count basie

Throughout his career the name of Count Basie was synonymous with swing. Basie, whose influence remains huge over a decade after his death, not only led two of the finest jazz orchestras ever but he redefined the role of the piano in the rhythm section. Originally a stride pianist in the vein of his idol Fats Waller, Basie had such a strong rhythm section in the mid-'30s that he pared down his style drastically, eliminating the oom-pah timekeeping function of his left hand. With bassist Walter Page, rhythm guitarist Freddie Green and drummer Jo Jones filling in the spaces, Count stuck to simple phrases that were strategically placed to add momentum to the ensembles and he unwittingly acted as a transitional figure towards the bop of Bud Powell.

But Count Basie was really an institution by himself. Born as William Basie, he played for silent movies (under the tutelage of Waller), learned from the great stride pianists of New York and played the vaudeville circuit. Stranded in Kansas City in 1927 he soon joined Walter Page's Blue Devils (the best small group in the city) and eventually when Bennie Moten (himself a pianist) made Basie a better offer, he became the main pianist with Moten's Kansas City Orchestra, recording with Moten during 1929-32. The final session of Moten's band sounds very much like a predecessor of Count Basie's Orchestra.

After Moten's premature death in 1935, Basie formed his own group (known originally as The Barons Of Rhythm) and was based in Kansas City's Reno Club. The nine-piece band had a regular radio program and in 1936 producer John Hammond happened to hear them on his car radio. He was so impressed that he quickly travelled to Kansas City in hopes of singing up Basie to Columbia. However his articles (which raved about the great unknown band) alerted Decca and scouts from the rival label beat Hammond to it (although Basie would switch to Columbia in 1939).

After a period of struggle in which the orchestra (which was immediately expanded) had some rough moments, by late 1937 the Count Basie band had caught on. With such important soloists as the cool-toned tenor Lester Young (whose sound was an alternative to Coleman Hawkins), trumpeters Buck Clayton and Harry "Sweets" Edison, trombonist Dicky Wells, vocalist Jimmy Rushing (and for a period Billie Holiday) and the classic rhythm section, Basie's orchestra could hold its own against any other swing band. Its theme "One O'Clock Jump" soon became widely recorded (almost serving as an anthem for the era) and "Jumpin' at the Woodside" became a standard.

In the 1940s the band's arrangements (many of which were originally thought up by sidemen while on the bandstand) became more formalized. While Lester Young's departure in late 1940 left a hole, such other fine soloists as tenors Don Byas, Illinois Jacquet, Lucky Thompson and Paul Gonsalves, altoist Tab Smith, trumpeters Joe Newman and Clark Terry, and trombonist Vic Dickenson kept the band's music swinging. Bad money management and the change in the public's musical taste led Basie to reluctantly break up his orchestra at the end of 1949 and use a small group (ranging from a sextet to a nonet) for the next two years; it often featured Terry, Wardell Gray on tenor and clarinetist Buddy DeFranco.

In 1952, during a period when very few jazz orchestras were being formed, Count Basie put together what became known as his "New Testament" (as opposed to the earlier "Old Testament") band. Against all odds, Basie's orchestra caught on, especially after recording "April in Paris" in 1954 and after singer Joe Williams signed on the following year. Although it featured more than its share of top soloists including trumpeters Joe Newman and Thad Jones, and tenors Frank Wess (who helped introduce the flute to jazz) and Frank Foster, it was the arrangements (particularly those of Neal Hefti, Ernie Wilkins, Wess, Foster, Thad Jones and later on Sammy Nistico) and the sound of the swinging ensembles (along with the distinctive rhythm section) that were emphasized.

Although there was a lot of turnover in the 1960s, the Basie sound never changed and the orchestra did not decline nor stop travelling. A series of indifferent commercial records in the mid-to-late '60s (which often found famous singers using the Basie band as a prop) were far inferior to the band's live performances, but when Basie renewed ties with producer Norman Granz in the 1970s and signed with Pablo Records, his recordings (which by then often featured Jimmy Forrest on tenor and trombonist Al Grey) were greatly improved. Count Basie's health gradually failed in the 1980s and his death was greatly mourned. However his orchestra (under the direction first of Thad Jones then Frank Foster and most recently Grover Mitchell) became the only viable ghost band in jazz history.


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