Count Basie was among the most important bandleaders of the swing era. With the exception of a brief period in the early '50s, he led a big band from 1935 until his death almost 50 years later, and the band continued to perform after he died. Basie's orchestra was characterized by a light, swinging rhythm section that he led from the piano, lively ensemble work, and generous soloing. Basie was not a composer like Duke Ellington or an important soloist like Benny Goodman. His instrument was his band, which was considered the epitome of swing and became broadly influential on jazz.
Both of Basie's parents were musicians; his father, Harvie Basie, played the mellophone, and his mother, Lillian (Childs) Basie, was a pianist who gave her son his earliest lessons. Basie also learned from Harlem stride pianists, particularly Fats Waller. His first professional work came accompanying vaudeville performers, and he was part of a troupe that broke up in Kansas City in 1927, leaving him stranded there. He stayed in the Midwestern city, at first working in a silent movie house and then joining Walter Page's Blue Devils in July 1928. The band's vocalist was Jimmy Rushing. Basie left in early 1929 to play with other bands, eventually settling into one led by Bennie Moten. Upon Moten's untimely death on April 2, 1935, Basie worked as a soloist before leading a band initially called the Barons of Rhythm. Many former members of the Moten band joined this nine-piece outfit, among them Walter Page (bass), Freddie Green (guitar), Jo Jones (drums), and Lester Young (tenor saxophone). Jimmy Rushing became the singer. The band gained a residency at the Reno Club in Kansas City and began broadcasting on the radio, an announcer dubbing the pianist "Count" Basie.
Basie got his big break when one of his broadcasts was heard by journalist and record producer John Hammond, who touted him to agents and record companies. As a result, the band was able to leave Kansas City in the fall of 1936 and take up an engagement at the Grand Terrace in Chicago, followed by a date in Buffalo, NY, before coming into Roseland in New York City in December. It made its recording debut on Decca Records in January 1937. Undergoing expansion and personnel changes, it returned to Chicago, then to the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Boston. Meanwhile, its recording of "One O'Clock Jump" became its first chart entry in September 1937. The tune became the band's theme song and it was later inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Basie returned to New York for an extended engagement at the small club the Famous Door in 1938 that really established the band as a success. "Stop Beatin' Round the Mulberry Bush," with Rushing on vocals, became a Top Ten hit in the fall of 1938. Basie spent the first half of 1939 in Chicago, meanwhile switching from Decca to Columbia Records, then went to the West Coast in the fall. He spent the early '40s touring extensively, but after the U.S. entry into World War II in December 1941 and the onset of the recording ban in August 1942, his travel was restricted. While on the West Coast, he and the band appeared in five films, all released within a matter of months in 1943: Hit Parade of 1943, Reveille with Beverly, Stage Door Canteen, Top Man, and Crazy House. He also scored a series of Top Ten hits on the pop and R&B charts, including "I Didn't Know About You" (pop, winter 1945); "Red Bank Blues" (R&B, winter 1945); "Rusty Dusty Blues" (R&B, spring 1945); "Jimmy's Blues" (pop and R&B, summer/fall 1945); and "Blue Skies" (pop, summer 1946). Switching to RCA Victor Records, he topped the charts in February 1947 with "Open the Door, Richard!," followed by three more Top Ten pop hits in 1947: "Free Eats," "One O'Clock Boogie," and "I Ain't Mad at You (You Ain't Mad at Me)."
Basie's health gradually deteriorated during the last eight years of his life. He suffered a heart attack in 1976 that put him out of commission for several months. He was back in the hospital in 1981, and when he returned to action, he was driving an electric wheel chair onto the stage. He died of cancer at 79.
Count Basie was admired as much by musicians as by listeners, and he displayed a remarkable consistency in a bandleading career that lasted long
swing became an archival style of music. After his death, his was one of the livelier ghost bands, led in turn by Thad Jones, Frank Foster, and Grover Mitchell. His lengthy career resulted in a large discography spread across all of the major labels and quite a few minor ones as well.
Biography by William Ruhlmann
Time (full album), Corner Pocket (full album, One O'Clock Jump,La Grand Parade Du Jazz,Basie Boogie,
Pennies from Heaven, In a Mellow Tone, The Atomic,
Live in Europe, April in Paris, The life of Count Basie,
Booty's Blues, Good Time Blues, Sweet Georgia Brown, Shine Stockings, Freckle Face, Sprankly, Jumpin' at the Woodside, Sinatra and Basie and Mix (50 videos).