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Count Basie is another extremely influential jazz musician and big band leader that left a permanent imprint on the genre. Before we say another word about who he is and why he’s important, let’s kick things off with “One O’Clock Jump” and get ourselves in the mood for a little bit of Basie.
Born in the early 1900’s (1904) in Red Bank, New Jersey, with the name of William James Basie, he became the prototypical jazz musician. Basie displayed extraordinary musical skill at a very early age and eventually took his act on the road, touring all around the United States and eventually going overseas. In many ways, he established the formula that many other subsequent jazz artists duplicated on their path to success. Going down in history as the ‘King of Swing,’ Count Basie’s accomplishments and contributions to the field of jazz are now firmly enshrined in legend.
As mentioned above, Count Basie’s musical prowess was obvious from a very early age, with him beginning to acquire gigs and esteem as early as age 16. What makes this feat even more phenomenal was that the likelihood of someone in his position developing this level of skill or success was slim to none. Growing up poor, his parents used what little money they had to spare to purchase piano lessons for him. Fortunately, their investment paid off as his natural skill, aptitude, and ability to replicate songs by ear using perfect pitch allowed him to excel at the piano with minimal formal training.1
Interestingly enough, Basie was not always focused on the piano. The first instrument that his parents invested in for him was actually a set of drums. When asked how his love for the piano manifested, Basie identified his experiences attending the Lyric Theatre as a child as the catalyst for his interest in piano. Rumor also has it that Basie once heard Sonny Greer on drums and immediately made the transition from drums to piano because he felt he was already so inferior in playing ability to Sonny that there would be no way that he could ‘catch up’.2 Regardless of the origin of Count Basie’s piano playing, it appears he made a stellar decision because he was able to leverage his talent to secure several professional gigs when he was just a teenager. Coming from a poor family, Count Basie was dedicated to developing his craft with the intentions of using the proceeds he gained from his musical gigs to elevate his parent’s financial situation. This no doubt provided a helpful incentive for him to continue to develop his abilities.
In the early 30’s, Basie worked primarily as a soloist and traveled with various big bands as a fill-in or guest feature. Following the death of Bennie Moten in 1935, leader of one of the bands that Basie frequently played with at the time, Basie’s career trajectory permanently changed when he succeeded him as band leader. The band, called ‘Barons of Rhythm,’ served as the official starting point for the career of ‘Count Basie’ as he was not referred to as such until he took on this role.3
Rise To Fame
From this point moving forward, Basie’s popularity exploded. This was due, in part, to the radio exposure that his band began to receive after his band had gained recognition for their performance at the ‘Reno Club,’ located in Kansas City. Once on the radio, Basie was able to attract the attention of record producer John Hammond in 1938, whom propelled his career even further from there. Based in Kansas City and known for discovering and promoting ‘undiscovered’ talent, John Hammond felt that Count Basie was exactly what the world was missing in Jazz. After discovering him randomly as he was surfing through radio channels, he reached out directly to Count Basie to urge him to move back to the East Coast of the United States.4
King Of Swing
Many theorize that during this period of time (late 30’s and early 40’s) Basie’s band was one of the most successful African American bands and bands at large in America, placing only second to the legendary Duke Ellington’s big band in the genre of jazz.5
Through a combination of great leadership and prolific playing, the band was able to continue their path of success, playing at many big city hotels and reputable venues all across the nation. In essence, Count Basie’s band was the quintessential swing band of the Swing Era. This title is akin to being known as the peak Rock star in the 80’s when rock was the most popular genre. A band like Led Zeppelin would be a great parallel.
Yet despite the overwhelming success Basie experienced, his rise was far from linear. The death and defection of key band members threatened to derail his campaign entirely during the late 30’s. Basie’s band and recruiting abilities were also stifled by the military draft that was enacted during the early ‘40’s in the United States.
As if all this were not enough adversity to overcome, there was also a musicians’ strike that effectively amounted to a wartime recording ban during that same decade which lasted for approximately three years (1942-1944). The strike was predicated on the idea that musicians were not being justly compensated for their efforts because many record companies refused to pay individual musicians royalties for the distribution of their music through various channels.
As a result of all the aforementioned setbacks, the Big Band era began to dissipate towards the end of the decade and Basie was forced to reassess which direction he wished to take his musical career, if at all. Thus, in the 50’s, Basie decided to try his hand at smaller band arrangements. After a period of moderate success, he reverted back to his former ways and made the decision to enlist a big band again.
Fortunately, he was able to experience many glimpses of his prior success once he made this transition towards the end of the 50’s. The improvement in circumstances culturally and musically during this era in American history in comparison to the previous decade also allowed him to continue uninhibited in a way he couldn’t prior. Nearing the end of his career, Basie continued to develop his big band and his musical vision until he passed in 1984, leaving behind a profound legacy that has undoubtedly stood the test of time.
Although Basie was not a composer in the same way as Duke Ellington, he had plenty of creative control over the band’s direction. Basie was able to attract the bulk amount of his popularity and critical acclaim because of his phenomenal arrangements of already existing jazz songs. For those unfamiliar with this concept, arrangements are basically a different take on a song. This can be done through tempo changes, altering the bridge, chords, or other melodic and musical aspects of the song in some way.
His exceptional ability compose such amazing arrangements one of the critical parts that allowed his legacy to live on for such an extended period of time. Much of the sheet music he created for his various arrangements is still in circulation today and is frequently used more often than the original arrangement of many jazz songs, making it the ‘default’.
His ability to aggregate musically gifted individuals together to serve various roles in his band cannot be overlooked either. Part of what made his arrangements as riveting and beautiful as they were was the prevalence of amazing musicians in his bands at all time. Basie never played with anything but the best and his own extraordinarily talent served as a profound supplement.
When all is said and done, you simply can’t talk about Big Band Jazz without mentioning Count Basie.