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Count Basie rose from humble beginnings playing in Harlem nightclubs to become one of the most exciting piano players and big band leaders of our time. He became known as the "jump king" in his early days and went on to excite audiences all over the world for more than four decades.
Both of Basie's parents were amateur musicians. His father played the E-flat horn, and his mother, a piano player, taught her son, born William, to play the instrument that would make him famous. In a school band, Count played the drums, but was discouraged when another boy played better than him, so he decided to try his hand at the piano. The boy, Sonny Greer, later went on to play the drums in Duke Ellington's band for 31 years.
Basie had the privilege, during his teenage years, of studying with two of the masters of jazz piano, Fats Waller and James P. Johnson. It was Johnson from whom he learned his signature "stride" style piano playing. Basie played Harlem nightclubs and "prohibition hideaways" in the 1920s. He and his band members popularized the "breakfast dance" festivals which were held every Monday morning from 7:00 to 9:00, and were the current rage.
When Basie was 20 years-old, he left New Jersey for Kansas City, then known as the "gateway to the West." He found a job there playing the organ in the pit of a movie theater, but later got his first band job with a group called the "Blue Devils," with bassist Walter Page. From this experience, Basie learned the distinctive "jump rhythm" that became a Basie trademark.
After six months with the Blue Devils, Basie left to do solo work. He soon joined up with Bennie Moten, a top black leader in the Mid-West. When Moten died in 1934, Basie started a band of his own, which he would take on the road two years later.
Basie introduced the "breakfast dance" to packed houses in Kansas City. During Basie's period here, he earned the nickname, "Count," because of his stylish mode of playing piano. The locals thought that since there was already a Duke Ellington and an Earl Hines, then there was no reason why there shouldn't be a Count.
Soon, on week nights, WHB Radio in Kansas City began broadcasting Basie's band's performances from various night clubs. One night, the musicologist John Hammond happened to be listening and was so struck by what he heard that he called Benny Goodman to tell him to give the band a listen. Goodman agreed with Hammond that the band definitely had talent, so he arranged some extra dates for Basie in the Kansas City area.
The locals soon started calling Basie the "Jump King" because of the band's restless, driving rhythm. In 1936, Basie took the band out on the road, and in 1937, Decca Records signed them on. Basie became recognized as one of the country's leading jazz bands by the end of that year. In December of 1938, the band debuted on Broadway, sending crowds jitterbugging up and down theater aisles.
Throughout the 1940s, Basie and the band continued touring and recording enormously popular records, selling 3,000,000 in 1944 alone. By the end of the decade, though, the fad of big band music had cooled, so Basie reduced the size of his band to eight pieces.
With his second big band in 1952, Basie developed a more smooth, polished style than the one before. He continued touring with a big band right up until the last years of his life. He died in 1984 at the age of 78.