Count Basie is one of jazz music’s all-time greats. As a jazz pianist, organist, bandleader, and composer, Count Basie was a primary shaper of the big-band sound that characterized mid-20th century popular music. Basie earned nine Grammy Awards over the course of his career, and made history when he won his first, in 1958, as the first African-American man to receive a Grammy.
The jazz legend known as Count Basie was born William James Basie (with some sources listing his middle name as “Allen”) on August 21, 1904, in Red Bank, New Jersey. His father, Harvey Lee Basie, was a coachman and caretaker, and his mother, 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 Lilly Ann paid twenty-five cents per lesson to a Miss Vandevere to teach William to play.
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 free. The projectionist George Ruth 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 make it in to work. Basie offered to fill in, but the manager declined. Basie waited until the picture started, then crept into the orchestra pit and accompanied the film anyway. He was invited back to play the evening show.
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 following summer.
In 1924, Basie moved to New York City. In New York Basie met and was influenced by 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.
Basie played the vaudevillian circuit for a time until he got stuck in Kansas in 1927 after his performance group disbanded. He went on to join Walter Page’s Blue Devils in 1928, which he would see as a pivotal moment in his career, being introduced to the big-band sound for the first time.
He later worked for a few years with a band led by Bennie Motten, who died in 1935. Basie then formed the Barons of Rhythm with some of his bandmates from Motten’s group, including saxophonist Lester Young. With vocals by Jimmy Rushing, the band set up shop to perform at Kansas City’s Reno Club.
During a radio broadcast of the band’s performance, the announcer wanted to give Basie’s name some pizazz, keeping in mind the existence of other bandleaders like Duke Ellington and Earl Hines. So he called the pianist “Count,” with Basie not realizing just how much the name would catch on as a form of recognition and respect in the music world.
The Count Basie Orchestra had a slew of hits that helped to define the big-band sound of the 1930s and ’40s. Some of their notable songs included “One O’Clock Jump”—the orchestra’s signature tune which Basie composed himself—and “Jumpin’ at the Woodside.”
Due to changing fortunes and an altered musical landscape, Basie was forced to scale down the size of his orchestra at the start of the 1950s, but he soon made a comeback and returned to his big-band structure in 1952, recording new hits with vocalist Joe Williams and becoming an international figure. Another milestone came with the 1956 album April in Paris, whose title track contained psyche-you-out endings that became a new band signature.
During the 1960s and ’70s, Basie recorded with luminaries like Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Jackie Wilson, Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson. Basie ultimately earned nine Grammy Awards over the course of his career, but he made history when he won his first, in 1958, as the first African-American man to receive a Grammy. A few of his songs were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame as well, including April in Paris and Everyday I Have the Blues.
Basie suffered from health issues in his later years, and died from cancer in Hollywood, Florida, on April 26, 1984.
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. He left the world an almost unparalleled legacy of musical greatness, having recorded or been affiliated with dozens upon dozens of albums during his lifetime.