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Born in Red Bank, New Jersey, in 1904, William “Count” Basie was not always the fabled Count. He began his career as Bill Basie, an itinerant pianist who made his living pounding the keys in theaters that featured silent movies and touring on the Theatre Owners Booking Agency (TOBA) circuit, a hopscotch run of independent performance venues, in black communities stretching from East to West, North, and South.
TOBA was also known as “Tough On Black Artists,” or, less affectionately, “Tough On Black ‘You-Know-Whats.’” In 1927, Basie, then touring with Gonzelle White and the Big Jazz Jamboree, found himself “high and dry” in Kansas City, Missouri. It was unlikely that Basie had followed Horace Greely’s (Actually, John B.L. Soule’s) entreaty to “go West, young man,” and his destiny was certainly not manifest. AS Basie recounted in his autobiography, Good Morning Blues, “I don’t remember what my plans were at that time, but in the meantime I got sick and had to go to the hospital.”
Nevertheless, for a musician of Basie’s inclinations, Kansas City was not a bad place to be stranded. In the 1920s and ’30s, Kansas City was headquarters for the territory bands that plied the mid- and southwest. The city was also a veritable cauldron for the heady mixture of blues principles, ineffably swinging rhythms, and brilliant instrumentalists that coalesced into one of the signature sounds of American music, both popular in its appeal and substantial in its musical import.
Basie quickly fell in with the best of the territory bands, including Walter Page’s Blue Devils and Benny Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra. By 1935, Basie’s destiny was becoming manifest. He had formulated and was leading the band that epitomized Kansas City Swing: THE COUNT BASIE ORCHESTRA. Along with the bands of Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman, Basie’s orchestra would define the big-band era.
While the media of that time crowned Benny Goodman the “King of Swing,” the real King of Swinging was undoubtedly The Count. Basie’s achievements, however, would transcend the Swing Era as such. The Basie orchestra evolved into one of the most venerable and viable enterprises in American music, as meaningful in its legacy and continuing productivity as any musical organization of the 20th (and 21st) century.
In the early 1950s, the “New Testament” Basie Orchestra rose, phoenix-like, from the ashes of the big-band era. For the last 50+ years, the Basie Orchestra has been an arranger’s palette. Thad Jones, Ernie Wilkins, Neal Hefti, and Frank Foster, to name a few of the more prominent of Basie’s penmen, have added volumes to the Basie Orchestra library. Through them, the Basie repertoire has continued to broaden harmonically and rhythmically, making it more than hospitable to the talents of successive generations of musicians. As Basie allowed for a certain measure of change and for a variety of voices to emerge on the platform he created, his remained the ultimate sensibility.
Since Basie’s passing in 1984, Thad Jones, Frank Foster, Grover Mitchell, and Bill Hughes have led the Count Basie Orchestra, maintaining it as one of the elite performing organizations in jazz.