Count Basie

Photo of Count Basie
  • Birth Name

    William Allen Basie
  • Born

    August 21, 1904
    Red Bank, New Jersey
  • Died

    April 26, 1984 (age 79)
    Hollywood, California

One of the more fa­mous band­lead­ers of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, Count Basie is con­sid­ered by some as the em­bod­i­ment of swing. For al­most fifty years he led the most con­sis­tently swing­ing or­ches­tra in the world.

As a youth, Bill Basie started his mu­si­cal ca­reer as a drum­mer in a lo­cal kids’ band in New York City. He later be­gan tak­ing pi­ano lessons and even re­ceived tute­lage from the leg­endary Fats Waller. During his early days, he trav­eled the the­ater cir­cuit, ac­com­pa­ny­ing va­ri­ety acts. In the late 1920s, he played in a va­ri­ety of jazz bands, even­tu­ally join­ing Ben Moten’s Kansas City-based group in the early 1930s. He left Moten in 1934 to lead his own group in Little Rock, Arkansas, re­turn­ing to Kansas City a year later. Basie briefly took over as leader of Moten’s out­fit when Moten died un­ex­pect­edly in 1935.

Basie re­signed from the band af­ter only a few weeks and be­gan to work solo and lead his own trio, even­tu­ally be­com­ing co-leader of a group called the Barons of Rhythm. It was dur­ing a ra­dio broad­cast with the Barons in 1935 that he re­ceived his fa­mous nick­name. The an­nouncer thought Bill Basie” too plain a name and de­cided, since there were well-known band­lead­ers called Earl and Duke, to call him Count” Basie. It was also dur­ing one of those broad­cast that Basie’s group caught the at­ten­tion of wealthy jazz en­thu­si­ast John Hammond, and they were soon booked on a na­tional tour, end­ing up at the Roseland Ballroom.

Upon their first visit to New York, in 1936, Basie’s or­ches­tra was con­sid­ered too harsh, play­ing too loud and too long for the so­phis­ti­cated big city crowd. It was­n’t un­til 1938, af­ter pol­ish­ing their sound, that the group be­gan to take off com­mer­cially. Billie Holiday sang with the early band. Jimmy Rushing served as their first male vo­cal­ist. Helen Humes, Thelma Carpenter and Joe Williams later sang.

During the 1940s, Basie’s out­fit be­came one of the top or­ches­tras in the coun­try. Financial pres­sures, though, forced Basie to dis­band his group in 1950. He toured with a sex­tet un­til form­ing a new or­ches­tra in 1952. During the 1960s and 1970s Basie’s band toured the world and recorded with many of the top singers of that pe­riod, in­clud­ing Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a se­ries of ill­nesses side­lined Basie. His or­ches­tra re­mained ac­tive, how­ever, with arranger Nat Pierce re­plac­ing him at the pi­ano. In 1981 Basie, no longer able to walk, bought a mo­tor­ized cart and would drive onto the stage and up to his pi­ano. Count Basie died in 1984.

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  • I Didn't Know About You
    Count Basie (Thelma Carpenter), Columbia (1944)

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