(Originally published October 16, 1985.)
“I’ve always played happy music,” William James Basie once explained. “Music that people can tap their feet to, music that folks wanted to dance to, happy swinging music. That’s what I intend to keep on playing.”
Count Basie, as he was known to millions around the world, died last year, but the orchestra he molded for decades continues under the direction of trumpeter Thad Jones.
Born on Aug. 21, 1904 in Red Bank, N.J., Basie was a man whose music transcended generations and traveled across the continents. He plated swing music whether it was in fashion or not.
The list of talented musicians who got their first break or greater exposure with Basie in lengthy. It includes tenor saxophonist Lester Young, swing drummer Jo Jones, guitarist Freddie Green and singer Joe Williams.
Similarly, the Basie song book is thick. Some of the best remembered entrie are: “One O’Clock Jump,” “Every Day (I have the Blues),” “April in Paris,” “Shiny Stockings,” “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” “Panassie Stomp,” “Every Tub,” and “Li’l Darlin’.”
What follows is a chronological look at the career of the Count, the music he made and the musicians he led.
Bill Basie was a teen-age would-be drummer when he met pianist Fats Waller.
“I had dropped into the old Lincoln Theater in Harlem,” Basie told the New York Times many years later. “and I heard a young fellow beating it out on an organ. From that time on, I was a daily customer, hanging onto every note, sitting behind him all the time. He got used to seeing me, as though I were part of the show. One day he asked me whether I played the organ. ‘No,’ I said, ‘but I’d give my right arm to learn.’
“The next day he invited me to sit in the pit and start working the pedals. I sat on the floor watching his feet and using my hands to imitate him. Then I sat beside him and he taught me.”
“By 1928,” according to Rolling Stone, “he had joined bassist Waiter Page’s Blue Devils, the band that established Kansas City-style jazz. In 1929, Bennie Moten, (Harlem’s) ruling band leader, hired some of Page’s men, Basie among them. When Moten died in 1935, it was Basie who brought together most of the key players. They worked at the Reno Club, where beer was a nickel a glass, whiskey was 15 cents a shot, and the men took home $15 a week.”
“Basie’s attitude toward his music (in the 1950s) is well expressed in his response to a reporter’s: ‘What is your music about?’ Basie paused, then said quietly, ‘Pat your foot,’ ” according to the book Jazz Heritage.
“The very first singer that I ever saw was Nat King Cole,” recalled jazz singer Fred Johnson, “but the first time I ever stood in front of a band was at Fort Dix (circa 1955). It was the Count Basie Orchestra. The first autograph I ever got was Count Basie’s. So they’re pretty special to me.
“I was like 6 years old. My dad was really into big bands. He dressed me up in a little suit. I loved (Basie’s) drummer Sonny Payne, the way he played. My dad never missed Basie’s orchestra.
“It was such a feeling of power. All these brass instruments, all these black guys dressed up. That was a real important image.”
A 1959 press biography on Basie fills in some background on his famous orchestra.
“Except for a period in 1950-51 when he led a swinging sextet (the members included Clark Terry, Wardell Gray and Buddy De Franco), Basie has led a big band continuously for the past two decades and has gained a global reputation for his undying allegiance to the beat, his loyalty to the blues as a basic form, and his ability to produce, year after year, a series of records of unflaggingly high caliber. In 1954, when the band made its first tour of Europe, and 1955, when the Count completed his 20th year as a leader, many new stars were featured, among them Thad Jones, Joe Wilder and Joe Newman again on trumpets, Benny Powell and Henry Coker on trombones, Frank Foster and Frank Wess on tenor saxes. Most of the arrangements were by Neal Hefti and Ernie Wilkins. The Count was heard on the organ, an instrument whose rudiments he had picked up a long time ago from Fats Waller.”
1961: The Basie band played at President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ball.
In December 1963, Basie tried to enter the Mecca, a student restaurant across from the Florida State University (FSU) campus in Tallahassee. Accompanied by a white professor, the band leader was refused admission. He then joined FSU and Florida A & M students on a picket line in front of the restaurant and carried a sign reading “Equal Rights for All Americans.”
Basie and his orchestra played a date at McKay Auditorium in Tampa on Feb. 26, 1968.
“Although Bill Basie has been in the dance band business for about 40 years,” the Times reviewer commented, “he is still an introvert. He sits at the piano, which is in the dark to the left of the stage, while the rest of the band is spotlighted. Basie’s microphone almost hides his face and he doesn’t wait for the applause to subside before he announces the next number.”
Discipline among members of his band was never a problem, Basie told the Chicago Tribune in August 1979. “The guys took care of that within themselves,” he said. “‘Everybody knew what was happenin’ and wanted to make a contribution to the organization. They respected themselves and the orchestra as a whole, and we all tried to keep it worthwhile. They took care of business; in fact, they took care of me sometimes – musically, I mean.”
Basie also said he continued to ride on the band bus because “that’s half the fun of being in the band.”
“This time he made his way to the grand piano on canes,” wrote a times reviewer about a March 4, 1981 concert by the Count. “Age is catching up with William ‘Count’ Basie, one of the last granddaddies of swing. But Basie, in a repeat of last year’s wonderful Tampa Theater performance, charmed his way through. . . .
“His head and shoulders rarely move at all. Just his jaws and eyebrows. He leaves the swinging to his music, and the body motion to the people in the audience who sway and tap. Basie’s music makes you want to swivel your hips even while you’re sitting down.”
Two very different pianists – Count Basie and Rudolph Serkin – joined actress Helen Hayes, actor Cary Grant and choreographer Jerome Robbins as recipients of the 1981 Kennedy Center Honors on Dec. 4. A few days later, the honorees were feted by Ronald Reagan at a White House reception.
The President described Basie as “among the handful of musicians that helped change the path of American music in the ‘30s and ‘40s. He revolutionized jazz.”
Two days before an Oct. 27, 1982 appearance at Le Club on Tierra Verde how he got his nickname from a Kansas City music promoter in the ‘30s.
“We had a Duke of Ellington, and the Earl of Hines, and in those days I think Paul Whiteman was known as the King of jazz. So someone said I could become the Count of Basie . . . I didn’t give it to myself.”
“Confidentially, I hated the name ‘Count,’” Basie told the Associated Press later in 1982. “I wanted to be called Buck or Hoot or even Arkansas Fats.”
Lionel Hampton described Basie as “one of the true greats of music. He had his own particular style. . . . It was one of the greatest styles you could hear.
“He leaves behind a great legacy in his writings and his records and his great bands. It’s a great loss. I hate to even think about it.”
“He’ll be remembered as long as there is a world,” said jazz artist Dave Brubeck in a Washington Post article. “. . . He’ll never leave us.”