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Revisit: Count Basie: The King of Swing



On September 29, 2016, the GRAMMY Museum opened Count Basie: The King of Swing, an exhibit that offered a glimpse into the life of the nine-time GRAMMY-winning jazz great through unique artifacts from the private collection of the Count Basie estate.

Count Basie: The King of Swing was on display in the GRAMMY Museum’s Mike Curb Gallery on the fourth floor through April 16, 2016.

Count Basie: The King of Swing

William “Count” Basie was one of the greatest jazz bandleaders of all time. Starting in the 1930s, Basie, an accomplished piano player and composer, reshaped the jazz landscape by cleverly blending the genre with blues, elevating the art of swing in the process. Basie was not a soloist like Benny Goodman or an arranger/composer like Duke Ellington. Leading his swinging rhythm section from the piano, Basie used his band as an instrument. The result is a widely influential body of work that earned him the title “King of Swing.”

Basie’s Beginnings

Count Basie was born William James Basie on August 21, 1904 in Red Bank, New Jersey. His mother Lillian, herself a pianist, gave her young son his earliest lessons. Basie got his start in clubs and speakeasies in Asbury Park and Long Branch, New Jersey, before moving to New York and later Kansas City where he made his mark.

While working in Kansas City in 1935, Basie put together the Barons of Rhythm with a number of future jazz greats including Freddie Green (guitar), Jo Jones (drums), and Lester Young (tenor saxophone). In 1937, Basie took his group to New York to record their first album with Decca Records under their new name, The Count Basie Orchestra. Producing an upbeat form of the blues, Basie was able to capture a relaxed, irresistible joy.  As he stated in his autobiography, “I think the band can really swing when it swings easy, when it can just play along like you are cutting butter.”

Count Basie Orchestra film still from Air Mail Special soundie, 1941, Institute of Jazz Studies photograph collection (IJS.0048), Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University Libraries. Original image held by Herrick Library, Los Angeles.

The Count Basie Orchestra – On the Road and On the Airwaves

Near constant touring and recording kept Basie active in the jazz scene, even after the swing era ended. The composition notebook shown below was used to keep track of earnings, expenses, and payments during a tour of U.S. cities between November and December 1939. During this tour, the Count Basie Orchestra performed in Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Missouri, Illinois, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey. On Christmas Eve, 1939, Count Basie and His Orchestra appeared at Carnegie Hall in the “Spirituals to Swing” concert, organized by John Hammond. The concert also featured Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Benny Goodman, Ida Cox, James P. Johnson, and more.

The Count Basie Orchestra’s chart-topping songs helped them gain popularity both nationally and internationally. Hits like “One O’Clock Jump” (their signature song, first recorded in 1937), “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” (1938), and “April in Paris” (recorded in 1955) defined the big-band sound of the era.

Due to financial restrictions, Basie was forced to disband his orchestra in 1950. For the next two years, Basie worked with smaller bands featuring six to nine musicians. Basie recreated his orchestra in 1952 and began touring the US, followed by Europe and Japan. Basie’s new band was known as the “New Testament Band.”

In this video, Count Basie and his septet perform “Basie Boogie,” circa 1950. Courtesy of Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University Libraries.

Count Basie and Friends

Count Basie led his band for nearly five decades and recorded more than 480 albums. Throughout his long and prolific career, Basie collaborated with an all-star cast of musical legends. Duke Ellington, Benny Moten, John Hammond, Billie Holiday, Billy Eckstine, Quincy Jones, and Benny Moten are just a few of the bandleaders, producers, vocalists, and arrangers who worked alongside Basie as he dominated the world of jazz and swing. Basie also released full albums featuring vocals by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.

Count Basie and His Orchestra performing “Corner Pocket” circa 1962. Courtesy of Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University Libraries.

A telegram sent to Count Basie from Frank Sinatra on Basie’s 75th birthday (1979), on display in the New Jersey Legends exhibit at the GRAMMY Museum Experience™ Prudential Center in Newark, NJ.
A telegram sent to Count Basie from Frank Sinatra on Basie’s 75th birthday (1979), on display in the New Jersey Legends exhibit at the GRAMMY Museum Experience™ Prudential Center in Newark, NJ.

Count Basie at the GRAMMY Awards

Basie made history in 1958 when he became the first African American male to receive a GRAMMY Award (Best Jazz Performance, Group). Basie went on to earn a total of nine GRAMMYs over the course of his career, and five of his recordings have been inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame – “One O’Clock Jump” (1979), “April in Paris” (1985), “Everyday I Have the Blues” (1992), “Lester Leaps In” (2005), and Ella And Basie! With Ella Fitzgerald, along with countless other awards and honors.  A dedicated humanitarian and philanthropist, Basie was posthumously presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1985. Basie died just before his 80th birthday on April 26, 1984, in Hollywood, Florida, but his music and legacy are still swinging strong.

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