William "Count" Basie (August 21, 1904 – April 26, 1984) was an American jazz pianist, organist, bandleader, and composer. Basie led his jazz orchestra almost continuously for nearly 50 years. Many notable musicians came to prominence under his direction, including tenor saxophonists Lester Young and Herschel Evans, trumpeters Buck Clayton and Harry "Sweets" Edison and singers Jimmy Rushing and Joe Williams. Basie's theme songs were "One O'Clock Jump" and "April In Paris."
Around 1924, he went to Harlem, a hotbed of jazz, living 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 as a soloist and accompanist to blues singers Katie Krippen and Gonzelle White. 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." He met Fats Waller, who was playing organ at the Lincoln Theater accompanying silent movies, and Waller taught him how to play that instrument. 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 and Oklahoma. It was at this time that he began to be known as "Count" Basie.
The following year, 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. In addition to playing piano, Basie was co-arranger with Eddie Durham. When Moten died in 1935 after a surgical procedure, the band unsuccessfully attempted to stay together. Then Basie formed a new band, which included many Moten alumni, with the important addition of tenor player Lester Young. Late one night during a gig, with time still left to fill, the band started improvising. Basie liked the results and named the piece "One O'Clock Jump."
At the end of 1936, Basie and his band, now billed as Count Basie and His Barons of Rhythm, moved from Kansas City and honed their repertoire at a long engagement at the Grand Terrace Ballroom in Chicago. Right from the start, Basie's band was noted for its rhythm section. Another Basie innovation was the use of two tenor saxophone players. When Lester Young complained of Herschel Evans' vibrato, the two were split apart and placed one on each side of the alto players, and soon Basie had the tenor players engaged in "duels". Many other bands later adapted the split tenor arrangement.
By now, 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. Basie became known as "Holy Man," "Holy Main" and just plain "Holy.” Basie favored blues, and he showcased some of the most notable blues singers of the era including Billie Holiday, Jimmy Rushing, Big Joe Turner, Helen Humes, and Joe Williams.
His first official recordings for Decca followed, under contract to agent MCA, including "Pennies from Heaven" and "Honeysuckle Rose."
Upon moving to New York City, Hammond introduced Basie to Billie Holiday who was soon singing with the band. The band's first appearance at the Apollo Theater followed, with vocalists Holiday and Rushing getting the most attention. Next, Basie played at the Savoy, which was noted more for jitterbugging. In early 1938, the Savoy was the meeting ground for a "battle of the bands" with Chick Webb's group. Basie had Holiday and Webb countered with Ella Fitzgerald. The publicity over the battle, before and after, gave the Basie band a big boost and they gained wider recognition, as evidenced by Benny Goodman's recording of One O'Clock Jump shortly thereafter.
A few months later, Holiday left for Artie Shaw's band, and was replaced by Helen Humes. Basie's 14-man band began playing at the Famous Door, a mid-town nightspot, with a CBS network feed and air conditioning. Their fame took a huge leap.
Adding to their play book, Basie received arrangements from Jimmy Mundy particularly for "Cherokee," "Easy Does It" and "Super Chief.” In 1939, Basie and his band made a major cross-country tour, including their first West Coast dates. A few months later, Basie quit MCA and signed with the William Morris Agency.
In 1942, Basie moved to Queens with Catherine Morgan, after being married to her for a few years. On the West Coast, the band did a spot in “Reveille With Beverly,” a musical starring Ann Miller, and also a "Command Performance" for Armed Forces Radio with Hollywood stars Clark Gable, Bette Davis, Carmen Miranda, Jerry Colonna, and singer Dinah Shore. Other minor movie spots followed including “Choo Choo Swing,” “Crazy House,” “Top Man,” and “Hit Parade of 1943.” They also started to record with RCA.
The war years caused a lot of member turn over, and the band worked many dates for lower pay. Dance hall bookings were down sharply as swing began to fade, the effects of the musicians' strikes of 1942-44 and 1948 began to be felt and the public's growing taste for singers.
The big band era appeared to have ended after the war, and Basie disbanded the group. For a while, he performed in combos, sometimes stretched to an orchestra. In 1950, he headlined the Universal-International short film “'Sugar Chile' Robinson, Billie Holiday, Count Basie and His Sextet.” He reformed his group as a 16-piece orchestra in 1952 and got a slot at the Birdland club. The jukebox era had begun, and Basie shared the exposure along with early rock'n'roll and rhythm and blues artists. Basie's new band was more of an ensemble group, with fewer solo turns, and relying less on "head" and more on written arrangements.
Basie added touches of bebop and requiring that "it all had to have feeling." Basie's band was sharing stages with bebop greats Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis. Behind the occasional bebop solos, though, he always kept his strict rhythmic pulse. Basie also added flute to some numbers, a novelty at the time that became widely copied. Soon, they were touring and recording again.
In 1954, the band made its first European tour. Jazz was especially strong in France, The Netherlands, and Germany in the 1950s. Those countries were the stomping grounds for many expatriate jazz stars whom were either resurrecting their careers or sitting out the years of racial divide in the United States. Neal Hefti began to provide arrangements, notably "Lil Darlin'." By the mid-1950s, Basie's band had become one of the preeminent backing big bands for some of the most prominent jazz vocalists of the time. They also toured with the "Birdland Stars of 1955," whose lineup included Sarah Vaughan, Erroll Garner, Lester Young, George Shearing, and Stan Getz.
In 1957, Basie released the live album “Count Basie at Newport.” "April in Paris" was a best-selling instrumental and the title song for the hit album. In 1959, Basie's band recorded a greatest hits double album “The Count Basie Story” and "Basie and Eckstine, Inc.” featuring Billy Eckstine, Quincy Jones (as arranger) and the Count Basie Orchestra. It was released by Roulette Records, and then later reissued by Capital Records.
Later that year, Basie appeared on a television special with Fred Astaire, featuring a dance solo to "Sweet Georgia Brown," followed in January 1960 by Basie performing at one of the five John F. Kennedy Inaugural Balls. That summer, Basie and Duke Ellington combined forces for the recording “First Time! The Count Meets the Duke,” each providing four numbers from their play books.
During the balance of the 1960s, the band kept busy with tours, recordings, television appearances, festivals, Las Vegas shows, and travel abroad, including cruises. Sometime around 1964, Basie adopted his trademark yachting cap. Through steady changes in personnel, Basie led the band into the 1970s. Basie made a few more movie appearances, such as the 1960 Jerry Lewis film “Cinderfella” and the 1974 Mel Brooks movie “Blazing Saddles,” playing his arrangement of "April in Paris."
Basie died of pancreatic cancer in Hollywood, Florida on April 26, 1984 at the age of 79. To date, four recordings of Count Basie have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, a special Grammy award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least 25 years old, and that have "qualitative or historical significance." On May 23, 1985, William "Count" Basie was presented, posthumously, with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Ronald Reagan. The award was received by his son, Aaron Woodward. In 2005, Count Basie's 1937 song "One O'Clock Jump" was included by the National Recording Preservation Board in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry. The board selects songs in an annual basis that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."