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.