Biographical Report: Count Basie
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William James Basie:
A Brief History of the Count o Swing
During the heyday of the swing era, many big bands flourished. Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Glen Miller, and Chick Webb fronted big bands that could swing, but none of these legends could swing like the Count Basie Orchestra. Count Basie proved that a big band could still swing, without losing the spontaneity so essential to jazz.
William James Basie was born August 21, 1904 in Red Bank, New Jersey (Hare, par. 3). His father was a coachman and caretaker for a wealthy judge, and his mother took in laundry to help with the familys financial situation. Between the two of them, there was enough money to pay for piano lessons for young William (Morgenstern, pars. 1-2).
Young Basie longed for a life in showbiz. He quit school early on, and eventually wound up in New York City in 1924 (Murray 45-48). It was in Harlem where Basie met the great stride piano player Fats Waller (Biographies, par. 2). Waller informally taught Basie the intricacies of the organ and introduced him to other stride luminaries James P. Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith (Dance 9). These early influences would have a lasting impact on Basie, contributing a great deal to his distinctive minimalist style.
Basie began his professional music career in the vaudeville circuit within New York (Carattini, par. 2). He toured around the country for several years with various vaudeville acts. In 1927, while touring with the Theater Owners Booking Association or TOBA, under the leadership of Gonzell White, Basie ended up stranded in Kansas City, Missouri when Whites act suddenly broke up (Count, par. 2). Basie settled in Kansas City, playing piano accompaniment to silent movies (Biographies, par. 2). He became a member of Walter Pages Blue Devils in 1928 (Count, par. 2). Basie played with the Blue Devils until the early part of 1929, when he left to play with other bands not as well known (Biographies, par. 2). Towards the end of 1929, Basie, along with several former members of the Blue Devils, joined the Bennie Moten Orchestra (About, par. 3).
Basie played with Moten until 1934. Moten encouraged Basie to try to lead a band himself. Basie led his own band for a short time in Little Rock, Arkansas (Morgenstern, par. 9), but he soon returned to Motens band. He stayed with the Moten band until Bennie Moten died suddenly in 1935 (Biographies, par. 3). Basie stayed on for a while under the leadership of Bennies brother Buster, but he left shortly thereafter (Count, par. 3). He organized a nine-piece band, the Barons of Rhythm, with Buster Smith, and other former members of the Moten orchestra (Morgenstern, par. 10). Basie eventually took over as bandleader, and with his band members, Walter Paige, Jo Jones, and later Lester Young among them, began a steady gig at the Reno Club in Kansas City (Biographies, par. 3).
It was in 1936 while headlining at the Reno Club, where Basie earned the nickname “Count” (About, par. 4). The Reno Club is also, where the band crafted its signature sound. The style was a “powerful swing”, driven by the rhythm section, and accentuated by Basies sparse piano playing (Carattini, par. 3). Through live radio broadcasts at the club, the band gained the attention of John Hammond, a “wealthy jazz aficionado”, who was instrumental in helping Basie and his band to the next level (Count, par. 4). With Hammonds support, the band expanded its membership, and, after a brief stint in Chicago to hone their sound, the newly dubbed Count Basie Orchestra, headed to New York (Carattini, par. 4).
With the newly expanded band, some growing pains were inevitable. Some critics described the bands early sound as “rough” (Carattini, par. 4) and “ragged” (Jazz, Pt. 6). Basie worked the kinks out however and at a prolonged gig in a club called the Famous Door, the bands popularity exploded. The Count Basie Orchestra attracted many followers with its distinctive sound. The bands “simple riffs shot through with the blues” (Carattini, par. 4), coupled with the “greatest rhythm section in jazz history” (Jazz, Pt. 6), enabled the band to swing like no other. Basie himself may have explained it best when he said “a band can really swing when it swings easy, when it can play along like cutting butterEven a single note can swing” (qtd. in Jazz, Pt. 6).
Recording contracts soon followed the bands success at the Famous Door. In January of 1937, the Count Basie Orchestra made its first recording on the Decca record label (Count, par. 4). By the following year, the Count Basie Orchestra was one the major big bands of swing, on a par with the orchestras of Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman (Biographies, par. 3). The band made hit after hit throughout the late 1930s, with pieces such