The title of one of his band’s most famous songs, “The Kid on the Red Bench,” is an obvious clue, but many jazz historians assume William J. base “account”, jr. He was a native of Kansas City, Missouri. And while it was there that Basie and his band rose to national fame, the origins of great jazz can be traced back to a house located just blocks from the historic theater that now bears his name.
William Basie was born at 229 Mechanic Street on August 21, 1904. His father, Harvey Lee Basie, was a coachman and caretaker; His mother, Lillian Childs Basie, was a laundress, doing the washing and ironing. A brother, James, died when William was a child. The family always had a piano, and Lilly Ann paid twenty-five cents a lesson to teach William how to play.
In addition to helping his parents, William also did chores at Red Bank’s now-defunct Palace Theater. a projectionist taught him how to rewind reels, switch between projectors, and operate the spotlight for vaudeville shows. In the afternoon, the palace house pianist did not show up for work, Basie offered to replace him, but was refused. Persistent, however, the young Basie waited for the movie to start, slipped into the orchestra pit, and went along with the movie anyway. they invited him to perform again that night.
Although Basie’s initial intentions were to become a drummer, his ambitions in that direction were forever erased after hearing Long Branch drummer Sonny Greer. Greer, who later rose to fame as a drummer in the Duke Ellington Orchestra, was so obviously superior to Basie that he hastily retreated to the piano. the men became friends and formed a duo.
Decades later, the two would be among fifty-seven musicians photographed at the entrance to a harlem, brownstone by art kane, in a shot to accompany an esquire magazine article about the “golden age of jazz.” the photograph would later become as famous as the subjects it depicted, as the inspiration for the documentary A Great Day in Harlem.
In 1924, Basie moved to New York City. there he met and was influenced by leading stride pianists james p. johnson and fat waller. Although he was only a teenager, Basie was touring as a pianist and accompanist on the major vaudeville circuits. It is believed that his experience in these roles ultimately led to Basie’s reputation as a band leader who had no problem with younger musicians hogging the spotlight.
In 1927, a canceled tour left Basie stranded in Kansas City, Missouri. He remained there, eventually joining bassist Walter Page’s Blue Devils, an outfit that also included vocalist Jimmy Rushing and trumpeter Oran “Hot Lips” Page. Each would one day figure prominently in Basie’s own band.
basie left the blue devils in early 1929 to play with other bands in the area, and later that year charted his way to the best band in the territory, the bennie moten band.
basie has his own big band
Moten was a pianist himself, but the band influenced Basie so much that he was undeterred about vying for himself as arranger and fill-in pianist.
Like many gang leaders of the day, Moten ran what was called a “commonwealth gang”, in which each gang member had a say in the gang’s operations. During a dispute over an upcoming performance, the band voted to oust Moten as their leader, and although he was not one of the instigators, he installed Basie as their new leader.
the new band billed themselves as count basie and his cherry blossom orchestra, marking the first time “count” had been officially added to their name. Though stories abound about the genesis of his nickname, Basie later recalled it as a tribute to his penchant for sneaking around during arranging sessions with Moten. Basie recalled that as soon as they got a few good bars, he’d run away and Moten would exclaim, “Where’s that ‘scoundrel earl’?”
Although Basie jumped at the opportunity to lead a band, he quickly jumped ship to work with Moten’s new band, where he remained until Moten’s unexpected death in 1935. Soon, Basie and saxophonist Buster Smith put together their own ensemble of nine piece, comprised of former members of the blue devils and the bennie moten band. This new collective, Count Basie and his rhythm barons, secured a residency at the Reno Club in Kansas City, a stay that historians consider the biggest turning point in Basie’s career.
basie meets john hammond & begins his rise to fame
The reno club residence was established as the band’s permanent leader, and because performances were broadcast on the radio, the band received national exposure. One night in Chicago, a young music writer named John Hammons tuned in. Hammond had been instrumental in resurrecting Bessie Smith’s career, and during a subsequent stint at A&R at Columbia Records, he influenced the careers of Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan-even Bruce Springsteen.
hammond immediately wrote to basie, expressing his desire to collaborate and introduce the band to even larger audiences. When Basie finally responded, Hammond immediately went to Kansas City and announced his presence by taking the stage during a Reno Club broadcast and sitting down with Basie between numbers.
hammond and basie shared a lifelong friendship, and hammond later introduced basie during the famous “spirituals to swing” concerts at carnegie hall. Hammond arranged a national booking contract with MCA and a record deal with Decca Records, and in 1937, the bombastic thirteen-piece band known as the Count Basie Orchestra moved to New York City and became one of the major rock bands. bands of the world.
the count basie orchestra
For the next thirteen years, Basie’s orchestra recorded and toured relentlessly, establishing a new base at Harlem’s Apollo Theater and performing there several times a year. The orchestra’s recordings, including “one o’clock jump,” “jumpin’ at the woodside,” “taxi war dance,” and “lester jumps in,” marked the pinnacle of the Kansas City sound.
In 1938, Basie returned to Red Bank, marking his first performance back home. Singer Billie Holliday joined Basie for the show, which took place at the River Street School, located just a mile from the current Count Basie Theatre. As a testament to the social attitudes and mentality of the time, a local newspaper praised Holliday as “the best female singer of her breed.”
In 1950, financial considerations forced Basie to disband the orchestra. but in 1952 he reorganized the band, and the “second” count orchestra was regarded as exciting, vibrant, and even more important than the first. The new ensemble toured internationally, playing at the request of kings, queens, and presidents, and released extensive recordings under the Basie name and as a backing band for various singers, most notably Frank Sinatra.
After more than thirty years in the business, Basie has produced some of his most popular and critically acclaimed work, including “April In Paris,” “Shiny Stockings,” “L’il Darling,” “Pocket Of The corner” and even a hit single, “everyday i have the blues,” featuring singer big joe williams.
In 1961, Basie cemented his iconic status by performing at the inauguration of President John F. kennedy.
A few weeks later, Basie returned to Red Bank to perform at the Carlton de Reade Theatre, the 1927 vaudeville theater that bears her name today. The Asbury Park Press hailed, “Seventeen Hundred Cheer Basie Homecoming,” and the legend himself was presented with a plaque celebrating “Count Basie Week” and acknowledging him as one of the “distinguished citizens of all time.” by red bank.
returned to the carlton in 1974, then known as the monmouth arts center. The show, a tribute to the Earl’s 70th birthday, included the presentation of an honorary degree from what was then known as Monmouth College. the asbury park press review of the performance noted that the core orchestra “retained its crisp, clipped, homogenized phrasing.”
in 1979, basie returned to the monmouth street theater, to benefit the a.m.e. zion church on shrewsbury avenue. “Well, we’re back home,” she told the crowd. Later, when a reporter asked Basie if she was worried about getting old, he replied: “I’m not worried about getting tired. I only worry about getting a job.” there were no problems: she had just finished and an album with the great ella fitzgerald, and a tour of italy, germany and france was in the books.
In 1983, Basie made his last performance at the Carlton Theatre/Monmouth Arts Center, just nine days after the death of his second wife, Catherine, to whom he had been married for 43 years.
Just 53 weeks later, Basie succumbed to cancer at the age of 79 and was buried in Pine Lawn Cemetery in Farmingdale, Long Island, New York. In November 1984, the Monmouth Center for the Arts was renamed to honor Basie, and he was later fully recognized as Red Bank’s most famous son.
a legacy of great jazz
during a career spanning more than sixty years, william “count” basie helped establish jazz as a serious art form that was played not only in clubs, but also in theaters and concert halls. he established swing as one of the predominant styles of jazz and solidified the link between jazz and blues. Compared to the more complex, quasi-symphonic compositions and arrangements of some of the leading conductors and composers of their day, notably Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson, basic band arrangements tended to be simple “head” arrangements. ”, based on a simple riff or melody (the “head”) invented and memorized by the band in rehearsal, and then performed as background for the soloists.
Basie won nine Grammy Awards, including two trophies at the first Grammy Awards in 1959.
The story of Basie’s life and career, and the story of his music and orchestra, are of course not a linear story that can be told succinctly in a few pages. musicians, singers, composers, and arrangers came and went over many years and many ensembles, gathering and regrouping like a club audience. some stayed for just one night. some stayed for years. some came and went and came back again. Many went on to 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 at a unique time in American jazz and music history. It was filled with outstanding musicians, composers, and arrangers, but it was built and sustained by a man who, as a musician, composer, arranger, and bandleader, always seemed to know the right note to play at the right time. neither more nor less.
for more information
For more information on the life and career of William “Count” Basie, visit www.countbasie.com. Also available are Good Morning Blues, Basie’s autobiography as told to Albert Murray, and The World of Count Basie, a collection of interviews with various Basie musicians by Stanley Dance.