William “Count” Basie

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William Basie was born on August 21, 1904 in Red Bank, New Jersey. Originally, Basie wanted to play the drums. But competition at this instrument from his boyhood friend, Sonny Greer, helped him choose the piano.

In the 1920s, like many young jazz musicians of the time, Basie left New Jersey for Harlem, where jazz piano greats such as James P. Johnson, Lucky Roberts, and Willie “The Lion” Smith served as major influences. Harlem provided a perfect place to work and learn. From cabarets to theatres to saloons, there was always an opening for a person with talent to play. Basie cites his most important influence as Thomas “Fats” Waller. He first heard Waller playing the pipe organ at the Lincoln Theatre, on 135th Street. Basie got to know Waller and the young pianist was eventually asked to sit alongside him at the console.

Around 1935, the Count Basie Band was formed. During a broadcast of one of their early shows, the announcer dubbed him “Count Basie,” a clever way to put him in a league with other bandleaders such as Duke Ellington. The band began recording immediately, with Count Basie’s record contract calling for twenty-four sides to be produced. No royalties were offered to Basie, and the contract bound him to the record company for three years. Basie’s full payment for his efforts was seven hundred and fifty dollars – typical of the record industry’s exploitation of jazz musicians at the time. The contract was eventually brought up to union standards, but Basie never received any royalties for such classics as “One O’clock Jump,” “Swingin’ the Blues” or “Jumpin’ at the Woodside.”

Many current musicians consider Count Basie and his orchestra to be the model for “ensemble rhythmic conception and tonal balance.” Their lightness and precision set the tone for modern jazz accompanying style. Basie himself perfected a piano style called “comping,” a syncopated and highly precise style of playing chords. The group also served to launch the careers of many noted jazz instrumentalists, including tenor saxophonist Lester Young, trumpeter Buck Clayton, trumpeter-composer Thad Jones, bassist Walter Page, drummer Jo Jones.

Count Basie moved to Addisleigh Park in St. Albans, Queens in 1946. In the 1950s Basie formed a new band that incorporated the new sound of bebop along with more bluesy elements. In 1963 he enjoyed a top five album with Frank Sinatra, Sinatra-Basie. He also recorded a string of Grammy winning and nominated LPs in the 1970s.

The world lost a one-of-kind artist and performer when Count Basie died on April 26, 1984 in Hollywood, Florida.

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