Bill Basie studied music with his mother as a child and played piano in early childhood. He picked up the basics of early ragtime from some of the great Harlem pianists and studied organ informally with Fats Waller. He made his professional debut as an accompanist for vaudeville acts and replaced Waller in an act called Katie Crippen and her Kids. He also worked with June Clark and Sonny Greer who was later to become Duke Ellington’s drummer.
It was while traveling with the Gonzel White vaudeville show that Basie became stranded in Kansas City when the outfit suddenly broke up. He played at a silent movie house for a while and then became a member of the Walter Page Blue Devils in 1928 and ’29. Included in the ranks of the Blue Devils was a blues shouter who was later to play a key role as early male vocalist with Basie’s own big band, Jimmy Rushing. It was in fact the rotund Rushing who happened to hear Basie playing in Kansas City and invited him to attend a Blue Devil's performance. Basie soon joined the band after sitting in with them that night.
After Page's Blue Devils broke up Count Basie and some of the other band members integrated into the Bennie Moten band. He remained with Moten until his death in 1935. After Moten’s death the band continued under the leadership of Bennie’s brother Buster, but Basie started a group of his own and soon found a steady gig at the Reno Club in Kansas City employing some of the best personnel from the Moten band himself.
The band gradually built up in quantity and quality of personnel and was broadcast live regularly from the club by a small Kansas City radio station. It was during one of these broadcasts that the group was heard by John Hammond, a wealthy jazz aficionado, who had himself worked as an announcer, disc jockey and producer of a live jazz show on radio. Hammond decided that the band must go to New York. Through his efforts and support (at times even financially) the band enlarged its membership further and went to New York in 1936. Hammond installed Willard Alexander as the band’s manager and in January of 1937 the Count Basie band made its first recording with the Decca record label.
By the following year the Basie big band had become internationally famous, anchored by the leader’s simple and sparse piano style and the rhythm section of Freddie Greene guitar, Walter Page bass, and Jo Jones drums. The great soloists of this band included Jimmy Rushing as vocalist, Lester Young and Herschel Evans tenor saxes, Earl Warren on alto, Buck Clayton and Harry “Sweets” Edison on trumpets, and Benny Morton and Dickie Wells on trombones, among others. Also contributing to the bands success were the arrangements by Eddie Durham and others in the band and the “head” arrangements spontaneously developed by the group.