Count Basie :: Biography

William Basie was born to Harvey Lee Basie and Lilly Ann Childs Basie in their house on Mechanic Street in Red Bank, New Jersey on August 21, 1904.

Harvey Lee Basie was a coachman and caretaker, and Lilly Ann Childs Basie was a laundress, taking in washing and ironing. A brother, James, died when William was a young boy. The family always owned a piano, and his mother paid twenty-five cents a lesson to Miss Vandevere for William to study with her. In addition to assisting both parents with their work, Willie would also do chores at the Palace Theater in Red Bank so that he could get in for free. George Ruth, the projectionist taught him to rewind the movie reels, change back and forth between projectors, and operate the spotlight for the vaudeville shows. One day the Palace's house piano player was unable to travel in from New York for the day as he usually did. After the manager declined his offer to fill in, Basie waited until the picture had started, then snuck into the pit and accompanied the film anyway. He was invited back to play the evening show. When the Lyric Theatre in Red Bank was later opened as well, Basie would go there just to hear the organ played by Henry La Ross, a local music appreciation teacher. Basie would later trace his life-long interest in the organ to listening to that particular instrument, which he never did get to play.

William Basie did not start out to be a piano player. In fact, his first love was the drums, and his father even purchased a trap kit for him. However, his ambitions in that direction were forever erased after hearing Sonny Greer, another young drummer from nearby Long Branch. Greer, who would later go on to fame as the drummer for the Duke Ellington Orchestra, was already so obviously superior that Basie beat a hasty retreat to the piano. As a piano and drums duo, the two won first place in an Asbury Park piano competition. Decades later, on an August morning in 1958, the two would be among fifty-seven musicians photographed on the stoop of a Harlem, New York brownstone by Art Kane to accompany an Esquire magazine article on the "Golden Age of Jazz." The result of Kane's first professional shoot, the photograph itself would later become as famous as the subjects it depicted, and the subject of a documentary film, "A Great Day in Harlem."

Basie quit school after his junior year in high school, a decision he would later call the worst mistake he ever made, and moved to Asbury Park with his friend and sax player Elmer Williams. Both had been gigging steadily in the area, and their plan was to seek permanent work as musicians. They soon returned to Red Bank after discovering that autumn was a bad time of year for entertainers to find work in a resort town. However, they returned successfully to Asbury the next summer, before moving to New York City in 1924. In New York Basie met and was influenced by the great stride pianists James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, and before he was even twenty years old he was touring as a pianist and accompanist on the Columbia Wheel and TOBA vaudeville circuits. This experience as a supporting musician would later prove invaluable to his career as a band leader, because in the history of jazz, there have been few band leaders as savvy and generous as Basie about getting out of the way of his fellow musicians, and allowing them to take the spotlight, even when they worked for him.

In 1927 Basie was stranded in Kansas City when a tour went bust. He remained there playing organ for silent films at the Eblon Theater, before joining bassist Walter Page's Blue Devils, an outfit that also included vocalist Jimmy Rushing and trumpeter Oran "Hot Lips" Page. Each would later figure prominently in Basie's own band, and thus another hallmark of Basie's career was established, the ability to strike up professional and personal relationships that would last for decades over many bands and many solo careers. Basie left the Blue Devils early in 1929 to play with other bands in the area, and later that year he schemed his way into the top band in the territory, the Bennie Moten band. Moten's orchestra already had a piano player in Moten himself, but the band was so superior to all the others that Basie was undeterred in wrangling a position for himself as staff arranger and substitute piano player. Many of the other key members of the Blue Devils followed Basie to the Moten band as well.

Like many bands of the day, the Moten band was run as a "commonwealth band," with each member of the band having a say in the band's operations if he wanted it. During an internal dispute about an engagement at the Cherry Blossom club, which had formerly been the Eblon Theatre where Basie secured his first Kansas City gig, the band voted to oust Moten as its leader, and even though he was not one of the instigators, to install Basie as its new leader. The new band was billed as Count Basie and his Cherry Blossom Orchestra, marking the first time that its leader was billed as Count Basie. Although many stories circulate about the genesis of his nickname, Basie recalled it as a tribute to his penchant for slipping off to have some fun during arranging sessions for the Moten band with Eddie Durham. As soon as they got a few good bars down Basie would slip out, and Moten would come looking for him saying, "Where is that no 'count rascal?"

Despite a great love and respect for Bennie Moten, Basie recognized and accepted the opportunity to try his hand at leading his own band, but after a few months he jumped at the opportunity to work with Moten's new band, where he stayed until 1935, when Moten died unexpectedly having his tonsils taken out. After Moten's death Basie and saxophonist Buster Smith pieced together their own nine-piece outfit made up of former members of the Blue Devils and the Moten band. Dubbed Count Basie and His Barons of Rhythm, the band played a long engagement at the Reno Club in Kansas City, which turned out to be a critical turning point in Basie's career. The Reno Club performances not only established Basie as a permanent band leader, but because they were broadcast over the radio, the band was exposed to new audiences far outside the territory.

In Chicago, the broadcast was heard one night by a young music writer named John Hammond, who had slipped out to the parking lot during intermission at a club to fiddle with the shortwave radio set in his car. Hammond had already been instrumental in resurrecting the career of Bessie Smith, and during a later career as an A&R man at Columbia Records, he would be influential in the careers of artists as diverse as Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, and another Jersey Shore native, Bruce Springsteen. But at the time, Hammond's interest in the Basie band was only in getting the band heard by a wider audience. He began writing about the band, inviting Basie in print to contact him, and repeatedly wondering why the Count hadn't done so yet. When Basie finally did write to him, Hammond immediately sent back word that he was coming to Kansas City, and he announced his presence one Sunday night by walking right onto the bandstand and sitting down on the piano bench next to Basie in between numbers during a broadcast. Hammond and Basie would share a life long friendship, and Hammond would later feature Basie during the famous "Spirituals to Swing" concerts that he organized at Carnegie Hall. Hammond arranged for a national booking deal with MCA and a record deal with Decca Records, and by 1937 an enlarged thirteen piece band known as the Count Basie Orchestra had moved to New York City and become one of the leading big bands.

Over the next thirteen years the band toured and recorded relentlessly. They established a new home base at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, playing there regularly several times a year. Their recordings, including "One O'clock Jump," "Jumpin' At the Woodside," "Taxi War Dance," and "Lester Leaps In," marked the peak of the Kansas City sound. In 1950, financial considerations forced Basie to disband the orchestra, and for the next two years he led small groups of between six and nine pieces, until in 1952 he reorganized the band again. The "second" Count Basie Orchestra was just as exciting and vibrant as the first, and perhaps even more important. This band toured even more aggressively than the first, but now internationally to several continents as well. They played command performances for kings, queens and presidents, and issued a large number of recordings both under Basie's name and as the backing band for various singers, most notably Frank Sinatra. After more than thirty years in the business, at an age when most musicians, if they have even lasted that long are coasting on their elder statesman status, Basie made some of his best and best-known work. "April in Paris," "Shiny Stockings," "L'il Darling," "Corner Pocket," and even a hit single, "Everyday I Have the Blues," with Big Joe Williams singing are just some of the monumental works produced by the band during this period. For most of his career Basie chose to blend in with his own band, but with a good push from producer Norman Granz, in the last decade or so of his career he made a series of stellar small group recordings with featured guests including the pianist Oscar Peterson, the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, the tenor sax player Zoot Sims, and the singers Joe Turner and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson. When the sixteen piece big band was stripped down to just a rhythm section and a guest or two, it was impossible not to recognize the full dimensions of Basie's own abilities as a soloist. In 1976 Basie suffered a heart attack, and although he recovered, he performed only when his health permitted, sometimes in a wheelchair. He died of cancer on April 26, 1984, and is buried in Pine Lawn Cemetery in Farmingdale, Long Island, New York.

Over a sixty-plus year career, William "Count" Basie helped to establish jazz as a serious art form played not just in clubs but in theatres and concert halls. He established swing as one of jazz's predominant styles, and solidified the link between jazz and the blues. Compared to the more complex, almost symphonic compositions and arrangements of some of the other leading bandleaders and composers of his time, most notably Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson, the Basie band's arrangements were usually straightforward "head arrangements," based on a simple riff or melody (the "head") made up and memorized by the band in rehearsal, and later played in performance as the background for soloists. The "first" Basie band was without peer in this regard, and many of their tunes began life as head arrangements. "One O'clock Jump," for instance, was made up on the spot at the end of a radio broadcast. With ten minutes to spare in the broadcast, the announcer asked Basie what the next tune would be. The band had already played everything in its book for the evening, so Basie, noticing that it was almost one o'clock in the morning, said, "Call it 'One O'clock Jump,'" and launched into the stride influenced opening of the tune with the rhythm section. The band followed the rhythm section and the cues of each other, deploying and building upon riffs developed in their rehearsals, spontaneously creating a tune that would become one of the band's standards, and a jazz classic.

In the later years of his career and with the "second" Count Basie Orchestra, which relied more upon actual arrangements, Basie continued to use a simplicity of style as the basis for incorporating the more complex ideas of new composers and arrangers such as Neal Hefti, Quincy Jones, Wild Bill Davis, Sammy Nestico, and band members Frank Foster and Thad Jones. He would even edit their written scores, stripping down their work to what he recognized as the essential elements that would make a good work great. In the early days of his career, Basie performed in a hard, two-hand stride style suited more to solo work and accompanying silent films, but by the mid 1930's his playing had evolved into a more relaxed, spare style that made for an exciting interchange with the radiant soloists he chose to be members of his band. In a phrase, "less is more" perfectly describes Basie's style. He used simple, melodic phrases that were never overstated. His playing was deeply rooted in the 4/4 rhythms and chord progressions of the blues, making frequent use of "blue notes," flatted notes in a musical scale, even when not playing a straight blues.

All of this was possible because in addition to the musical skills of its leader, the Count Basie Orchestra was equally famed for the strength of its individual members. All luminous musicians and soloists in their own right, as members of the Count Basie Orchestra they played as a tight ensemble. Whether the tempo was fast or slow, whether they were punching an accent or quietly underscoring a soloist, the Basie band was loose, but played with authority as an ensemble. The influence of Basie's brilliance as a band leader cannot be underestimated in this regard. He had a knack for picking just the right musicians for the job that needed to be done at any given time. He filled holes in the band's sound by choosing players whose tone or style complemented that of the existing band members, and on occasion he even chose band members to set up internal competition. In the first Basie band, Lester Young and Herschel Evans would battle it out night after night, driving each other to new heights in their attempts to outdo each other, as would Frank Wess and Frank Foster in the second band.

Yet the soloists needed a foundation, and they had the best in the Basie band's rhythm section. For years the section featured Basie on piano, Freddie Green on guitar, Walter Page on bass, and Jo Jones on drums, but even after some of these members moved on, the Basie band's rhythm section swung with more flexibility, and was more responsive to the rest of the band than the rhythm section of any other band. Influenced by Basie's early work as an accompanist on the vaudeville circuit, the Basie rhythm section drove the rest of the band forward without ever overwhelming them.

The band's roster over its forty plus years under its leader does not just read like a who's who of jazz, it is a who's who of jazz: the trumpet players Harry "Sweets" Edison, Thad Jones, Buck Clayton, Clark Terry, and Joe Newman; the trombone players Bennie Powell, Dickie Wells and Grover Mitchell; the sax players Don Byas, Paul Gonsalves, Illinois Jacquet, Charlie Rouse, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Frank Foster, Frank Wess, Herschel Evans, Earl Warren and Lester Young; the drummers Jo Jones and Sonny Payne; the guitarist Freddie Green; and of course the band's outstanding vocalists, including Jimmy Rushing, Billie Holiday, Helen Humes and Joe Williams are just some of the Count Basie Orchestra's alumni.

Basie was self-effacing to a fault, always ready to share the spotlight, always willing to acknowledge the genius of others. Yet he was ambitious, always willing to take a chance and see what happened, and always willing to persevere when things didn't turn out exactly as planned. As a young man he left his hometown to see if he could make a name for himself in the world, and even though he moved to a resort town just when everyone had left for the winter, he successfully returned the next year and never looked back. Despite being conflicted about the Moten band's mutiny, he recognized and accepted the opportunity that it presented him with to try his hand as a band leader. Even though his first marriage was disappointing and short, he dogged his second wife, the dancer Catherine Morgan for years until she would go out with him. In fact, the first two times that he saw her, they didn't even speak. The second time that they "didn't meet," she had him thrown out of the doorway of her dressing room. However, the third time that they met and finally spoke, Basie cockily announced that one day he was going to make her his wife. Despite the fact that their courtship dragged on for a decade, interrupted again and again by the demands of two entertainment careers, they were married by a justice of the peace in Seattle on Basie's birthday, August 21, 1942. They spent over thirty years together, had a daughter, Diane, and lived in New York, first in Manhattan and later in St. Albans, Queens, and finally in Freeport, Bahamas.

The story of Basie's life and career, and the history of his music and orchestra are of course not a linear tale that can be told succinctly in just a few pages. Musicians, singers, composers and arrangers came and went over many years and over many ensembles, grouping and regrouping like the audience in a club. Some dropped by for just a night. Some stayed for years. Some came and went and came again. Many had important and influential careers in their own right, and perhaps more than anything else that is the legacy of William "Count" Basie. His orchestra was a unique band during a unique time in the history of jazz and American music. It was full of outstanding musicians, composers and arrangers, but it was built and sustained by a man who as a musician, composer, arranger and band leader always seemed to know just the right note to strike at just the right time. No more, and no less.

For More Information

For more information about the life and career of William "Count" Basie, two good places to start reading are "Good Morning Blues," Basie's autobiography as told to Albert Murray (Random House), and "The World of Count Basie," a collection of interviews with various Basie musicians by Stanley Dance (C. Scribner's Sons). An interactive version of Art Kane's "Great Day in Harlem" photograph can be found at, which allows the user to click on each musician pictured for a brief bio and links to more detailed sites., the web site of Down Beat Magazine, is an excellent starting point for any investigation of jazz past or present. After a six-plus decade career, Count Basie's recording catalog is overwhelming. Since his death, there have been countless reissues, packages, and collections. Some are better than others, and beware the generic "Best Of" title. However, a few good places to start listening are "The Best of Count Basie" (MCA 2-4050), "April in Paris" (Verve 2641), "The Atomic Basie" (Roulette 59025), "Sixteen Men Swinging" (Verve 2517), and if you can find it, "The ABC Collection" (ABC 30004) originally released as "Standing Ovation" (DLP 25938).


You'll find Count Basie's extensive Discography here.