VIII: Arts

William "Count" Basie

            One of the great swing pianists and bandleaders, Count Basie represents a high point of the "Kansas City style" that so influenced jazz beginning in the 1930s.  Born in Red Bank, New Jersey, in 1904, Basie played the drums and took piano lessons as a boy.  A quick learner, he was soon working as a pianist in local venues and absorbing all he could from local musicians as well as those passing through on their way to or from New York.  In 1924 he made the leap to Harlem, where he befriended leading jazz players, including the pianists Fats Waller and Willie "the Lion" Smith.  He also landed the pianist's spot in a performing troupe which toured widely, giving him his first taste of Kansas City.  As he recalled many years later, "it was one of the most fantastic sights I've ever seen in my life . . . . There we were, way out there in the middle of nowhere, . . . and wham, we were coming into a scene where the action was greater than anything I'd ever heard of." [Basie, pp. 64-65]

            In 1927, Basie settled in Kansas City when a tour broke up there.  At this time he discovered the great Southwestern bands that would change his life: the Blue Devils, with their pervasive bluesiness and collaborative improvisational intensity, and Bennie Moten's Kansas City Orchestra, the most stylish African-American big band in the region.  Basie played with both groups in short order, and ended up staying with Moten for several years.  Then in 1935, drawing on personnel from both bands, Basie landed an ongoing gig with his own group at Kansas City's Reno Club, complete with radio broadcast.  This led to national exposure and a tour to New York, where the band settled after 1936, becoming one of the most idolized bands of the swing era.  The Basie Orchestra was distinctive in its hard-swinging Kansas-City style and in the brilliance of so many of its players, including tenor saxophonist Lester Young, drummer Jo Jones, and singer Jimmy Rushing.  Basie's playing was an essential component of their sound, too, with rock-solid comping and an instantly recognizable, witty sparseness that flew in the face of the excesses of stride piano style.
            The personnel of the band evolved, and the swing landscape was changing too, especially after World War 2, when many factors combined to spell the end of the big band era.  Basie's orchestra disbanded twice (1948, 1950) and then re-formed in 1952, finding success in extensive touring and recording, and creating a permanent niche for its own brand of big-band swing, marked by the contributions of gifted arrangers, including Neal Hefti and Quincy Jones, and occasionally fronted by superb singers, including Joe Williams and Frank Sinatra.  Until his death in 1984, Basie was an elder statesman of jazz, beloved around the world, and to this day his band continues to thrive under the leadership of others.
Graeme Boone
The Ohio State University
Count Basie, with Albert Murray, Good Morning Blues (1985)