Born in Red Bank, New Jersey in 1904, William “Count” Basie was raised by a musical family—his father played the mellophone and his mother the piano; she taught him how to play. Reportedly, the teenaged Basie preferred playing drums to piano, but meeting musicians like fellow Red Banker Sonny Greer, who played drums with Duke Ellington’s band, made him reconsider his musical focus. Playing piano locally lead to gigs in Harlem, and soon enough Basie was on the road with bands like Katie Krippen and Her Kiddies and Walter Page and His Blue Devils, playing in jazz hotbeds like Chicago and Kansas City.
By 1937 Basie had his own group and had returned to the east coast, settling in Woodside, Queens and soon enough playing the Roseland in Manhattan. With advice and encouragement from producer John Hammond, Basie and his Orchestrawent from being a strong road act to an orchestra that was good enough for the most critical New York audiences. In 1938, they participated in a Battle of the Bands at the Savoy against Chick Webb’s orchestra. Each band had a promising young singer—Webb had Ella Fitzgerald, and Basie had Billie Holiday.
According to Metronome magazine, Basie’s band was the victor:
“Throughout the fight, which never let down in its intensity during the whole fray, Chick took the aggressive, with the Count playing along easily and, on the whole, more musically scientifically. Undismayed by Chick’s forceful drum beating, which sent the audience into shouts of encouragement and appreciation and casual beads of perspiration to drop from Chick’s brow onto the brass cymbals, the Count maintained an attitude of poise and self-assurance. He constantly parried Chick’s thundering haymakers with tantalizing runs and arpeggios which teased more and more force from his adversary”.
An assured swing that never had to assert dominance by force was still evident in 1940, when “Gone With “What” Wind” was recorded.
Benny Goodman had recorded his version of the song a year before, with Lionel Hampton on vibes and Charlie Christian on a very new instrument called the electric guitar. Both versions benefit from the chosen iarrangements—Basie’s from the rich, full orchestra treatment that gets folks dancing, and Goodman’s from the sonic space that a jazz sextet allows for soloists to really shine.
Basie’s B side was just as jumping.
One wonders what was meant by the provocative title, “Gone With “What” Wind”. It’s a good litmus test for one’s cultural and political leanings; I lean to the left in those regards, so I was expecting something that would decry the injustice of the Jim Crow South—as if to say, in 1940, the racism that got whitewashed by the novel and movie “Gone With the Wind” is still very real and is not gone at all. But as you can tell, it’s a fun little number that gets your toes tappin’ and doesn’t seem to have an angry bone it’s musical body. Plus it’s an instrumental; Billie Holiday never actually recorded with Count Basie, so there’s no “Strange Fruit” truth-telling here. Maybe the intent was to convey the lively musical life of Southern cities like New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama: “the South isn’t gone at all—in fact, it swings, man!” Or it could mean something else entirely. Obviously, if I’d been able to find a definitive answer I’d have shared it with you good folks; if anyone has any insights, please do let me know in the comments section.
Here’s Count Basie and his Orchestra performing one of his signature tunes, “One O’Clock Jump,” in 1943. Starting at 2:23, it’s easy to imagine the doppler effect that the trombones could create if you saw them play this song live.
Count Basie would continue to perform well into his old age. Here he is in 1962, with the incredible Sonny Payne on drums.
And like so many folks my age, my introduction to Count Basie came from his performance of “April In Paris” in Mel Brooks’ incredible Blazing Saddles.
When I’m old and grey, I look forward to wearing a yachting cap, too. I don’t care about actually owning a yacht; I just want to be the eccentric old guy who wears a yachting cap with his early-90’s indie rock T shirts.
Count Basie died at the age of 79, in Hollywood, Florida. He left behind an incredible catalog of recordings and scores of musicians who could attribute to his easy-going, respectful attitude—ask anyone who toured with Buddy Rich about how refreshing basic respect from the bandleader could be.
Count Basie was a class act, all the way.