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Count Basie: Biography

The following is a short account of Bill "Count" Basie's life as a superlative jazz musician.

    The Count Basie Orchestra first came to New York City in December, 1936.  They played with a swing that was both light and hard at the same time -- a big band with truly the feel of a small group.  Bill Basie came west from his home town of Red Bank, New Jersey as piano player and occasional actor with "Gonzelle White's Big Jazz Jamboree," a vaudeville troupe.  One morning he was awakened by music in his Tulsa, OK hotel room. When he went outside, he discovered a live band of about ten pieces, playing on the back of a truck parked just outside the hotel.  The leader was Walter Page, and his band was at the time called Walter Page and His Blue Devils.
    When Basie next ran into the Blue Devils, in their home base in OK City, their pianist was sick.  Basie subbed for a couple of nights and Walter Page was impressed enough to give the young man his address.  Soon thereafter, Gonzelle White's Jazz Jamboree disbanded, and without a job, Basie suddenly came down with spinal meningitis.  Surprising the doctors, he recovered after only a few weeks, but he was still broke and stranded.
    From late summer of 1928 until early the next year, Basie toured with the Blue Devils, then considered the greatest in the Southwest.  Hundreds of nightclubs had flourished in Kansas City, lasting well into the late 30's, virtually every club boasting live music.  The city became a magnet for musicians from all over the Southwest and Midwest.
    In the summer of 1929, having become friendly with Eddie Durham (a member of the Bennie Moten Orchestra), he mentioned some ideas for charts, wondered if Durham could possibly transcribe them, and then got Durham to take him and the charts to Moten's next rehearsal.  The pieces were played to the leader's approval and Basie was hired as staff arranger.  Soon he was allowed to briefly spell Moten, and before long was taken on as a regular pianist, a position he held for nearly four years.
    Early in 1933, the Eblon Theater (in Kansas City) reopened under new management as a club, the Cherry Blossom.  The first band to play there was led by an accomplished Kansas City bandleader and recording artist, George E. Lee.  In the summer, it was replased by a reconstituted Moten orchestra (one that had been redesigned over the years).  Moten was eventually kicked out and Basie was named the new leader -- the new band was called "Count Basie and his Cherry Blossom Orchestra".
    The ten piece group was sprinkled with ex Blue Devils, including: Lips Page, Minor Smith, Walter Page, and "Papa" Joe Jones.  The tenor sax chair was held by Herschel Evans, who had come to KC early in 1933.  When the band went on tour in 1934, Evans, not wanting to leave town, gave up the seat to another jazz great, Lester Young.
    By early 1935, after the disbanding of the Cherry Blossoms, Lips Page, Rushing, and eventually even Basie himself had rejoined Moten.  Unfortunately, in April, Bennie Moten died on the operating table after a botched tonsillectomy -- the Moten era was over.  And so the Count Basie Orchestra re-formed, under similar, but much more tragic circumstances.
    After a period of transition, during which "One O'Clock Jump" was first broadcast, it was only a matter of time before the band had to go out on the road and eventually to New York City, where reputations were definitively established.  For the time being, visiting Chicago in September of 1936, Basie and Jo Jones chanced upon Claude "Fiddler" Williams playing guitar and violin in a local club, and he joined up in November.  On the way back to KC, they stopped in St. Louis and recruited an old friend from Moten and Cherry Blossom days, trombonist Dan Minor.  The band now numbered thirteen, plus Rushing (their arranger).
    After Chicago, the band went East, playing a number of one night stands on the way to a four-week stint at New York's Roseland Ballroom.  They opened on Christmas Eve, playing against the newly-formed orchestra of Woody Herman.  During the Roseland run, John Hammond arranged an audition for a guitarist named Freddie Green.  Basie was knocked out.  Green, a superb rhythm guitarist who almost never took a solo, was hired a few weeks later, and would stay with the band until his death in 1987, three years after Basie's own demise.  The classical rhythm section was now complete.
    They spent the rest of 1937 criss-crossing the eastern US by bus, playing one-night stands interspersed with occasional week-long theater engagements, including two more at the Apollo (their first was a complete success, partly due to the appearance of Billie Holiday as their lead singer).  The band spent most of the next year as they had most of the previous fourteen months, on the road.  Early in the summer of 1938, Willard Alexander approached the owners of the Famous Door on 52nd Street.  Staying four months, this is where the band really got it's start, with their record sales really beginning to pick up.
    The band left the Famous Door on November 12, on to their first Carnegie Hall "Spirituals to Swing" concert, which took place on December 23, 1938.  But it was now a very different band from the one that had come to New York just over two years before.  Not counting the vocalists, it had only grown from thirteen to fifteen members, but just seven of the original thirteen remained.  The unit that had come out of the West had relied largely on head arrangements of their own devising.  The new one was more dependent on outside arrangers, was now slicker and tighter.  While it would always swing like nobody's business, some of the original character was lost.  The band still had years of legendary greatness yet to come.

<< All materials contained in these pages have been adapted from: "Count Basie: The Complete Decca Recordings" album cover >>
<< This page last updated December 10, 1997 >>