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: