A Count Basie Biography 
By Jazz Downbeat

               Pianist and bandleader William "Count" Basie inherited
                 leadership of the Bennie Moten band in Kansas City when
                 Moten died in 1935 and turned it into the great streamlined
                 zephyr of the swing era. It was a big band that played with
                 the flexibility and drive of a small group. It also included a
                 core of some of the most distinctive soloists in jazz history.
                 But above all, the first Basie band brought a new modernity
                 and mobility to jazz rhythm that led straight to bebop. In the
                 1950s he re-formed along new lines shaped by a group of
                 arrangers that gave a permanence to what was once
                 ephemeral. 

                 Basie was born Aug. 21, 1904 in Red Bank, N.J., and began
                 his career playing solid stride piano in the manner of James
                 P. Johnson on the black theater and vaudeville circuit. In
                 1927 he found himself in Kansas City without money to
                 return east. He jobbed around town and joined bassist
                 Walter Page's Blue Devils within a year. In 1929 Moten
                 absorbed most of the Blue Devils and went on working the
                 southwest territory, until his death in a car accident. Though
                 Basie didn't take over direct leadership immediately, he
                 used many of its players to put together a nine-man group
                 built around a rhythm section of himself, Page and a superb
                 young drummer named Jo Jones, whose magic touch on
                 the hi-hat cymbal gave the entire band instant identity.
                 Lester Young joined shortly after on tenor saxophone, and
                 his sound was even more unique. 

                 Basie settled into the Reno club in 1936 and began frequent
                 late-night broadcasts, many of which were heard in Chicago
                 by producer and jazz journalist John Hammond. Hammond
                 went to Kansas City, began writing about the Basie band in
                 Down Beat and arranged for it to be represented by the
                 powerful MCA agency. He would have liked to record the
                 band as well, but his rave columns about Basie drew the
                 interest of Decca Records, which promptly signed him to a
                 two-year contract. 

                 Hammond did manage to sneak in one Basie session when
                 the band reached Chicago. "Lady Be Good" and "Shoe
                 Shine Boy" were made with a contingent of the band that
                 included Lester Young, and have remained jazz classics
                 ever since. 

                 The early recordings by the band are divided between
                 Decca (1937-'39), which had the original "One O'Clock
                 Jump" and "Jumpin' At The Woodside," and Columbia
                 (1939-'46), which included most of the Lester Young
                 masterpieces such as "Taxi War Dance," "Miss Thing,"
                 "Lester Leaps In," "Dickie's Dream" and "Tickle Toe."
                 Together, the Decca and Columbias constitute one of the
                 great treasures in jazz history. Basie moved to Victor after
                 the war, but he had lost many of the principal solo voices
                 that had given the band its edge. Finally in 1950 Basie
                 disbanded and took up with an excellent but short-lived
                 small band, bringing to a close the life of the first Count
                 Basie band. 

                 Out of the proverbial ashes, there rose the second Basie
                 band in 1952. This time Basie would not stake the fate of his
                 music on individual soloists, whose sovereignty he could not
                 dictate. Instead he would institutionalize his music through
                 the work of a group of hand-picked arrangers, who could
                 capture the essence of the Basie sound and make it
                 permanent in a book of written charts, none of which would
                 depend on the single voice of an irreplaceable soloist. True
                 the essential Basie style, writers such as Neal Hefti, Benny
                 Carter, Quincy Jones, Frank Foster and Thad Jones built
                 from the rhythm section and fanned out from there in many
                 directions, some punchy and assertive, others soft and
                 crafty. Sammy Nestico became the keeper of the house
                 sound through the '70s and '80s. 

                 The result has been a slowly evolving continuum from 1952
                 on, that is always a little different, yet always fundamentally
                 the same. The band first recorded for Norman Granz on
                 Clef, then moved to Roulette, where it spent its peak years
                 of the late '50s and early '60s. When Granz returned to
                 recording activity in 1972 with Pablo Records, it would also
                 mean a final renaissance for Basie, whom Granz recorded
                 magnificently in trio, small band formats as well as with the
                 band. A series of pairings with Oscar Peterson produced
                 some unusually invigorating Basie piano. Basie died April
                 24, 1984, of cancer, but the band continues playing on
                 today. 

   In 1958, Basie was elected by the 
Readers into the Down Beat Hall of Fame. 
              

 


 
 
 
 

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