Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


BASIE, Count

(b William Allen Basie, 21 August 1904, Redbank NJ; d 26 April 1984, Hollywood FL) Piano, organ, for 45 years one of the best-loved American bandleaders. He was allegedly nicknamed by a radio announcer, though there is evidence he'd used 'Count' earlier. He received tuition on cinema organ from the teenaged Fats Waller, later toured with vaudeville acts and was stranded in Kansas City when the circuit troupe folded. He played piano in a cinema, joined a group led by Walter Page '28-9 including Jimmy Rushing; joined Benny Moten, featured on Moten's 'Prince Of Wails'. Moten died '35; Basie and some of the men scuffled together, playing KC Reno Club with nine pieces; John Hammond heard them on radio in a Chicago car park, wrote about the band, told Benny Goodman about it. Booking agent Willard Alexander signed Basie, who hired more men and headed east. The rough-hewn music was unsuccessful at first; the men were not good readers and were too poor to buy decent horns, but they opened at the Famous Door '37 and filled the small club with big swing.

Basie had lost his lead alto Buster Smith, who would not leave KC; Oran 'Hot Lips' Page was lured away by Joe Glaser in hopes of copying Louis Armstrong's success; at Hammond's insistence Earle Warren (b 1 July 1914, Springfield OH; d there 4 June 1994) replaced Caughey Roberts (d December 1990 in LA aged 78) on alto sax and Freddie Green replaced Claude Williams on guitar: Williams played violin as well, which Hammond hated. Hammond loved to meddle; the band that had to shake down in NYC was no longer the group that he had heard on the radio, but soon included Buck Clayton on trumpet, equal but opposite tenor stylists Lester Young and Herschel Evans (b 1909, Denton TX; d 9 February 1939, NYC); Dickie Wells and Benny Morton on trombones and the most famous rhythm section in the history of jazz: Page on bass, Jo Jones on drums, and Green. Basie led the band from the keyboard, like Ellington, with economic accuracy, and the rhythm section sounded modern, swinging like a light, well-oiled machine, playing 4/4 with Green chording rather than just stroking the time. Ed Lewis became lead trumpet '37 (d 3 February 1999 aged 74). The arrangements were by Eddie Durham, Don Redman, Jimmy Mundy, Redman's pianist Don Kirkpatrick (b 17 June 1905, Charlotte NC; d 13 May 1956, NYC), or 'heads', devised on the bandstand; the KC style of riffing, unfancy blues-based swing soon began to make the band famous.

Basie had signed a bad contract with Decca (the Musicians' Union helped to obtain royalties) but before the first Decca records Hammond produced a session with Basie, Young, Page, Jones, trumpeter Carl 'Tatti' Smith (b Texas, c.1908; to South America after WWII) as Jones-Smith Incorporated (Chicago, October 1936): 'Shoe Shine Boy' and 'Lady Be Good' are the first recorded solos by Young, one of the most important innovators in jazz; 'Boogie Woogie' and 'Evenin' ' have Rushing vocals. Records for Decca beginning January '37 included 'One O'Clock Jump' (a head arrangement originally called 'Blue Balls', became band's theme), 'Roseland Shuffle', 'Honeysuckle Rose'; 'Jumpin' At The Woodside', 'Every Tub', 'Cherokee' (two-sided 78) all feature Young; 'Blue And Sentimental', 'John's Idea' (named for Hammond) star Evans, who also wrote 'Texas Shuffle' and 'Doggin' Around'; Rushing vocals were 'Sent For You Yesterday And Here You Come Today', 'Good Morning Blues', 'Pennies From Heaven'; Helen Humes sang 'Dark Rapture', 'Blame It On My Last Affair', 'My Heart Belongs To Daddy'. Basie made ten sides with just the rhythm section including 'The Fives', 'Boogie Woogie', 'The Dirty Dozen' etc. He switched to the CBS group '39-46; recorded 'Taxi War Dance', 'Lester Leaps In', Young's tune 'Dickie's Dream', many more. Billie Holiday sang with the band '37, but could not record with it for contractual reasons; she is heard on broadcast air checks ('They Can't Take That Away From Me'). Basie recorded with small groups: Goodman sextet ('40; 'Wholly Cats', 'Breakfast Feud', etc), Kansas City 7 ('44; 'Lester Leaps Again'); changed labels to Victor '47-50.

Evans had died of heart trouble; Young had been fired '40 and Clayton had left. The Swing Era was almost over. Basie's record of Jack McVea's R&B novelty 'Open The Door, Richard', with a 'vocal' by Harry Edison, made no. 1 on the USA pop chart '47. Along with 'Sweets' Edison on trumpet there were Emmett Berry, Clark Terry, Joe Newman; and Buddy Tate and Paul Gonsalves on tenor. Irving Berlin's 'Cheek To Cheek' had a pretty arrangement; Don Redman did 'Just An Old Manuscript'; Moten's 'South' got a gentle update. Basie compositions included 'Swingin' The Blues', 'Basie's Basement'. Small-group sides early '50 included 'Rat Race' and 'Sweets'; Basie disbanded and led a small group with Terry, Wardell Gray and Buddy DeFranco which made a short film with Holiday, then started all over: he formed a big band to record for Norman Granz '52 and stayed the course.

A small group LP The Swinging Count '52 had Oscar Peterson playing organ on one track, a counterpoint to Basie's piano, and Buddy Rich on drums, reminiscent of Jones-Smith in '36 but more relaxed. The new accent for the big band's 'Dance Session' albums was on arrangements, with Neal Hefti ('Sure Thing', 'Why Not?', 'Two For The Blues', 'Two Franks' etc) yet if there were no world-class stars like Lester Young or Buck Clayton there were still good soloists: 'Two For The Blues' was a duet for the two Franks, Wess (b 4 January 1922, Kansas City; d 30 October 2013) and Foster (b 23 September 1928, Cincinnati OH; d 26 July 2011, Chesapeake VA); both left Basie '64 to become busy freelancers. Wess wrote 'Basie Goes Wess', Foster 'Shiny Stockings', 'Down For The Count' and 'Blues Backstage'. Ernie Wilkins (b 20 July 1922, St Louis; d 6 June 1999, Copenhagen) was a third reedman/composer (later with Clark Terry big band, A&R staff at Mainstream Records, etc); he wrote 'Blues Done Come Back', 'Sixteen Men Swinging'. (Jack Cooke wrote an article called 'Sixteen Men Stone Dead': some jazz fans thought that Basie had sold out to Granz, but the Swing Era was over: at a time when there were few places for young musicians even to learn how to play in such a band, less sclerotic fans could still enjoy the sound of good ensemble playing.) The band included Henry Coker (b 24 December 1919, Dallas; d 23 November 1979, Los Angeles), trombone; Newman and Thad Jones, trumpets; Marshal Royal (b 5 December 1912, Sapulpa OK; d 8 May 1995, Los Angeles), clarinet, alto; Charlie Fowlkes (b 16 February 1916, NYC; d 9 February 1980, Dallas), baritone; Gus Johnson (b 15 November 1913, Tyler TX), drums; later Lucky Thompson, Paul Quinichette, others. Singer Joe Willams joined late '54; his big, smooth, handsome blues voice made the ladies squirm and jazz fans happy. The album Count Basie Swings -- Joe Williams Sings '55 was one of the most successful jazz records of the decade and should have been a huge pop hit, but this kind of music was no longer getting much radio play: drummer Sonny Payne (b 4 May 1926 NYC; d 29 June 1979), bassist Eddie Jones (b 1 March 1929, Red Bank; d 31 May 1997) contributed to a set of extremely smooth blues: 'Please Send Me Someone To Love', by Percy Mayfield; 'The Comeback' and 'Every Day (I Have The Blues)' by Memphis Slim, 'In The Evening (When The Sun Goes Down)' by Leroy Carr; Williams wrote 'My Baby Upsets Me' and turned Sammy Cahn's pop song 'Teach Me Tonight' into an erotic plea; of the nine tracks six were arranged by Foster. 'Every Day' was no. 2 on R&B chart, the first Basie hit single for years: the band still with KC roots swung the blues authoritatively, easily: the Swing Era survivors had paid their dues and would be mainstream stalwarts for years to come.

A Metronome all-star session yielded 'Party Blues', a scat duet for Williams and Ella Fitzgerald with the band furiously swinging, the ultimate in high spirits. 'April In Paris' charted '56. The band toured Europe '56 and the UK April '57, was the first black big band to play the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel NYC, June-Sept '57, back in UK that autumn and the first US band to play a Royal Command Performance. Basie switched to the Roulette label; the album The Atomic Mr Basie '57 was all Hefti compositions, including 'Li'l Darlin': the band could swing at a slow tempo, with lovely muted trumpet solo from leadman Wendell Culley (b 8 January 1906, Worcester MA; d June 1983). (For years the poor experimental stereo master was reissued, but the excellent mono engineered by Teddy Reig is now widely available.) Benny Carter wrote albums Kansas City Suite and The Legend '60-61, perhaps the band's last masterpieces of crisp ensemble playing with the KC spirit intact. A two-disc set The Count Basie Story '61 included 23 stereo versions of hits of '30s-40s, with a Leonard Feather booklet; no doubt they weren't a patch on the originals, but Roulette was recording the band live '59-62, and for example, Foster's 'Back To The Apple' (Miami '59, Stockholm '62) was still a good romp, and Benny Carter's 'Easy Money' (Stockholm) was an easy-loping delight. Sonny Cohn (b 14 March 1925, Chicago; d there 7 November 2006) joined on trumpet in 1960 and stayed for 30 years, playing lead and helping to manage the band. Yet it must be admitted that the Roulette years were the band's twilight glow.

Basie freelanced on various labels, and Kansas City Seven ('62 on Impulse) suffers if compared to similar, earlier essays. On The Sunny Side Of The Street ('63, Verve) was made with Ella, arranged by Quincy Jones. Frank Sinatra was a fan and the band appeared on his Reprise label: Basie's Hits Of The 50s And 60s and Sinatra--Basie (a strangely nervous set, with everybody holding back) both '63, It Might As Well Be Swing '64 (with Sinatra) and Sinatra At The Sands '66 (live in Las Vegas) all charted, but didn't necessarily deserve to. The band recorded with Tony Bennett, Teresa Brewer, Billy Eckstine, the Mills Brothers, Sammy Davis Jr, Arthur Prysock and Jackie Wilson; eleven Basie albums charted in Billboard '63-8, not the first case or the last of an artist having his greatest commercial success when past his prime. The Nistico cousins joined: in '65-7 Sal Nistico played tenor; in '68 Sam Nistico arranged (both b Salvatore Nistico: Sal b 2 April 1940, Syracuse NY; d 3 March 1991, Berne Switzerland; he played with Woody Herman and Don Ellis. Sam b 6 February 1924, Pittsburgh; did 20 years in US military, retiring '68 from US Marine Band; wrote Basie Big Band LP on Pablo). Afrique '70 was arranged and conducted by Oliver Nelson with flute, harmonica, electric bass, comps by Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders, a Basie title tune in 7/4 time: an interesting album in its own right, but getting pretty far from Kansas City. Personnel had changed completely by now and time was running out: at London's Royal Festival Hall '75 it sounded like a Las Vegas hotel band, but public affection was long since secure. Basie was in a wheelchair by then, but there were still albums on Granz's Pablo label, inclluding tasty small-group settings, with Joe Pass, Ella, Peterson, Zoot Sims, Basie Jam albums etc. The band appeared in several films, including a film music send-up in Mel Brooks's spoof Blazing Saddles '74, playing all alone in the middle of the desert (in real life the desert would have been full of Basie fans). The Count Basie Orchestra still tours, led '85 by Thad Jones, then by Frank Foster well into the mid-'90s, replaced by Grover Mitchell; young talent included singer Carmen Bradford (on an '86 LP on Denon written by Foster) and later vocalist Chris Murrell. Freddie Green accepted a Grammy for the band '85; Diane Schuur And The Count Basie Orchestra '87 was his last recording and Schuur's fourth LP on GRP (of ten by '95), a vocalist with impressive technical equipment but stylistically an acquired taste. The Basie era was now a beautiful echo.

The classic '37-9 sides are well transferred on Decca (MCA/GRP in UK) or Hep; Basie Rhythm on Hep includes the Jones-Smith '36 tracks and four from '37 with Harry James leading an octet from the Basie band; The Jubilee Alternatives on Hep are AFRS tracks from '43 with Lester Young guesting in excellent sound for the period. Count Basie and his Orchestra: America's #1 Band 2003 was a four-CD box compiling tracks from the Jones-Smith '36 items, small group and big band tracks from '39-51, including broadcasts and all kinds of goodies, decent transfers at last from Sony/Columbia. Bluebird's Brand New Wagon and Shoutin' Blues filled gaps from the late '40s. Mosaic issued limited-edition sets of the complete Roulette recordings, one live and one studio, and a complete edition of the Verve tracks.