Full name, William James Basie; born August 21, 1904, in Red Bank, N.J.; died of pancreatic cancer, April 26, 1984, in Hollywood, Fla.; ashes interred at Pine Lawn Cemetery, Farmingdale, N.Y.; son of Harvey (a gardener) and Lillian (a domestic; maiden name, Childs) Basie; married Catherine Morgan (manager of Count Basie Enterprises), July 1942; children and adopted children (some informally): Diane, Aaron, Woodward III, Lamont Gilmore, Rosemarie Matthews, Clifford. Education: Attended public schools until about the ninth grade; studied piano during 1920s with Thomas "Fats" Waller.

In his monumental second volume on the history of jazz, The Swing Era, Gunther Schuller delays his attempt to define swing until, some two hundred pages into the book, he introduces Count Basie in a section titled "The Quintessence of Swing." Schuller states: "That the Basie band has been from its inception a master of swing could hardly be disputed.... For over forty years [Basie] has upheld a particular concept and style of jazz deeply rooted in the Southwest and Kansas City in particular. It draws its aesthetic sustenance from the blues, uses the riff as its major rhetorical and structural device, all set in the language and grammar of swing."

Indeed, from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s the "All-American Rhythm Section"--Walter Page, bass; Jo James, drums; and Freddie Green, guitar--combined with leader and pianist Count Basie to propel Basie's band from relative obscurity in a Kansas City nightclub to world renown as the leading purveyor of swing. Though blessed with an estimable array of soloists throughout the big band era, the Basie band originated an infectious pulse whose essence was a clean, unified, four-beats-to-the-bar swing. Though celebrated for the simplicity of the riff-oriented, call and response interaction of the brasses and reeds in its head arrangements, the band drew its virility from the rhythm section, even after Page and Jones left (c. 1948). Though energized in later years by brilliant writing and arranging, the Basie band housed a secret ingredient: the leader's quite but forceful insistence upon an uncluttered, swinging sound, anchored by the rhythm section and accented by his own "less is more" solos.

Page combined a walking bass line with fine tone and a correct choice of notes. Jones, dancing on the high hat cymbal rather than thumping on the bass drum, allowed the lively bass lines to breathe. Green, the latecomer, strummed the chords that inspired two generations of great soloists. Schuller says of Green that he is "a wonderful anacronism, in that he has (almost) never played a melodic solo and seems content to play those beautiful 'changes' night after night." Basie quarterbacked, accented, edited, filled, chorded, and prodded, often pitting the soloists against one another to expose their fire. And what a group of soloists it was: tenor saxophonists Lester Young (he of the lean, dry phrases, precursor of the "cool" school), Herschel Evans, Paul Gonsalves, Illinois Jacquet, Lucky Thompson, Charlie Rouse, and Don Byas; trumpeters Buck Clayton and Harry Edison; trombonists Vic Dickenson, Dicky Wells, Bennie Morton, and J.J. Johnson; and vocalists Jimmy Rushing, Helen Humes, and Billie Holiday. Later bands would include trumpeters Clark Terry and Thad Jones, trombonist Al Grey, and reedmen Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Frank Foster, Marshal Royal, and Frank Wess, and singer Joe Williams. Personnel changes in Basie's band were gradual as, from 1936 until his death in 1984 (with the exception of 1950-51, when it was reduced to an octet), Count Basie led the quintessential big swing band with which his name will always be associated.

From his Red Bank, New Jersey, home, Basie gravitated to the music parlors of 1920s Harlem, where he met fabled pianists James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, picking up some informal instruction on both piano and organ from the latter. As a piano soloist and accompanist to several acts, he worked his way to Kansas City with a troupe that became stranded there. After some service as a silent film organ accompanist, Basie played with several of the local bands including that of Bennie Moten, the area's best-known leader. Some time after Moten's death, Basie assumed command of the nucleus of that band in 1935, and with a nine-piece group embarked on a long run at the Reno Club, making it one of Kansas's City's hottest spots. A radio announcer there dubbed Basie "Count" and the title prevailed.

Jazz impresario John Hammond heard one of the band's regular broadcasts on an experimental radio station and helped to arrange bookings in Chicago and later New York. Basie increased the size of the band to thirteen pieces, trying to retain the feel of the smaller group, but initial reaction was disappointing. Finally, in 1937, several elements coalesced to launch the band on its nearly half-century of success. Freddie Green's guitar solidified the rhythm section. Booking agent Willard Alexander finessed an engagement at the Famous Door in the heart of New York's 52nd Street, a booking complete with a national NBC radio wire. Basie's Decca recordings--"One O'Clock Jump," "Jumpin' at the Woodside," "Swingin' the Blues," "Lester Leaps In" and others--began to catch on. As word fanned outward, Basie's band attracted wildly cheering audiences, often in excess of the capacity of the venues.

Basie's bands before and after the 1950-51 octet hiatus were quite different. The early band relied almost exclusively on head arrangements, those that often evolved over a period of time as the leader and the players experimented with short phrases (riffs) and accents that bounced from the trumpets to the reeds to the trombones, showcasing the parade of outstanding soloists. In the early 1940s the band benefited mightily from the writing and arranging of Buster Harding, Buck Clayton, and Tab Smith. Their work no doubt paved the way for the later band's heavy reliance upon brilliant writing and arranging, chiefly by Neal Hefti, Frank Foster, Ernie Wilkins, and Sam Nestico. It, too, showcased excellent soloists, but the Basie ensemble sound, now grown to sixteen pieces, was its hallmark and the rhythm section, with Basie and Green ever-present, was its heartbeat.

Prolific recording dates, tours to Europe and Asia, regular appearances at Broadway's Birdland, and an endless stream of dances, festivals, and concerts led to many honors for Basie and his band, including royal command performances in England and recognition by Presidents Kennedy and Reagan. In addition to some of the seminal hits, later audiences demanded to hear such new Basie staples as "Li'l Darlin'," "Cute," "Every Day I Have the Blues," "All Right, OK, You Win," and "April In Paris." Despite their differences, both bands exhibited a devotion to blues-based swinging and an uncluttered pulse; both also relied on effective use of dynamics, more subtle in the early band, more dramatic in the later, when Green's unamplified guitar chords often gave way to shouting brass.

Basie's bandstand demeanor appeared laid-back in the extreme--some called it laissez faire; others just plain lazy. Testimony of his bandmen and arrangers belie this. Perhaps Basie's greatest skill was that of editor, first in the matter of personnel, then in the selection of repertoire. As John S. Wilson quoted Basie in The New York Times: "I wanted my 13-piece band to work together just like those nine pieces ... to think and play the same way.... I said the minute the brass got out of hand and blared and screeched instead of making every note mean something, there'd be some changes made." Basie told his autobiography collaborator, Albert Murray, "I'm experienced at auditions. I can tell in a few bars whether or not somebody can voice my stuff."

Francis Davis's Atlantic tribute column observed, "Basie apparently demanded of his sidemen a commitment to basics as single-minded as his own." The writers and arrangers for the later band became accustomed to Basie's editing out all material that he considered contrary to the ultimate goal: to swing. In the case of Neal Hefti's "Li'l Darlin'," Basie's insistence on a much slower tempo than Hefti had envisioned resulted in one of the band's greatest and most enduring hits. Basie's conducting arsenal included such simple movements as a pointed finger, a smile, a raised eyebrow, and a nod--all sufficient to shift the "swing machine" into high gear.

Though Basie's piano did surface significantly in later recordings with smaller groups, including piano duets with Oscar Peterson, he most often considered himself simply a part of the rhythm section. His spartan, unadorned solos, usually brief, cut to the essence of swing. With the full band, increasingly he was content to support and cajole soloists with carefully distilled single notes and chords of introduction and background. A genuine modesty about his pianistic skills combined with Basie's understanding of the role of the big-band piano to form his style. Several critics and musicologists have observed that Basie's spare playing inspired such important artists as John Lewis, music director of the Modern Jazz Quartet, and Thelonious Monk, one of the architects of the Bop Era. Additionally, Mary Lou Williams and Oscar Peterson attest to Basie's influence upon their playing. As many mature jazz practitioners aver, great playing consists not only of the notes one chooses to play, but those that one leaves out. In this respect Count Basie stands out as the acknowledged master.

Whether viewed as its pianist, leader, composer, arranger, paymaster, chief editor, inspiration, or soul--Count Basie will always be inextricably associated with the Basie Band. Despite crippling arthritis of the spine and a 1976 heart attack, Basie continued to call the tune and the tempo until his death from cancer in 1984. It will be the burden of all big bands, past, present, and future, to stand comparison with the Basie band. It has been the standard for half a century. One reason may well be that Count Basie, he of the impeccable taste, was not only its leader, but the bands greatest fan. He would not permit it to play less than its best. He loved it so.

by Robert Dupuis

Count Basie's Career

Pianist with touring group, Gonzell White and the Big Jamboree, 1926-28; pianist with Walter Page's Blue Devils, 1928-29; pianist with Benny Moten's Kansas City Orchestra, 1929-35; pianist-leader of the Barons of Rhythm, 1935-36; pianist-leader of the Count Basie Orchestra, 1937-49, and 1952-84; pianist and leader of octet, 1950-51.

Count Basie's Awards

Recipient of Esquire magazine's All American Band Award, 1945; winner of down beat magazine's International Critics' Poll, 1952-56; recipient of Esquire magazine's Silver Award, 1955; winner of down beat magazine's readers' poll, 1955; winner of the Metronome Poll, 1956; Governor of State of New York declared September 22, 1974, Count Basie Day; received honorary doctorate from Philadelphia Music Academy, 1974; named to Ebony magazine's Black Music Hall of Fame, 1975; named to Playboy magazine's Hall of Fame, 1976; named to Newport Jazz Hall of Fame, 1976; received Kennedy Center Performing Arts Honors Medal, 1981; recipient of Black Music Association Award, 1982; winner of nine Grammy Awards.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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