35. William “Count” Basie

William “Count” Basie was a pianist, composer and bandleader from Red Bank, New Jersey, about fifty miles south of New York City. As a young man, Basie learned Harlem Stride piano from some legendary figures, including James P. Johnson, Willie “The Lion” Smith and Thomas “Fats” Waller. After traveling cross-country in vaudeville shows, Basie settled in Kansas City, Missouri, his home base for the next decade. He joined bassist Walter Page’s band, the Blue Devils in 1927. Over the years, the Page band became the Bennie Moten Orchestra, and after Moten died unexpectedly in 1935, Basie refined the band into a smaller orchestra, choosing the finest musicians from the Moten band, plus important additions such as tenor saxophonist Lester Young. The band received its big break when music executive John Hammond Jr. overheard a live broadcast of the Basie band while driving through Illinois one evening. Hammond helped arrange recording dates, and by early 1937 the orchestra moved to New York City. During this period, the band achieved lifelong popularity for its light, swinging rhythms and outstanding soloists. Basie became famous as one of the great bandleaders of the 20th century, punctuated by his spare, unobtrusive piano style. He continued to perform ensemble jazz for the rest of his life.

Count Basie and His Orchestra

William “Count” Basie (1904-1984), piano, bandleader, composer

PBS Biography for Count Basie
PBS Biography of John Hammond, Jr.
Description of Harlem Stride Piano

Notable Contributors:

Lester “Prez” Young (1909-1959), tenor saxophone
Herschel “Tex” Evans (1909-1939), tenor saxophone
Wilbur “Buck” Clayton (1911-1991), trumpet
Leon “Chu” Berry (1908-1941), tenor saxophone
Freddie Green (1911-1987), guitar
Walter Page (1900-1957), string bass
Jo Jones (1911-1985), drums
Helen Humes (1913-1981), singer
Jimmy “Mr. Five By Five” Rushing (1901-1972), blues shouter

The Big Apple, Music’s Epicenter

Some cities have always been recognized as important hubs of popular music. On the west coast, Los Angeles is the place. Country music is king in Nashville, and jazz originated in New Orleans. There were periods when music from Boston, Seattle and San Francisco wielded an influence. It seems Kansas City is often overlooked. In the twenties and thirties, Kansas City was a hotbed of jazz innovation, with swinging orchestras led by Bennie Moten and Count Basie, blues shouters like Big Joe Turner and Jimmy Rushing, and saxophone innovators Lester Young and Charlie Parker. Together these musicians created essential ingredients of modern popular music.

In the late thirties, New York City was the dominant force in pop music, and is still the jazz capital of the world.

Here’s the Count Basie Orchestra with “Take Me Back Baby”, a feature for vocalist Jimmy Rushing, known affectionately as “Mister Five By Five”:

The Competitive Side of Jazz

It’s hard to overestimate the impact of big band swing music in the thirties. It became the dance music of a generation. An acrobatic dance known as the “Lindy Hop” became popular with big band swing. Here is an extreme version of the Lindy Hop, performed to a Count Basie’s “Jumpin’ At The Woodside”, though the recording has been speeded up for the purpose of the athletic dance:

Wikipedia Description of “The Lindy Hop”

Younger music fans may not realize how competitive musicians and bands were in earlier generations. Bands would challenge each other to see who could play better, or please the crowds more. One dominant big band in Harlem was led by drummer William “Chick” Webb, a small man deformed by tuberculosis in childhood. Webb died in 1939, only thirty four years old; after that his young vocalist Ella Fitzgerald took over de facto leadership of the band.

On January 16th, 1938, a legendary “cutting” contest between the Count Basie and Chick Webb bands took place at the Savoy Ballroom. The following article describes the contest, and illustrates their competitive nature:

Jazz Joint Jump Website – Article Describing Contest Between Count Basie and Chick Webb at the Savoy Ballroom

As swing jazz matured, ambitious jazz musicians pursuing new ways to express themselves met in after hours jam sessions, exploring new chord changes and methods of improvisation. Like the swing bands, bebop and bluegrass musicians were also competitive, seeking to exclude less talented players. See the Charlie Parker essay for more details.

The Leader

Imagine what it must be like, a black band in a Midwestern town during the Depression, hitting its stride, tearing the house down each night with their ultra-modern dance rhythms, while struggling to live comfortably. Basie was a leader, an outstanding pianist who focused attention on his band members. He maximized the talents of his team, while shunning excess attention for himself. Together, the band worked hard to succeed in the bright lights of New York City. I’ll close with this fine quote from the liner notes of my “One O’Clock Jump” CD:

“Jo Jones spoke so many times of the wonder of the first years. But Buck Clayton, one of Basie’s most versatile and affecting soloists, provides the coda for this, the opening chapter of the Basie history on record: ‘The band scuffled and starved. But it didn’t seem to matter. Playing was the important thing. Sticking together and making a go of the band was our ambition. We wouldn’t think of leaving Basie no matter how good the offers were.”

— Burt Korall, liner notes from the RCA “One O’Clock Jump” CD

Amazon.com Link to Books by Burt Korall

Count Basie Recording Notes:

Here is a list of albums where these songs can be acquired on iTunes. The vocalist is listed in parentheses, if applicable.

The Complete Decca Recordings
Honeysuckle Rose
Pennnies From Heaven (Jimmy Rushing)
Exactly Like You (Jimmy Rushing)
One O’Clock Jump
Good Morning Blues (Jimmy Rushing)
Topsy
John’s Idea
Sent To You From Yesterday (Jimmy Rushing)
Swingin’ The Blues
Blue And Sentimental
Jumpin’ At The Woodside
Jive At Five

At The Savoy Ballroom – From The Archives
Moten Swing (Live)
I’ll Always Be In Love With You (Live)
When My Dreamboat Comes Home (Live) (Jimmy Rushing)
Swing! Brother, Swing! (Live) (Billie Holiday)
I Got Rhythm (Live)

The Complete Atomic Basie
The Kid From Red Bank
Splanky
The Late Late Show (Vocal) (Joe Williams)

Count Basie At Newport
Swingin’ At Newport (Live)
All Right, OK, You Win (Live) (Joe Williams)

Lester Young – The “Kansas City” Sessions
Way Down Yonder In New Orleans
Countless Blues
I Want A Little Girl

Basically Basie: Studio Dates 1937-1945 – Four Disc Series
Taxi War Dance
Tickle Toe
My Wanderin’ Man (Helen Humes)
Oh, Lady Be Good
Dickie’s Dream
Lester Leaps In

April In Paris
April In Paris

Count Basie & His Orchestra, 1944
Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You? (Jimmy Rushing)

Ken Burns Jazz – The Story of American Music
Moten Swing

Count Basie Swings – Joe Williams Sings
Every Day I Have The Blues (Joe Williams)

Count Basie Songs:

Oh, Lady Be Good, Jones-Smith Incorporated ✭✭✭✭✭

Jumping At The Woodside, Count Basie ✭✭✭✭
One O’Clock Jump, Count Basie ✭✭✭✭

Blue & Sentimental, Count Basie ✭✭✭
Exactly Like You, Count Basie ✭✭✭
Topsy, Count Basie ✭✭✭
Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You?, Count Basie ✭✭✭
Taxi War Dance, Count Basie ✭✭✭
Tickle Toe, Count Basie ✭✭✭
Moten Swing, Bennie Moten ✭✭✭

Moten Swing (Live), Count Basie ✭✭
The Late Late Show (Vocal), Count Basie ✭✭
Sent For You From Yesterday, Count Basie ✭✭
Jive At Five, Count Basie ✭✭
All Right, OK, You Win (Live), Count Basie ✭✭
Everyday I Have The Blues, Count Basie ✭✭
I’ll Always Be In Love With You (Live), Count Basie ✭✭
When My Dreamboat Comes Home (Live), Count Basie ✭✭
Swing! Brother, Swing! (Live), Count Basie ✭✭
I Got Rhythm (Live), Count Basie ✭✭
Pennies From Heaven, Count Basie ✭✭
My Wanderin’ Man, Count Basie ✭✭
Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me, Count Basie ✭✭

Swinging The Blues, Count Basie
April In Paris, Count Basie
Swingin’ At Newport (Live), Count Basie
Splanky, Count Basie
The Kid From Red Bank, Count Basie
Lester Leaps In, Count Basie’s Kansas City Seven
Dickie’s Dream, Count Basie’s Kansas City Seven
John’s Idea, Count Basie
Harvard Blues, Count Basie
Good Morning Blues, Count Basie
Love Jumped Out, Count Basie
Blow Top, Count Basie
If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight), Count Basie
Cute, Count Basie

Related Songs:

Way Down Yonder In New Orleans, Kansas City Six ✭✭✭✭
Countless Blues, Kansas City Six ✭✭
I Want A Little Girl (Take 2), Kansas City Six ✭✭

Wholly Cats, Charlie Christian ✭✭
Royal Garden Blues, Charlie Christian ✭✭
As Long as I Live, Charlie Christian ✭✭✭
Benny’s Bugle, Charlie Christian

Gone With “What” Wind, Benny Goodman ✭✭✭

April In Paris, Charlie Parker ✭✭
April In Paris, Thelonious Monk ✭✭

Tickle Toe, Tiny Moore & Jethro Burns ✭✭

Pennies From Heaven, J.J. Johnson ✭✭
Pennies From Heaven, Teddy Wilson & His Orchestra ✭✭

Swing! Brother, Swing!, Billie Holiday

Topsy II, Cozy Cole ✭✭

Every Day I Have The Blues (Live), B.B. King ✭✭✭✭
Every Day I Have The Blues, B.B. King ✭✭

Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You?, Chu Berry & His Little Jazz Ensemble ✭✭
Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You?, Nat King Cole Trio ✭✭

Oh, Lady Be Good, Le Quintette du Hot Club de France ✭✭

One O’Clock Jump, Metronome All-Stars

Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me / I’m In The Mood For Love (Live), Louis Prima

3 thoughts on “35. William “Count” Basie

  1. R Supan December 1, 2011 / 2:05 PM

    Open the Door Richard was one of my dad’s favorites! I saw Count Basie in person a couple of times in his later life performing. Would come out to the piano in an electric wheelchair and the band would start jamming.

  2. El Gringo March 12, 2016 / 12:52 PM

    JK

    I am very surprised there is no mention of Basie’s collaboration with Frank Sinatra; culminating in Sinatra at the Sands, which contains several definitive versions of Sinatra classics. Give the album a listen. There is also an issue of the Basie band as the opening act prior to Frank coming on stage…a must for an overview of Basie’s career. On both selections the Basie band is outstanding.

    • theperfectipodcollection March 13, 2016 / 9:09 PM

      Hi El Gringo,

      Thanks for taking the time to look at a few profiles. Here are a couple of reasons why the Basie collaboration with Frank Sinatra is not represented in my song list:

      1. Count Basie’s recordings of the late 30s and early 40s dominates his song selections. This is his most critically acclaimed work. The Basie Big Band of the late 30s featured saxophonists Lester Young and Herschel Evans as soloists. And I love the sound and feel of that swing music made in New York City.

      2. Working as an individual, I have limitations as to how much I can review, so I depend on previous music reviews, and personal experience of songs I’ve heard. The Basie/Sinatra collaboration receives good to excellent reviews. I will note that the album is comprised of popular standards, and there’s a great deal of competition for the few performances of each standard that get into the collection. In particular, I will check out “I Won’t Dance”, and see how it sounds. Thanks for the suggestion.

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