearsals, spontaneously creating a tune that would become one of the band's standards, and a jazz classic.
The Band Takes Off
The Barons of Rhythm started to attract increasing attention with their residency at Kansas City’s Reno Club, where their sets were often broadcast live. One of these broadcasts caught the ear of producer John Hammond, who started working with the band to increase their bookings and visibility. With his help, the band—now renamed Count Basie and His Orchestra—relocated to New York City. They soon had several hits, including “Jumpin' at the Woodside" and "One O'Clock Jump.”
After a few years of hiatus in the early 1950s, Basie’s band returned with a new vocalist, Joe Williams, who sang their hit “Every Day I have the Blues.” Then, in 1956, Count Basie & His Orchestra released their album April in Paris, a major commercial success. The title track featured numerous fake-out endings, and was so popular that Count Basie got sick of answering requests for it. Even now, it remains a quintessential example of the big band sound.
Basie and his band collaborated with many of the greats of jazz, from Ella Fitzgerald to Frank Sinatra. He won his first Grammy award in 1958, making history as the first African American male artist to receive the award. He would go on to win eight more Grammys over the course of his career, and many other honors besides.
Basie continued performing well into old age. He died on April 26, 1984, leaving behind a significant musical legacy.
by Larisa Hohenboken