Count Basie

FRIDAY, February 7, 2020

Count Basie…

This is not my music as much as the music of my parents. My father was born in 1907, so Basie was only three years older than him. As I listen to recording after recording it takes me back to the years before WWII, through WWII and on into the post war years. I was wired into very traditional music growing up and only got interested in “pop” music as I got older and found out how small my musical world was.

The first thing I notice with Basie is that the arrangements are fantastic, which basically means that when you hear school jazz bands in the US – and some of them are absolutely incredibly fine – you will hear a lot of this music right now, in 2020. In other words, although you will hear the labels “pop” and “swing”, it has already passed the test of time with popularity starting in the 30s and continuing right now.

Basie and Ella…

When it comes to American music, I don’t think anyone was or remains more important than Basie. and after some searching I found this recording with Basie and Ella. I find this pure joy to listen to. It links me to music before my time, moving into my era, and it’s fascinating to hear and read about a whole new generation discovering these monumental talents.

Almost 50 years of continue fame in his own lifetime…

William James “Count” Basie Basie formed his own jazz orchestra, the Count Basie Orchestra, and in 1936 took them to Chicago for a long engagement and their first recording. He led his group for almost 50 years, creating too many innovations to go into here, but his influence was enormous.

Lessons for a quarter…

His mother played piano but paid for Basie’s lessons with a quarter. An online calculator says that that quarter is worth about $5 today, so even with inflation it appears she got a good deal. He preferred drums at first but switched solely to piano at age 15.

No high school, just pool…

Basie finished junior high school but spent much of his time at the Palace Theater in Red Bank, where he quickly learned to improvise music appropriate for the acts and silent movies.

When not playing the piano he hung out at the local pool hall with other musicians, where he picked up on upcoming play dates and gossip. This seems to be a “musician thing”, because my father once joked that he thought I spent more time playing pool than practicing the piano. Mozart was famous for being a fine billiards player, so this whole matter about musicians and pool halls is not just a joke.

Move to NYC and royalty…

Basie moved to Harlem around 1920. Just think about how young he was at that time. But from Harlem he toured all around the US. In 1928 he was in Tulsa and heard Walter Page and his Famous Blue Devils, one of the first big bands. A few months later, he was invited to join the band, and it was at this time that he began to be known as “Count” Basie.

New ideas…

Right from the start, Basie’s band was noted for its rhythm section. Another Basie innovation was the use of two tenor saxophone players; at the time, most bands had just one. Many other bands later adapted the split tenor arrangement.

His signature tune…

It was the “One O’Clock Jump” written in 1937 , which Benny Goodman later recorded with his band. But to show that everyone borrowed from everyone else, it turns out that the main theme of “One O’Clock Jump” was lifted by Basie alto player Buster Smith from a 1929 Fats Waller tune called “Six or Seven Times.”

The Swing Era wound down, but Basie did not…

After WWII the Swing Era began to end, but Basie adapted. His newer sound was more of an ensemble group sound, relying more on written arrangements, and this newer style is what I first heard as a boy.

In 1958, the band made its first European tour. Jazz was especially appreciated in France, The Netherlands, and Germany in the 1950s. These countries were enabled American jazz stars to reboot or extend their careers.

He appeared with many stars…

He appeared on a television special with Fred Astaire and combined forces  with Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr., Bing Crosby, and Sarah Vaughan – but unfortunately never recorded with Louis Armstrong.

And an all around nice guy…

Count Basie introduced several generations of listeners to the Big Band sound, and this alone makes him a giant. But he is also remembered as a gentleman with a great sense of humor, considerate of other musicians and always enthusiastic about his music.

 

4 thoughts on “Count Basie

  1. I know of Ella Fitzgerald and love hearing her. I didn’t know about Count Basie. There are so many styles of music to catch up on. We need several lifetimes.

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