Personalities | Count Basie | Thirties | Jazz & Blues

If swing in its most characteristic form was a hot and hard-driving music, William ‘Count’ Basie showed that there was a cooler and softer side to the music, an alter ego that even at swift tempos could move with a relaxed, almost serene restraint that subliminally mirrored the streamlined design forms of the Machine Age, in which science and art seemed to mingle.

For Basie this was surely an outcome of chance, not intent. He was born in Red Bank, New Jersey on 21 August 1904 and never finished high school, preferring a life in showbusiness and music. He arrived in New York in 1924 and came to know the reigning Harlem pianists of the day – James P. Johnson, Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith and Fats Waller – mastering their dense, two-handed stride style. But for his own style to emerge he needed to escape those powerful influences. Stranded in Kansas City, Basie joined the Blue Devils, led by bassist Walter Page, in 1927.

The Kansas City Scene

The American Southwest was a jazz environment unto itself, alive with regional bands that worked from Chicago to Texas. In the Blue Devils Basie met the core of players who would be with him in Chicago and New York. In 1929 Basie joined the Bennie Moten Orchestra. He had recorded nine sessions with Moten by the end of 1932, none of which provide a clue to the pianist that would emerge when he next recorded in 1936.

A lot happened during that four-year blackout. After Moten’s sudden death in 1935, Basie took a job at the Reno Club in Kansas City, hiring players from the old Moten unit as well as former Blue Devils. By early 1936 many of the key men were in place, including Walter Page, Jo Jones and Lester Young. Broadcasting nightly from Kansas City, the signals found their way north through the cold night air to Chicago, where they caught the ear of critic John Hammond. Writing in Down Beat, he called the band ‘far and away the finest in the country’ with a rhythm section ‘more exciting than any in American orchestral history’.

That summer Hammond drove to Kansas City and was not disappointed. The band was soon on its way to Chicago, where Hammond recorded a small Basie unit featuring Lester Young in the landmark ‘Lady Be Good’. Suddenly here was the spacious, minimalist Basie piano style, always implying more notes than were played and allowing the rhythm section to shine through with a transparent clarity.

Basie Rhythm

Rhythm guitarist Freddie Greene joined Jones and Page to complete the unique Basie rhythm team. Page and Greene became the quiet pulse keepers. With a rhythm section so subtle and implicit, the arrangements often held back, offering it space. Many of the band’s most characteristic charts would begin softly with a chorus or two of rhythm and Basie’s see-through piano, then unfold in steadily expanding layers of riffs (e.g. ‘One O’Clock...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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