Figurehead of the big band era, Count Basie was one of the greatest swing jazz pianists.
William James Basie, known as "Count Basie", was born on 21 August 1904 in Red Bank, New Jersey. As a child, his discovered the piano through his mother, who gave him his first lessons. He developed his improvisational skills at the Palace Theater, where he used to accompany silent movies. In 1924, he moved to Harlem and joined one of Duke Ellington's first orchestras. Between 1925 and 1927, he accompanied the blues singers Katie Krippen and Gonzelle White with the Theater Owners Booking Association. This experience was a springboard for demonstrating his talents as a pianist in cities such as New Orleans, Chicago and Saint Louis.
In 1929, Basie was invited to join the Blue Devils founded by Bennie Moten in Kansas City. Bennie Moten fell out with his fellow musicians and was obliged to leave the band. Basie, who was their pianist and arranger, replaced him as band leader. It was during this period that he adopted the nickname "Count". The venture did not last very long and Basie decided to join Bennie Moten, with whom he continued playing until Bennie's death in 1935. Basie bounced back by forming his own jazz orchestra, which he called Count Basie and The Barons of Rhythm. It was a phenomenal success, building its reputation on the very talented musicians Basie had recruited, such as Lester Young (saxophone), Harry Edison (trumpet) and Freddie Green (guitar).
The band's reputation steadily spread until it had become one of the most renowned big bands in the world of jazz, next to Duke Ellington's band. In the 1950s, jazz was all the rage in Europe. Count Basie performed all over the world. His band worked with all the great singers, including Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett. Count Basie took to wearing a yachting cap, and led his band like a ship's captain. He attached great importance to the swing rhythm, with large brass sections and a focus on rich rhythmic arrangements. With numerous Grammy Awards to his name in the "Best Jazz Performance" category, Count Basie is recognised as one of the top jazz musicians of the early twentieth century. He died in 1984 of cancer in Hollywood, Florida.
Six landmark dates in the life of Count Basie:
1924: Left for New York and played in Duke Ellington's orchestra
1929: Count Basie joined Bennie Moten's band
1936: Formed his own band
1937: Count Basie and his band record One O'Clock Jump
1960: The Count Basie Orchestra performed at one of John F. Kennedy's inaugural balls
1970: Charity concert for the BBC with Frank Sinatra
Six key recordings by Count Basie:
1958: The Atomic Mr. Basie
1959: One More Time
1961: First Time! The Count Meets the Duke 1962: Sinatra-Basie: An Historic Musical First
1964: Basie Land
1968: Basie Straight Ahead
Biography compiled from Radio France musical documentation, October 2016.