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BASIE, William "Count"

BASIE, William
William "Count" Basie

Pianist and bandleader William "Count" Basie inherited leadership of the Bennie Moten band in Kansas City when Moten died in 1935 and turned it into the great streamlined zephyr of the swing era. It was a big band that played with the flexibility and drive of a small group. It also included a core of some of the most distinctive soloists in jazz history. But above all, the first Basie band brought a new modernity and mobility to jazz rhythm that led straight to bebop. In the 1950s he re-formed along new lines shaped by a group of arrangers that gave a permanence to what was once ephemeral.

Basie was born Aug. 21, 1904 in Red Bank, N.J., and began his career playing solid stride piano in the manner of James P. Johnson on the black theater and vaudeville circuit. In 1927 he found himself in Kansas City without money to return east. He jobbed around town and joined bassist Walter Page's Blue Devils within a year. In 1929 Moten absorbed most of the Blue Devils and went on working the southwest territory, until his death in a car accident. Though Basie didn't take over direct leadership immediately, he used many of its players to put together a nine-man group built around a rhythm section of himself, Page and a superb young drummer named Jo Jones, whose magic touch on the hi-hat cymbal gave the entire band instant identity. Lester Young joined shortly after on tenor saxophone, and his sound was even more unique.

Basie settled into the Reno club in 1936 and began frequent late-night broadcasts, many of which were heard in Chicago by producer and jazz journalist John Hammond. Hammond went to Kansas City, began writing about the Basie band in Down Beat and arranged for it to be represented by the powerful MCA agency. He would have liked to record the band as well, but his rave columns about Basie drew the interest of Decca Records, which promptly signed him to a two-year contract.

Hammond did manage to sneak in one Basie session when the band reached Chicago. "Lady Be Good" and "Shoe Shine Boy" were made with a contingent of the band that included Lester Young, and have remained jazz classics ever since.

The early recordings by the band are divided between Decca (1937-'39), which had the original "One O'Clock Jump" and "Jumpin' At The Woodside," and Columbia (1939-'46), which included most of the Lester Young masterpieces such as "Taxi War Dance," "Miss Thing," "Lester Leaps In," "Dickie's Dream" and "Tickle Toe." Together, the Decca and Columbias constitute one of the great treasures in jazz history. Basie moved to Victor after the war, but he had lost many of the principal solo voices that had given the band its edge. Finally in 1950 Basie disbanded and took up with an excellent but short-lived small band, bringing to a close the life of the first Count Basie band.

Out of the proverbial ashes, there rose the second Basie band in 1952. This time Basie would not stake the fate of his music on individual soloists, whose sovereignty he could not dictate. Instead he would institutionalize his music through the work of a group of hand-picked arrangers, who could capture the essence of the Basie sound and make it permanent in a book of written charts, none of which would depend on the single voice of an irreplaceable soloist. True the essential Basie style, writers such as Neal Hefti, Benny Carter, Quincy Jones, Frank Foster and Thad Jones built from the rhythm section and fanned out from there in many directions, some punchy and assertive, others soft and crafty. Sammy Nestico became the keeper of the house sound through the '70s and '80s.

The result has been a slowly evolving continuum from 1952 on, that is always a little different, yet always fundamentally the same. The band first recorded for Norman Granz on Clef, then moved to Roulette, where it spent its peak years of the late '50s and early '60s. When Granz returned to recording activity in 1972 with Pablo Records, it would also mean a final renaissance for Basie, whom Granz recorded magnificently in trio, small band formats as well as with the band. A series of pairings with Oscar Peterson produced some unusually invigorating Basie piano. Basie died April 24, 1984, of cancer, but the band continues playing on today.

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