Count Basie (1904-1984), American jazz pianist and bandleader, a leading musician of the swing era (1930s and early 1940s). Basie led one of the foremost jazz big bands, which featured a number of outstanding soloists and arrangers and became an enduring musical institution. The Basie band was famous for its rhythm section, composed of guitarist Freddie Green, bass player Walter Page, drummer Jo Jones, and pianist Basie. Together, the foursome produced a light but relentlessly forward-moving rhythmic propulsion, or “swing,” that influenced the sound of jazz and jazz accompaniment. Basie’s rhythm section inspired other rhythm members to play with more flexibility and more responsiveness to the horn players.
Born William Basie in Red Bank, New Jersey, he played drums as a child before taking up piano. In 1924 Basie moved to New York City. There he was influenced by the ragtime-derived style of Harlem jazz pianists James P. Johnson and Fats Waller and began touring on the vaudeville circuit as pianist and accompanist. When a tour collapsed in 1927, stranding him in Kansas City, Missouri, Basie secured work there playing theater organ for silent movies. He soon joined the Blue Devils, a band led by bassist Walter Page. In 1929 Basie joined the Kansas City Orchestra of pianist Bennie Moten, the leading jazz band in the region at that time. After the death of Moten in 1935, Basie formed a new band called Count Basie and His Barons of Rhythm with several members of Moten’s band. In 1936 the band moved to New York City, and a year later began recording as Count Basie and His Orchestra. By 1939 the band was made up of 15 instrumentalists and 2 singers, Helen Humes and Jimmy Rushing. Humes replaced the great jazz singer Billie Holiday in the band.
Basie’s band of the late 1930s was dominated by great soloists: tenor saxophonists Lester Young and Herschel Evans; trumpeters Buck Clayton and Harry “Sweets” Edison; trombonist Dicky Wells; and Basie himself. At first Basie performed in a two-handed ragtime style; but in the mid-1930s, he switched to a relaxed, spare style—imbued with subtlety and wit—that led beautifully into the solos of his instrumentalists.
Musical arrangements of the early Basie band, by guitarist Eddie Durham, trumpeter Buck Clayton, and others, were written in a relatively straightforward manner compared to the more intricate scores of bandleaders Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson. Some of the Basie band pieces, such as “One O’Clock Jump” (1937), are so-called head arrangements—they were made up in rehearsal and memorized, rather than written out. The band often made up riffs—short, repeated phrases—that were usually played as a background for soloists. Another musical hallmark of the Basie style is its reliance on the blues, both blues chord progressions and blue notes, certain flatted notes in a musical scale.
After World War II ended in 1945, changes in the economy and in Americans’ musical tastes sent most of the big bands into commercial decline. Eventually, the changed economic realities of touring with a band affected Basie, and in 1950 he was forced to dissolve his large ensemble. For a time he toured with a small group of six to nine players, but by 1952, he had reassembled his big band. This time, written arrangements were the norm, and the band had a different sound and style than it had in the 1930s and 1940s. His arrangers now included Neil Hefti, Ernie Wilkins, Benny Carter, Thad Jones, and Quincy Jones. Hefti’s “Lil’ Darlin’” (1957) became a jazz classic, demonstrating how well the Basie band could swing at a very slow tempo. Wild Bill Davis’s arrangement of “April in Paris” (1955) became a perennial favorite among audiences, as did “Shiny Stockings” (1956), written by Basie’s tenor saxophonist Frank Foster.
In the 1950s the band featured new soloists, including trumpeters Thad Jones, Joe Newman, and Clark Terry; tenor saxophonists Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Foster, and Frank Wess; and alto saxophonist Marshall Royal. Whereas the earlier band emphasized the sound of the soloists over that of the ensemble, the later band favored the ensemble sound of a well-rehearsed, tightly controlled group. From 1954 to 1961 singer Joe Williams performed with the band. Among his best-known recordings with Basie are “Every Day I Have the Blues” and “In the Evening (When the Sun Goes Down)” (both 1955).
Basie continued to lead his band in the 1970s and 1980s, although he sometimes did so from a wheelchair in his later years. Basie and his orchestra won numerous Grammy Awards. In 1981 Basie won a Grammy Trustees Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS). In 1983 the National Endowment for the Arts named Basie a recipient of an American Jazz Masters award. After his death, the band continued to tour, first under the leadership of Thad Jones, then from 1986 to 1995 under Foster. In 1995 trombonist Grover Mitchell became the leader of the orchestra.