Count Basie emerged as a striking figure in the swing era of jazz. His impressive piano playing skills and musical know-how made him win millions of hearts. According to jazz lovers, Basie was a musical package. He was a pianist, an accompanist, a music director, a composer and a band leader. He kept producing beautiful music from the 1920s to the 1980s. He had musical genes since birth and his childhood memories were filled with piano playing.
Basie’s skills were initially polished by Fats Waller in the Harlem stride school. He gradually gained experience from a vaudeville tour group. He was a passionate musician and a brilliant team leader. He joined various bands during his lifetime and each added to his artistic achievements. These bands included Walter Page’s Blue Devils, Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra and many more. He formed and reformed his own bands with capable personnel. He went through several ups and downs but his music kept on hitting the charts.
His albums were consistently nominated for Grammy Awards. Basie won the Grammy in 1980 in the category of Best Jazz Instrumental Performance by a Big Band, for “On the Road” and in 1982 for “Warm Breeze”. He received a nomination for “Farmer’s Market Barbecue” in 1983, and got his hands on his ninth and last Grammy, in 1984 for “88 Basie Street”.
Basie had an eye for talent and potential. He established an institution of music that played a significant role in finding new talent. His contribution to the industry is immense. He treated his musicians with patience. He and his band recorded with many other famous artists, including Duke Ellington (1899–1974), Frank Sinatra (1915–1998), Ella Fitzgerald (1917–1996), and Sarah Vaughan (1924–1990).
Count Basie was determined to never leave music and this passion was apparent in the performances he gave in his last years, even as he remained resigned to a wheel chair. His biggest achievement was the fifty-years of continued existence in the music world, providing talented leadership while the music changed rapidly.
It was a bright summer day on August 21, 1904 when the well-known American jazz artist, William “Count” Basie, opened his eyes in Red Bank, New Jersey. Music flowed with his blood as he belonged to a family of musicians. His father, Harvie Basie, was a mellophone player and his mother, Lillian Basie, was a pianist; she was the first person to recognize the musical talent in her son. It was Count Basie’s mother who secured him his early lessons under the great supervision of Fats Waller in Harlem, New York.
At the age of 20, Basie entered the world of music with Keith and TOBA vaudeville as a solo pianist, accompanist, and music director for blues singers, dancers, and comedians. During a tour, he was stranded in Kansas City, Missouri, but continued working as a house organist in a silent movie theater. In 1928, he became a part of Blue Devils but this, Walter Page’s band broke up the very next year. His career then took a lift and he got himself a place in Bennie Moten’s band where he strengthened his bond with the piano and came to be known as “Count.”
For Basie, 1935 was a year that started with sorrow, but eventually turned out to be a highlight of his success story. The death of Moten was “unfortunately fortunate” for Basie as he got a chance to form Count Basie Orchestra out of Moten’s band, with only a few modifications to the existing band members. The band’s potential helped it bag contracts with a national booking agency and the Decca Record Company. In a short span of time, the band proved its worth and emerged as a leading band of the swing era. They performed in big city ballrooms together with single night shows and began to receive international acclaim by the late 1930s.
Basie’s band was undoubtedly at the peak of the swing era (1935–45). The arrangements were exceptional, portraying his sleek style. His astute management and keen artistic eye, coupled with the innate abilities of the fellow musicians made the band immortal in the history of jazz.
The fame of this remarkable band came to a halt as they lost some important members and had to face a ban on recordings during war. The influential musicians of 1943, stressful night performances and the birth of bebop in mid-1940s also played a part in diminishing the band’s popularity.
Basie, instead of losing hope, initiated a six to nine piece band in 1950. The group was working just fine when he decided to reorganize his band in 1952 and this time he found success. He quickly became one of the central institutions of jazz and created a platform where upcoming musicians were nurtured. He was able to grab several Grammy awards, and a chain of international tours and recording sessions made him a jazz idol. He visited Europe in 1954, Japan in 1963, and recorded a great many musical pieces that were either credited under his name or under the names of various singers, including Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan.
His health remained poor for most of the last eight years of his life. He recovered from a heart attack in 1976 but was back to the bandstand within six months. His health continued to get worse and in 1981, though he continued to before, he was only able to reach the stage by electric wheel chair. Cancer was the final blow to this superstar. He died in Hollywood, Florida, on April 26, 1984.
Count Basie was a born artist. Basie’s journey started with piano lessons with his mom and ended with the extraordinary status given to him in the world of jazz, which not many musicians achieved. The history of the swing era in jazz would be incomplete without Basie’s unique style. He proved himself as a skilled band leader. He controlled the piano with his fingers as efficiently as he organized his band. The rhythm section of Basie’s orchestra produced light and swinging music which was directed with his piano, energetic ensemble work and excellent soloing.
His styles included Big Band, Swing, and Blues music. While he was not as famous a composer as Duke Ellington nor as prolific a soloist as Benny Goodman, his influence came from the meticulous rhythm and style of his band, which is widely regarded as the essence of swing.
From Harlem stride pianists to vaudeville acts, each step in Basie’s development brought him closer to success. His first band, the Count Basie Orchestra, developed its own distinct Kansas City swing style. This style had a strong rhythm supporting the horn soloists, with an additional support from riffing. The band’s theme song, One OClock Jump, written by Basie himself in 1937, was an example of this form.
Throughout his career, Basie performed with many prominent names like Joe Williams (vocals), Walter Page (bass), Freddie Green (guitar), Jo Jones (drums), Jimmy Rushing, and Lester Young (tenor saxophone). Furthermore, Ella Fitzgerald, Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., the Mills Brothers and Jackie Wilson were some of the artists Basie worked with. Songs like ‘Every Day (I Have the Blues)’ and ‘April in Paris’ were critically acclaimed and given a place in the Grammy Hall of Fame. The songs were mostly written to highlight the band’s bright soloists.
Musicians and listeners alike were pleased with Basie because of his commendable and stable career as a bandleader. In this way he continued ruling over the hearts of jazz fans, even after swing became an archival style of music. His long career ended with a huge discography stretched over nearly all major labels and included several minor ones too.
Videos and Recordings
Count Basie playing Fly Me To The Moon:
Come Fly With Me: