Abbreviations: tp, trumpet; cnt, cornet; tb, trombone; tub, tuba; ts, tenor saxophone; as, alto saxophone; bs, baritone saxophone; ss, soprano saxophone; cl, clarinet; fl, flute; p, piano; g, guitar; el-g, electric guitar; b, bass; d, drums; voc, vocalist; vib, vibraharp; arr, arranger; comp, composer
Count Basie, 1904-1984
William James Basie was born August 21, 1904 in Red Bank, New Jersey to Lilly Ann and Harvey Lee Basie. Basie started out playing drums, and learned the basics of piano from his mother as a young man. He ventured to New York where he polished his skills studying informally with such Harlem stride piano masters as James P. Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith, and Fats Waller on organ. He toured widely as a solo pianist, accompanying and serving as musical director for blues singers, dancers, comedians, and playing in silent-movie theaters. A bout of spinal meningitis laid him up in a hospital in Kansas City in 1927, where he remained to become an integral part of the emerging jazz scene. By the late 1920s, Basie was hooking up with groups—Walter Page and His Blue Devils in 1928-1929 and Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra between 1929 and 1935—which ultimately determined the course of his career. Basie made his first important records as a pianist and arranger with Moten in 1929.
Basie formed his first band in 1933, featuring Hot Lips Page (t), Herschel Evans (ts), Lester Young (ts), Buster Smith (as), Walter Page (b) and Jo Jones (d), before rejoining Moten’s orchestra two years later. Moten’s sudden death in 1935 prompted him to form a nine-piece ensemble. The Basie band, in keeping with other bands of the Kansas City/Southwest tradition, had a style that differentiated it from big bands on the East Coast, which had traditionally relied on more formal arrangements. The cornerstone of that sound came from the rhythm section consisting of Basie, drummer Jo Jones, bassist Walter Page, rhythm guitarist Freddie Green. (Green was the longest serving Basieite, staying with the band some 50 years until his death at age 75 in 1987.) The Southwestern sound was defined by a more flexible, riff-based, and so-called “head” arrangements, which counterposed the brass and reeds as a runway for Basie’s high-flying soloists. Basie’s skeletal interpretation of the Harlem stride school, which led many to underestimate his keyboard skills, allowed him to anchor the band while remaining a part of the rhythm section.
The band was also notable for the inclusion of two battling tenor saxophones, especially when they were of the ilk of Herschel Evans and Lester Young. Another vital factor was arranger Eddie Durham (el-g, tb, arr), who, in the words of Basie chronicler Chris Sheridan, had “[a] lightness of touch in creating frameworks that closely echoed Kansas City improvisations which was unparalleled.” [i] Between 1937 and 1938, Durham wrote Basie’s book with a fluid 4/4 time. This had the effect, according to jazz critic Jim Gerard, of making it so that a “16-piece orchestra could achieve the informality of a small group jam session, and that, even amid the most furious of tempi, time could stretch and contract, elasticize-and even seem, for a moment simultaneously evanescent and eternal, to halt.”[ii]
Count Basie and the Barons of Rhythm, as the band was known in 1936, received their big break when talent scout and record producer John Hammond heard one of the band’s regular radio broadcasts from the Reno Club on an obscure but high-power radio station. He went to hear the band in person and secured a date at the Roseland Ballroom. However, Jack Kapp of Decca Records moved aggressively to sign up the band right out from under Hammond’s nose. Hammond would later record the band from his perch at Columbia. Basie and company’s arrival in at the Famous Door in New York in 1938 was nothing short of a major happening shrewdly plotted by Hammond and Basie’s manager Willard Alexander. (They went so far as to pay for air-conditioning at the club, which heretofore had only booked small groups. It had the desired effect.) As jazz historian and Kansas City jazz authority Frank Driggs once put it, “After that summer at the Famous Door, Basie never looked back.” Its international reputation spread following several of its most popular recordings from the late 1930s. Between 1936 and 1938, Basie enlarged the band to include Buck Clayton (tp), singers Jimmy Rushing and Billie Holiday, Earle Warren (ts), Eddie Durham, Bennie Morton (tb), Harry “Sweets” Edison (tp), Helen Humes (replacing Holiday) and Dicky Wells (tb).
By introducing arrangements in the 1940s, Basie began to lean away from the corps of natural and unfettered musicians who catapulted him to fame. This brought the personalities of arrangers, in addition to the musicians, to influence the sound and repertoire. Basie fell prey to the many downturns that afflicted other big bands. The first blow came in 1941 with the departure of his brilliant soloist Lester Young (ts), who said later that many of his fellow musicians were sluggish readers, which created the need for rehearsals, which bored him, in addition to changes in the band’s style of which Young disapproved.
The vaunted Basie rhythm machine lost two of its key members: Walter Page left in 1942; the draft took Jo Jones in 1944, who returned for two years in 1946. This trend was followed by stylistic changes in jazz—significantly, the rise of bebop played in small groups—as well as a challenging post-war economy which caused many orchestras to disband. The ups-and-downs of the 1940s also included the American Federation of Musicians-ordered recording bans between 1942 and 1944 and another in 1948 which resulted in fewer recordings by Basie compared to the 1930s and the high volume that characterized the 1950s until his death in 1984.
[i] Chris Sheridan, editor, Count Basie: A Bio-Discography, Greenwood Press: New York, 1986: xxv.
[ii] Jim Gerard, “Eddie Durham: Genius in the Shadows,” All About Jazz, November 12, 2012, https://www.allaboutjazz.com/eddie-durham-genius-in-the-shadows-eddie-durham-by-jim-gerard.php
Basie responded by trimming back to a small group, once in 1948 and a longer period between 1950 and 1951 populated by progressive musicians, a trend that continued when Basie re-formed the “New Testament Band” in 1952. Among those featured were Buddy DeFranco (cl), Charlie Rouse (ts), Serge Chaloff (bs), Wardell Gray (ts), Clark Terry (tp), Gus Johnson (d), Buddy Rich (d), Jimmy Lewis (b) and Freddie Green (g).
It was also from this time that the Basie band became prime training grounds for the next generation of musicians, which firmly established his role among the jazz elders in the process. Among the new personnel were Joe Newman (tp), Paul Quinichette (ts), Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis (ts), Marshall Royal (ts) (who was also deputy music director), and Gus Johnson (d). In 1955, Basie added Thad Jones (tp, arr), Joe Wilder (tp), Benny Powell (ts), Henry Coker (tb), Frank Foster (ts ss, fl, arr, comp) and Frank Wess (ts, fl). Much debate has poured forth about whether the new version of the band was a break from its past or simply an evolution that maintained Basie’s basic musical principles. Chris Sheridan supports the latter view when he wrote that as members from the “Old Testament Band” left, they were replaced by “men of lesser inventive skill, [and] the need for written frameworks became ever more paramount, yet Basie always held true to an early principle: Keep It Simple. And so it was that, in the “New Testament Band,” arrangements became sharply etched sculptures in dynamics, precisely executed in a way that distilled earlier Basie band’s developments in riff, antiphony, and linear melody. . . . In a sense, it was always there, witnessed by the shifting repertoire that was designed always to appeal to the heart and foot before the head.”
In 1952, Basie signed with Norman Granz’s Clef Records label to introduce the resurrection of the band. The band was also riding high at the nightclub Birdland in New York in the 1950s. In singer Joe Williams, who joined the band in 1954, Basie again had a vocalist as powerful and popular as Jimmy Rushing. Hits such as “Every Day (I Have the Blues)”—the biggest hit Basie ever had—and “Alright, O.K., You Win” with Williams and the instrumental “April in Paris,” put Basie back on top. (Even Williams’ departure from the band in 1960 was not enough to dent its popularity. There would be many reunions over the years with the singer Basie called “No. 1 Son.”)
Granz had wanted to shine a light on Basie's piano playing in small groups, a suggestion Basie all but ignored. That opportunity would have to wait for Granz's Pablo label 20 years later. Basie signed with Roulette Records between 1957 and 1962 when producer Teddy Reig showed the band in its best light. Basie made his first tour of Europe in 1954 and Japan in 1963. The 1960s are distinguished as well by non-stop touring, television appearances and recordings with the orchestra and those in collaboration with Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. The decade is memorable as well for a host of new arrangers, among them Benny Carter, Chico O’Farrill, Quincy Jones, Bill Holman and Eric Dixon.
Beginning in 1972 and continuing through 1984, he returned to the fold of Norman Granz with his new label, Pablo Records. He was especially appreciative of Basie’s flexibility to participate in small group jam sessions. Among those he worked with in the Pablo years were Oscar Peterson (p), Ella Fitzgerald (with whom he frequently toured), Dizzy Gillespie (t), Benny Carter (as, arr, comp), J.J. Johnson (tb), Zoot Sims (ts), Clark Terry (tp), Roy Eldridge (tp), Harry Edison (tp), Milt Jackson (vib), Joe Pass (g), Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis (ts), Ray Brown (b), Niels-Henning Orsted Pederson (b), Louie Bellson (d), and blues singers Joe Turner, and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Nat Hentoff said, “Granz would never try to make him record music he didn’t want to. And he would let Basie record just about anything he did want to because he loved his music so. . . . Basie was not a big seller, but Granz knew that there would be listeners in future generations to come who will never have enough of Basie.”[i]
Basie persevered thorough bouts of declining health with his usual pluck. He took several months off following a heart attack in 1976, but was back on the road at the beginning of 1977. As severe arthritis closed in in the early 1980s, he came on stage in a motorized wheelchair, often circling the stage greeting his fans. Catherine Basie, his wife of 43 years, died of a heart attack in 1983 at their home in the Bahamas. He took only one week off before returning to touring. Basie died on April 26, 1984 of pancreatic cancer at a Hollywood, Florida hospital at age 79.
His autobiography, Good Morning Blues, written in collaboration with Albert Murray, was published posthumously in 1985.
The band has never stopped spreading the spirit of the Kid from Red Bank across the world for those still hanging out at the House of Basie. Thad Jones returned from a long stay in Denmark to lead the orchestra, followed by a succession of Basie stalwarts: Frank Foster, Grover Mitchell, Bill Hughes, Dennis Mackrel, and Scotty Barnhart.
On June 13, 2018, the Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University Libraries, located on the campus of Rutgers University-Newark, announced the acquisition of the Count Basie Collection.
[i] Nat Hentoff, “The Perfect Jazz Record,” Wall Street Journal, March 4, 1985: 24.
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