Harvey Lee and
Lillian Ann Chiles Basie, Count Basie’s parents were
both musicians. His father played the mellophone; Mrs. Basie
was a pianist who gave her son his earliest lessons. Frank
It may not have been the best but it certainly wasn't the worst of times when Bill Basie was born on August 21, 1904 in Red Bank, New Jersey. This little town, some 45 minutes from New York City, was then an important resort for well-established citizens, and Basie's father was a coachman and caretaker for a judge who owned a big estate. His mother took in laundry, and between the two, they made enough to own the house they lived in with William and his older brother, Leroy.
Bill had piano lessons, but really wanted to play drums (his fabulous sense of time, it seems, made itself felt early on). There was a little beach by the Shrewsbury river, and a dock where the fishing boats dumped oysters and clams, and the occasional carnival, and Bill did all the things boys will do in a small and peaceful town, but what he loved best of all was the local movie and vaudeville theater, where he made himself useful in various ways, subbing for the projectionist, doing backstage jobs, and even playing the piano for silent films.
Harry Richardson and His Sunny Kings of Syncopation found a place for Bill Basie, seen second from left in this 1922 photograph. Other members included, l-r, Jimmy Hill, violin; Elmer Williams, tenor saxophone; and Richardson, drums. Frank Driggs Collection.
But he still had that yen for the drums, until he encountered Sonny Greer, from nearby Long Branch and some seven years his senior. Sonny hadn't yet linked up with Duke Ellington, but he was already a master percussionist, and after working a few little gigs with him, Bill decided to stick with piano.
By his own admission, he didn't do well in school, and after barely making it though Junior High, he walked out one fine day, with his friend Elmer Williams, who played saxophone, determined to make his way in show business. The boys settled at first in Asbury Park, where Bill encountered such legendary keyboard masters as Donald Lambert and Willie Gant, and then, one fine day in the late summer of 1924, they moved into an apartment in the heart of Harlem.
According to Duke Ellington, who'd arrived there just a bit before, Harlem was "like Arabian Nights," a veritable wonderland for musicians and performers. Bands, pianists, singers, dancers could be found everywhere, and Basie drank it all in, found a few jobs, and then joined a touring show, Hippity Hop, that would take him on the road, on the Columbia Wheel vaudeville circuit, with brief stays in many a town, including a place that was to play a key role in his life--Kansas City. But that first visit was one he could hardly recall years later; just one of many stops involving theaters and boarding houses. But the next time the show came through, he and Elmer checked out the nightlife and couldn't believe their eyes and ears. "All of those joints were wide open," he told Albert Murray. "The action was greater than anything I'd ever heard of."
Kansas City, like New Orleans and Chicago, had a raucous nightclub scene, fueled in part by the lure of illegal alcohol and associated vice during Prohibition days, that gave rise to thriving musical scenes that yielded distinctive schools of jazz. Frank Driggs Collection.
Back in New York, Basie struck up a friendship with his contemporary and fellow keyboarder Fats Waller, who was then (among other things) playing the grand Wurlitzer organ at the Lincoln Theater, one of Harlem's finest movie palaces. It was there that Fats taught Basie the secrets of the organ, with Bill literally sitting at his feet. Needless to say, Basie became one of the finest jazz practitioners of that instrument; some his fans wish he'd played it more often on records. And by way of Fats, Bill also hooked up with stride piano legends James P. Johnson, Willie "The Lion" Smith and Luckey Roberts, his ears open wide.
Soon, the road beckoned again, this time with a larger show headed by Gonzelle White and touring under the auspices of TOBA (Theater Owners Booking Association, but to performers, those letters stood for Tough on Black Asses). They hit Kansas City again, but it was in Tulsa that Basie had his musical epiphany when he encountered Walter Page's Blue Devils, a band just steeped in the blues (in its ranks were Hot Lips Page, Buster Smith, and Jimmy Rushing). The White show broke up in Kansas City, but just then Basie was taken ill, and once he got well, everyone was gone. He soon found job playing for silent movies and thrived on the local music scene. After sitting in with the Blue Devils, he was thrilled to be asked to join them.
Next, he talked himself into the piano chair with Kansas City's most successful band, led by Bennie Moten--who happened to be a pretty good piano player, but seemed ready to yield his bench to younger hands. It was here that Basie also began to arrange, with assistance from Eddie Durham, the trombonist-guitarist-arranger. In l934, with Moten's blessings and assistance, he led his own first band in Little Rock, Ark. but soon returned, and after Moten's untimely death (from a botched tonsillectomy), briefly remained under Bennie's brother Buster's leadership.
But that was his last fling as a sideman, and before long, he was co-leading the Barons of Rhythm with Buster Smith. Soon he was the sole leader, holding forth at the Reno Club--and thereby hangs the end of this tale, and the coming of the best of swinging times.
At the time of this 1928 photograph, Basie had not yet acquired the title of “Count,” and was simply called Bill. Frank Driggs Collection.
Early photograph of the “Now Count” Basie, when he was simply known as “Bill.” Metronome Magazine Collection, Getty Images.
Basie played piano for blues singer Kate Krippen and Her Kiddies on the Columbia Burlesque Circuit at the time this 1925 photograph was taken. Band members included, l-r, Steve Wright, drums; Freddie Douglas, trumpet; Krippen; Elmer Williams, saxophone, saxophone; and Lou Henry, trombone.