“I, of course, wanted to play real jazz. When we played pop tunes, and naturally we had to, I wanted those pops to kick! Not loud and fast, understand, but smoothly and with a definite punch.”
These words may very well perfectly describe their author – William James “Count” Basie. Although passionate – and even referred to by some as one of the greatest musical celebrities of his time, alongside the likes of Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan, with which he all recorded a song or two at one point or another – the Count usually played fewer notes than his contemporaries and his songs were known for their generally relaxed and smooth moods.
Basie began piano lessons with his mother, who did laundry and baked cakes for a living, and had also been rather fond of percussion, until he was discouraged by the great talent and skills that Sonny Greer, another great jazz name that had happened to live in the same town as Basie, had seemed to possess. Greer became Duke Ellington’s drummer in 1919 and the Count decided to focus solely on the piano that very same year.
It would seem Basie was fortunate in having been raised in Red Bank, New Jersey, which was a locale serendipitously filled with different musical cultures. He would often skip class to attend and witness traveling and local bands and different shows and, although he finished junior high school, Basie ended up dropping out and never graduating high school. He quickly learned how to operate lights and improvise accompaniment for silent films, which gained him free admissions to the Palace Theater in his hometown. Something that he later claimed was brought formative value to both his music and life.
From Harlem to Mainstream
By 1920, he was already booking jazz gigs at parties and other venues and, by 1924, he already found himself a part of Harlem’s nightlife, a true blend of various jazz cultures, from where he soon began touring other major jazz centers across America, from Chicago to Kansas City.
In 1935, Basie created his own jazz band nd one that was to become known across the globe. The Count Basie Orchestra, which he chiefly used to play around with his music, was to become his legacy. A great example of how he used it for his own practice and entertainment is a song that became so popular that the band used it as their opening and closing piece during live and radio performances, and it continues to be a very popular jazz standard for bands to this day. Originally titled Blue Balls, it was renamed due to being too risque for mainstream radio. Allegedly, Count Basie took one look at his watch and decided to call it One O’Clock Jump instead.
The song was composed by Basie and his band while they were playing during recording sessions. Although the song was changed with every version performed or recorded, seeing as the composition comes from a practice which was not often performed beforehand – riffing with a big band. This also became a Basie and Co. signature.
Basie and Fitzgerald (by way of Quincy Jones)
In 1959, the Count and Ella Fitzgerald both attended the first annual Grammys award ceremony and, despite all eyes being on Frank Sinatra and his six nominations (out of the total 28 awards being handed out then, compared to the 83 today). Sinatra took only one statuette home, while Basie and Fitzgerald took home two each. Basie would, in his lifetime, win nine Grammys, while Ella would collect 14, including a well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Award.
The shocking thing about this pair is that they had not collaborated on any project until 1957, on the album One O’Clock Jump, where Count Basie’s Orchestra was the instrumental part of Ella Fitzgerald’s and Joe Williams’ duet Too Close to Comfort.
Whether or not the Count actually participated on the creation of this song is not clear, but what is known is that Basie and Ella did collaborate on their first album, Ella and Basie!, eventually. Brought together by a young Quincy Jones, the recording is considered one of Fitzgerald’s best and was organised and arranged by Jones, who now happens to hold the record for most Grammys won by a producer. He was barely 30 years old when the first Fitzgerald-Basie album was released in 1963.
Amazingly, no other person before Jones had managed to put these two legendary jazz contemporaries together into a studio before. Fitzgerald and Basie continued their collaboration for the next several years after this, both frequently working with Quincy Jones as well. Though they had lived and performed in the same places, attended the same events and ceremonies, and had even covered some of the same songs, it took a 20-something up-and-coming arranger and producer from Chicago to bring the two home – into a studio together.