Count Basie: Taking Big Band to Swing with the Blues on the Dance Floor

“Swing” in jazz, for the audience on a dance floor, is often described as an emotional response, with foot-tapping, dancing to a rhythm and a propulsive “feel” to the beat. There is no greater contributor or bandleader for this big-band sound than the legendary Count Basie – jazz pianist, arranger and major influencer of this style of jazz. As Duke Ellington used his band as an expressive instrument for his compositions, Basie gave popularity back to jazz with his version of “Swing” – using a super-charged, blues-based, often faster beat that in the 1950s brought enormous popularity back to the dance floor and gave Basie the unofficial title of “King of Swing.”

Basie’s beginnings as a young aspiring jazz musician would lead him to New York City; specifically, in Harlem—the epicenter of jazz in the mid-1920s, intersecting with bandmembers of Duke Ellington and other significant sidemen. During this same period, he would join traveling vaudeville shows from Kansas City, St. Louis, New Orleans, and Chicago. The “on the road” experience of performing every night would introduce him to the nature of the entertainment business and finding, in himself, not only a soloist ability but a natural talent for accompaniment and musical direction.

Basie would often express that “Swing” was still being invented from its origins in the Big Band era of the 1930s. An early pre-swing pioneer, and his original mentor, Fats Waller, would take Basie under his tutelage, representing the styles and musical influences of both “Stride” and “Ragtime” that would be practiced and developed by Basie for his own musical form and arrangement later as a young bandleader. In ‘25, Waller, then an organist for a silent movie theater, The Lincoln Theater, in Harlem, taught and tutored Basie, who would later find his first solo public performance as an organist for The Eblon Theater in Kansas City,

In 1929, Basie became the pianist for bandleader Bennie Moten in Kansas City, performing in direct competition with the standard-bearers of the development of the big-band concept and “Swing:” Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington:

During this time, Kansas City was also a city of choice for vice and entertainment under the Pendergast political machine controlled by corrupt city councilmen and chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Party, T.J. Pendergast. As described by several band members of this period, Kansas City was the most integrated, and “open” city for all entertainment, particularly dance clubs, with liberal laws regarding alcohol, late-night permits, and a mecca for “partying” – as well as jazz. Dance Hall music was in high demand and “cutting floor” dance competitions and inter-band competitions were a regular draw for youthful audiences.

As a significantly formative period in his musical development, Basie would be the lead pianist for Moten’s band until Moten’s death in 1935. As the Great Depression was impacting all entertainment well into the ‘30s and ‘40s, Basie was trying to re-form bands in the absence of Moten and fighting for bookings and gigs along with other bandleaders.

After several attempts, Basie came together with a stellar group of musicians that included saxophone virtuoso Lester Young, along with the exceptionally talented lineup of Walter Page (bass), Freddie Green (guitar) Jo Jones (drums) and Jimmy Rushing (vocals). As stated by long-time band member saxophonist John Williams, this was the moment that Basie would seize the reins as a bandleader, demonstrating an acute ability to direct, arrange and command his own “Swing” band, “He (Basie) had innate, inherent musical taste. He also chose writers compatible to the style he wanted.”

Basie was now performing with his own band for the first time in his career, at the Reno Club, with his own nine-piece group, the Barons of Rhythm, often before a live radio broadcast. It was his first professional long-term gig in a nightclub environment, “where drinks cost 15 cents each, hamburgers 5 cents and the musicians were paid $15 a week for seven nights work.” Radio was coming of age for music listeners as well, and Basie suddenly reached a much larger audience. He would be titled “Count” by a radio announcer who decided that Basie was deserving of a similar recognition to differentiate him from the first names of jazz royalty: Earl Hines and Duke Ellington. The stage name stuck, as few references to Basie ever use his given first name – William.

As one song can sometimes catapult a singer, songwriter, or bandleader to commercial recognition, the release of One O’Clock Jump, a 12-bar blues instrumental, originally born as an improvisation, led to enormous radio airplay and became a top request for the dance floor, becoming his signature tune.

Moving to Chicago in 1936 and securing a long engagement at the Grand Terrace Café, he was noticed by the dynamic, market-driven, jazz-dedicated record producer John Hammond, who had heard the Basie Band by chance, on the radio, and immediately sought him out.  By 1933, Hammond had already produced a series of recordings with Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter, and Benny Goodman. In the same year, Hammond produced Bessie Smith’s final recording sessions and Billie Holiday’s first. Hammond would bring Basie and his orchestra to national prominence and critical recordings including Shoe Shine Boy, Evening, Boogie Woogie, and Oh Lady Be Good.

Moving his orchestra to New York City in 1937 under Hammond’s direction, Basie, with a band of outstanding instrumental talent that rivaled Duke Ellington and Chick Webb’s lineups, showed that his characteristic “jumping” beat sound had taken off. In addition, he had the “Prez,” a nickname that evolved for tenor saxophonist Lester Young, with his relaxed, lyrical style, becoming a seminal influence in improvisation on his instrument, while headlining for Basie’s orchestra.

For many jazz critics, this moment, playing to packed dance hall venues like Roseland Ballroom and The Savoy, was a breakaway for Basie, showing a looser style with a “wall of sound” driving rhythm and allowing for soloing “pass around.” Renowned jazz critic Gary Giddins states, “So much of what Basie did is really based on this attitude of freedom and incredible swing and has this buccaneer quality that distinguishes him (Basie) from some of the best New York City bands of that same period.”

Loving the blues and centering on the standards that he would always be associated with, such as Jumpin’ at the Blues, April in Paris, and Going to Chicago, he had brought back the popularity of this genre and melded it into his big band orchestra. He also introduced some of the greatest blues singers in the songbook of jazz of this period, including Billie Holiday, Jimmy Rushing, Big Joe Turner, Helen Humes, and Joe Williams.

With a significant downturn in demand for entertainment during the WWII years, Basie disbanded his group, which was the fate of many other jazz bandleaders. However, his comeback release of April in Paris (1955, Verve Records) in a post-WWII America, would solidify Basie’s place at the front of a jazz transition, with its title cut becoming one his most popular recordings. AllMusic gave this release 5 stars calling it, “one of those rare albums that makes its mark as an almost instant classic in the jazz pantheon.”

As post-WWII society was seeking a release from pent-up lifestyles and focusing on adult entertainment outlets, Basie’s orchestra led the way as a tightly honed machine, with a fireworks tempo. Jazz critic Giddins wrote, “By the late 1950s, Basie and his band had become an institution. It was such a great band and audiences loved him and he made the room come alive.” From a more personal observation, John Williams, saxophonist and a long-time Basie bandmate reflected on this evolution, “He (Basie) would mold the band into what he wanted it to be by moving personnel in and out – finally making a unit that sounded like one instrument.”

In 1957, his orchestra would mark another successful release from a live recording at the Newport Jazz Festival. Count Basie at Newport (1957, Verve), would showcase a Who’s Who of extraordinary talent, offering a remarkable and historic set on the main stage. Music critic Scott Yanow awarded the album five stars and said that “At the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival, the music was consistently inspired and often historic. Count Basie welcomed back tenor great Lester Young and singer Jimmy Rushing for part of a very memorable set…Young plays beautifully throughout and Rushing is in prime form. An exciting full-length version of “One O’Clock Jump” features Young, Illinois Jacquet, and trumpeter Roy Eldridge…it’s a great set of music.”

In ’58, Basie’s band toured Europe along with many other Black jazz musicians and band leaders, escaping the racial divide that had only intensified in the U.S. He would be welcomed and receive greater appreciation of his talent as an accomplished jazz icon, particularly in France, the Netherlands and Germany. Later, he toured with the “Birdland Stars of 1955“, whose lineup included Sarah Vaughan, Erroll Garner, Lester Young, George Shearing, and Stan Getz.

In the ‘60s, Basie would collaborate with Frank Sinatra, who had always loved Basie and his orchestral “swing” sound. Together they would merge their love of swing and find a special chemistry. As Sinatra now owned his own recording label, Reprise Records, he could have total control and let his affection for Basie and his style of big band, coupled with exceptional arrangers including Quincy Jones, take them where their musical inclinations chose.

Most critics agree that Sinatra’s first studio collaboration with the Basie orchestra, Sinatra-Basie: An Historic Musical First, recorded in 1962, is one of the best of his Reprise albums. As reviewed by John White of Jazz Journal, “With carefully crafted arrangements by Neil Hefti, the friendship and mutual admiration of Frank and the Count, and the wholehearted and dynamic support of the “New Testament” band, nothing could go wrong.” This was a relationship built on years of earned mutual reputation and well-seasoned experience in working with arrangements and delivering tight live performances. Per jazz critic David Bowling of BlogCritics, “Count Basie and Frank Sinatra were a perfect match, as the band leader and the singer complemented each other in style, sound, and professionalism. Sinatra easily fit into the singing style of Basie’s band, as the majority of the material is presented in a relaxed and swinging way.”

In the ‘50s and ‘60s, Quincy Jones, later a renowned producer, would establish his musical career as Basie’s most sought-after arranger, and they would also develop a close, lifelong personal friendship. Basie is quoted as saying, “I’ll take anything that Quincy brings in. They (arrangers like Quincy Jones) don’t just write for the instrument, they write for the musician who plays it.”

Basie, as a bandleader, was demanding but also sincerely caring for the well-being of his bandmates and staff, as cited by several long-term members in the documentary Count Basie: Through His Own Eyes. As they reflected on their performance-touring lifestyle under Basie, they stated it was a 24/7 commitment. The band spent 10 of every 12 months on the road touring, on a Greyhound bus from city to city, and due to segregation laws of the ’50s and ‘60s were often refused meals and/or accommodation, requiring driving all night after performances to a Black neighborhood to rest and eat. Basie stated many times, “We are family.” Quincy Jones also talked about the responsibilities of his close friend and bandleader, “It’s a lot to eat, because you have to be daddy, psychiatrist, baby-sitter – everything. You have to do it all.”

For the ‘60s and ‘70s, as the “Basie” sound was delivered best live and his orchestra still had enormous talent, depth, and range on each instrument, his touring schedule never slowed down. And, with the addition of TVs in household living rooms across the country and particularly popular variety shows, Basie was seen by a new audience. Las Vegas was another venue growing its entertainment industry along with casino gambling, and it was here where he would back up headliners like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Sarah Vaughan. Additionally, he was releasing multiple recordings abroad in Europe, in all major cities where he performed. Basie even managed a few cameo parts in movies, such as in the Jerry Lewis film Cinderfella (1960) and Mel Brooks’ classic Blazing Saddles (1974), playing a revised arrangement of April in Paris.

His last major performance was at a star-studded tribute concert in 1981, Count Basie at Carnegie Hall in New York City, with special guests Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan, and George Benson. He died in 1984.

As a personal characteristic, you rarely could find him without a smile across his face, in footage on or off the stage. Jazz critic, author, and historian Nat Hentoff, in his book Jazz Is, offers a wonderful reflection and image of Basie, from a firsthand recollection, which is both personal and revealing: “A cold winter afternoon in Boston, and I, sixteen, am passing the Savoy Café in the Black part of town. A slow blues curls out into the sunlight and pulls me indoors. Count Basie, hat on, with half-smile, is floating the beat with Jo Jones’s brushes whispering behind him.”

In Basie’s lifetime, he was honored with a plethora of humanitarian awards. In the previously referenced documentary Count Basie: Through His Own Words, a jazz musician and late member to his band reflected on an interview question he heard Basie was asked, “He was asked what he wished to be remembered for, and his answer was, ‘a nice guy’ – not ‘I hope you remember or like my piano playing or my band.’” He did not always have a smooth road at home, and yet was remembered by friends and bandmates for his loyalty and generosity. Though he never revealed his personal life, there were challenges, including a daughter with cerebral palsy, whom he loved dearly.

The Grammy Museum had this summation: “He was the “arbiter of the big-band swing sound and his unique style of fusing blues and jazz established swing as a predominant music style. Basie changed the jazz landscape and shaped mid-20th century popular music, duly earning the title “King of Swing” because he made the world want to dance.” He stands as a giant in the arena of big bands, in company with Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington, and as a legendary bandleader, he carried himself with grace and dignity.