“ When entrepreneur John Hammond heard the ensemble on a radio broadcast, he went to Kansas City and invited Basie and the band to perform at NYC's Roseland Ballroom. ”
This month marks the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of William "Count" Basie who was born August 21, 1904, in Red Bank, New Jersey. Basie was a big-band leader for nearly half a century, which is quite a record, even considering that big bands once were so popular that leaders like him, not to mention the sidemen, could actually make a fairly decent living criss-crossing the country and performing in music halls, theatres, nightclubs and other venues. Few people know that Bill Basie started his career in vaudeville as a piano accompanist for acts large and small before he was stranded in Kansas City in 1927 and decided to stay there, playing in silent film theatres until he landed a job the following year with bassist Walter Page's Blue Devils. In 1929, Basie joined Bennie Moten's prominent Kansas City Orchestra, remaining until shortly after Moten's early death in 1935. Basie then organized a smaller group, the Barons of Rhythm, whose members included drummer Jo Jones and, a bit later, tenor saxophonist Lester Young, who would help comprise the nucleus of the Count's first big band, formed in 1936.
When entrepreneur John Hammond heard the ensemble on a radio broadcast, he went to Kansas City and invited Basie and the band to perform at NYC's Roseland Ballroom. That led to a contract with Decca Records, and the rest is largely history as the band quickly developed the "Basie sound," loose and swinging with a driving rhythm section that complemented roaring brass and reeds while reinforcing the band's succession of memorable soloists. Except for a brief period in 1950-51, when he fronted a septet, Count Basie led his own big band until his passing in April 1984. Many people believe, and for good reason, that Basie's earliest band was also his best, and may never be equaled. Its incomparable rhythm section was comprised of Basie, Jones, Page and guitarist Freddie Green, and it boasted such renowned soloists as Young, Herschel Evans, Earle Warren, Buck Clayton, Harry Edison, Benny Morton and Dickie Wells. In the '40s, the Count added such stalwarts as saxophonists Buddy Tate, Don Byas, Lucky Thompson, Illinois Jacquet and Paul Gonsalves; trumpeters Al Killian, Joe Newman and Emmett Berry; trombonists J.J. Johnson and Vic Dickenson; and vocalists Billie Holiday and Helen Humes to succeed blues singer Jimmy Rushing.
After Basie regrouped in '52, his "New Testament" band included saxophonists Paul Quinichette (the "vice pres"), Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and Marshall Royal, trumpeter Joe Newman and drummer Gus Johnson. Those who came on board later included trumpeters Thad Jones and Joe Wilder, trombonists Bennie Powell and Henry Coker, tenor saxophonists Frank Foster and Frank Wess, drummer Sonny Payne and singer Joe Williams, with outstanding charts by Foster, Ernie Wilkins, Neal Hefti, Johnny Mandel, Sammy Nestico, Bill Holman and others. Basie's was the first U.S. band to play a command performance for the Queen of England, and the first black band to play in the ballroom of NY's Waldorf Astoria Hotel. In the '60s, Basie formed a mutually beneficial alliance with singer Frank Sinatra, and also performed with Tony Bennett and Sammy Davis Jr., among others, while continuing to tour and record.
The Count suffered a heart attack in the summer of '76 and was replaced for a time by pianist Nat Pierce. He returned in January '77 but was struck by severe arthritis in the early '80s, which necessitated his having to use a motorized scooter to carry him on and off stage. After his death in '84, Thad Jones led the band for a year. When Jones died in February '86, Frank Foster took the reins, handing them to trombonist Grover Mitchell in '95. Mitchell died last year but the band continues on, touring the country and recording the occasional album, its popularity weakened in today's rock- and rap-oriented culture but not enough to extinguish its light.
So far I've not heard anything about what is being planned to commemorate suitably the Count's centenary, but I'm sure something must be in the wind. Perhaps folks are still recovering from the hoopla associated with Ellington's hundredth anniversary in '99 and former President Ronald Reagan's passing earlier this year. But Bill Basie's hundredth anniversary mustn't be overlooked, as he was clearly one of the most celebrated and influential big-band leaders (and Jazz musicians) of the twentieth century, an esteemed member of a select group that includes Ellington, Herman, Kenton, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and a handful of others.