The Legendary Count Basie Orchestra Bio

Pianist/composer Count Basie was born in Red Bank, New Jersey August 21, 1904. Like his contemporary Duke Ellington, he was a musician whose style was first formed by the virtuosi of the Stride school, James P. Johnson and Thomas Fats Waller, although, again like Ellington, an irrepressible spark of originality made it possible for him to amend that style into something utterly personal. His rise to bandleader was both gradual and unpremeditated, for it was as a member of Benny Moten’s band that he found himself, after Moten’s death in 1936, almost pushed into control. Within two years the Basie band was first nationally and then internationally famous, and with one short interlude, 1950-51, he fronted a big band, evolving as personal trademarks all the niceties of precise ensemble phrasing allied to a unique sense of group relaxation.

His various orchestras are remembered for several different things, from repertoire (“One O’clock Jump,” “April in Paris”) to singers (particularly James Rushing and Joe Williams), and one of his special virtues was his infallible good taste in picking tenor saxophonists, including Lester Young, Paul Gonsalves, Don Byas, and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis. His piano playing was somewhat eclipsed by an excessive modesty, but he was the originator of a style remarkable for its melodic wit as well as for its stringent economy. This economy, however, was likely to spill over at any time into the muscularity of the Stride school, a habit he found invaluable in his role as a setter of tempos who was never known to make a mistake. His great achievement was his uncanny success in bringing to the disciplines of a large group the ease and expansiveness which years ago might only have been found in the Kansas City joints of his youth.

Count Basie died April 26, 1984.

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