Today is the birthday (1904) of William James “Count” Basie, legendary jazz pianist, organist, bandleader, and composer. Basie was born to Harvey Lee and Lillian Basie in Red Bank, New Jersey. Both of his parents had some type of musical background. His father played the mellophone, and his mother played the piano. She gave Basie his first piano lessons. She took in laundry and baked cakes for sale for a living. She paid 25 cents a lesson for piano instruction for him. He finished junior high school, but spent much of his time at the Palace Theater in Red Bank, where doing occasional chores gained him free admission to performances. He quickly learned to improvise music appropriate to the acts and the silent movies.
Basie preferred drums even though he was a good piano player, but he was discouraged by the obvious talents of Sonny Greer, who also lived in Red Bank and who became Duke Ellington’s drummer in 1919. At age 15 Basie switched to piano exclusively. Greer and Basie played together in venues until Greer set out on his professional career. By then, Basie was playing with pick-up groups for dances, resorts, and amateur shows, including Harry Richardson’s “Kings of Syncopation.”
Around 1920, Basie went to Harlem, which was one of the centers of jazz in the US. Basie began touring with several acts, and before he was 20 years old, he had toured extensively on the Keith and TOBA vaudeville circuits as a solo pianist, accompanist, and music director for blues singers, dancers, and comedians. Back in Harlem in 1925, Basie gained his first steady job at Leroy’s, a place known for its piano players and its “cutting contests.” The place catered to “uptown celebrities,” and typically the band winged every number without sheet music using “head arrangements.” He met Fats Waller, who was playing organ at the Lincoln Theater accompanying silent movies, and Waller taught him how to play. (Basie later played organ at the Eblon Theater in Kansas City). In 1928, Basie was in Tulsa and heard Walter Page and his Famous Blue Devils, one of the first big bands, which featured Jimmy Rushing on vocals. A few months later, he was invited to join the band, which played mostly in Texas and Oklahoma. The following year, in 1929, Basie became the pianist with the Bennie Moten band based in Kansas City, inspired by Moten’s ambition to raise his band to the level of Duke Ellington’s or Fletcher Henderson’s. In addition to playing piano, Basie was co-arranger with Eddie Durham, who notated the music. Their “Moten Swing”, which Basie claimed credit for, was widely acclaimed and was an invaluable contribution to the development of swing music. During a stay in Chicago, Basie recorded with the band. He occasionally played four-hand piano and dual pianos with Moten, who also conducted. The band improved with several personnel changes, including the addition of tenor saxophonist Ben Webster.
When the band voted Moten out, Basie took over for several months, calling the group “Count Basie and his Cherry Blossoms.” A year later, Basie joined Bennie Moten’s band, and played with them until Moten’s death in 1935 from a failed tonsillectomy. When Moten died, the band tried to stay together but couldn’t make a go of it. Basie then formed his own nine-piece band, Barons of Rhythm, with many former Moten members including Walter Page (bass), Freddie Green (guitar), Jo Jones (drums), Lester Young (tenor saxophone) and Jimmy Rushing (vocals). The Barons of Rhythm were regulars at the Reno Club and often performed for a live radio broadcast. During a broadcast the announcer wanted to give Basie’s name some style, so he called him “Count.” The “noble” name aligned him with the likes of Duke Ellington and Earl Hines.
Basie’s new band included many Moten alumni, with the important addition of tenor player Lester Young. They played at the Reno Club and sometimes were broadcast on local radio. Late one night with time to fill, the band started improvising. Basie liked the results and named the piece “One O’Clock Jump.” According to Basie, “we hit it with the rhythm section and went into the riffs, and the riffs just stuck. We set the thing up front in D-flat, and then we just went on playing in F.” It became his signature tune.
At the end of 1936, Basie and his band, now billed as “Count Basie and His Barons of Rhythm,” moved from Kansas City to Chicago, where they honed their repertoire at a long engagement at the Grand Terrace Ballroom. Right from the start, Basie’s band was noted for its rhythm section. Another Basie innovation was the use of two tenor saxophone players; at the time, most bands had just one. When Young complained of Herschel Evans’ vibrato, Basie placed them on either side of the alto players, and soon had the tenor players engaged in “duels”. Many other bands later adapted the split tenor arrangement. In October 1936, the band had a recording session in Chicago which the producer John Hammond later described as “the only perfect, completely perfect recording session I’ve ever had anything to do with.”
By 1937, Basie’s sound was characterized by a “jumping” beat and the contrapuntal accents of his own piano. His personnel around 1937 included: Lester Young and Herschel Evans (tenor sax), Freddie Green (guitar), Jo Jones (drums), Walter Page (bass), Earle Warren (alto sax), Buck Clayton and Harry Edison (trumpet), Benny Morton and Dickie Wells (trombone). Lester Young, known as “Prez” by the band, came up with nicknames for all the other band members. He called Basie “Holy Man”, “Holy Main”, and plain “Holy.”
Basie favored blues, and he showcased some of the most notable blues singers of the era after he went to New York: Billie Holiday, Jimmy Rushing, Big Joe Turner, Helen Humes, and Joe Williams. He also hired arrangers who knew how to maximize the band’s abilities, such as Eddie Durham and Jimmy Mundy.
When Basie took his orchestra to New York in 1937, they made the Woodside Hotel in Harlem their base. Soon, they were booked at the Roseland Ballroom for the Christmas show. Basie recalled a review, which said something like, “We caught the great Count Basie band which is supposed to be so hot he was going to come in here and set the Roseland on fire. Well, the Roseland is still standing.” Compared to the reigning band of Fletcher Henderson, Basie’s band lacked polish and presentation. The producer John Hammond continued to advise and encourage the band, and they soon came up with some adjustments, including softer playing, more solos, and more standards. They paced themselves to save their hottest numbers for later in the show, to give the audience a chance to warm up. His first official recordings for Decca followed, under contract to agent MCA, including “Pennies from Heaven” and “Honeysuckle Rose”.
Hammond introduced Basie to Billie Holiday, whom he invited to sing with the band. (Holiday did not record with Basie, as she had her own record contract and preferred working with small combos). The band’s first appearance at the Apollo Theater followed, with the vocalists Holiday and Jimmy Rushing getting the most attention. Durham returned to help with arranging and composing, but for the most part, the orchestra worked out its numbers in rehearsal, with Basie guiding the proceedings. There were often no musical notations made. Once the musicians found what they liked, they usually were able to repeat it using their “head arrangements” and collective memory.
Next, Basie played at the Savoy, which was noted more for lindy-hopping, while the Roseland was a place for fox-trots and congas. In early 1938, the Savoy was the meeting ground for a “battle of the bands” with Chick Webb’s group. Basie had Holiday, and Webb countered with the singer Ella Fitzgerald. As Metronome magazine proclaimed, “Basie’s Brilliant Band Conquers Chick’s”; the article described the evening:
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.
The publicity over the big band battle, before and after, gave the Basie band a boost and wider recognition. Soon after, Benny Goodman recorded their signature “One O’Clock Jump” with his band. A few months later, Holiday left for Artie Shaw’s band. Hammond introduced Helen Humes, whom Basie hired; she stayed with Basie for four years. When Eddie Durham left for Glenn Miller’s orchestra, he was replaced by Dicky Wells. Basie’s 14-man band began playing at the Famous Door, a mid-town nightspot with a CBS network feed and air conditioning, which Hammond was said to have bought the club in return for their booking Basie steadily throughout the summer of 1938. Their fame took a huge leap. Adding to their play book, Basie received arrangements from Jimmy Mundy (who had also worked with Benny Goodman and Earl Hines), particularly for “Cherokee”, “Easy Does It”, and “Super Chief”.
On February 19th, 1940, Count Basie and his Orchestra opened a four-week engagement at Southland in Boston, and they broadcast over the radio on 20th February. On the West Coast, in 1942, the band did a spot in Reveille With Beverly, a musical film starring Ann Miller, and a “Command Performance” for Armed Forces Radio, with Hollywood stars Clark Gable, Bette Davis, Carmen Miranda, Jerry Colonna, and the singer Dinah Shore. Other minor movie spots followed, including Choo Choo Swing, Crazy House, Top Man, Stage Door Canteen, and Hit Parade. They also continued to record for OKeh Records and Columbia Records. The war years caused a lot of turn over in musicians, and the band worked many play dates with lower pay. Dance hall bookings were down sharply as swing began to fade, the effects of the musicians’ strikes of 1942–44 and 1948 began to be felt, and the public’s taste grew more for singers than for bands.
The big band era appeared to have ended after the war, and Basie disbanded the group. For a while, he performed in combos, sometimes stretched to an orchestra. In 1950, he headlined the Universal-International short film “Sugar Chile” Robinson, Billie Holiday, Count Basie and His Sextet. He reformed his group as a 16-piece orchestra in 1952. Basie credits Billy Eckstine, a top male vocalist of the time, for prompting his return to Big Band. He said that Norman Granz got them into the Birdland club and promoted the new band through recordings on the Mercury, Clef, and Verve labels. The jukebox era had begun, and Basie shared the exposure along with early rock’n’roll and rhythm and blues artists. Basie’s new band was more of an ensemble group, with fewer solo turns, and relying less on improvisation and more on written arrangements.
Basie added touches of bebop “so long as it made sense”, and he required that “it all had to have feeling”. Basie’s band was sharing Birdland with such bebop greats as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis. Behind the occasional bebop solos, he always kept his strict rhythmic pulse, “so it doesn’t matter what they do up front; the audience gets the beat”. Basie also added flute to some numbers, a novelty at the time that became widely copied. Soon, his band was touring and recording again.
In 1958, the band made its first European tour. Jazz was especially appreciated in France, The Netherlands, and Germany in the 1950s; these countries were the stomping grounds for many expatriate American jazz stars who were either resurrecting their careers or sitting out the years of racial divide in the United States. Neal Hefti began to provide arrangements, notably “Lil Darlin'”. By the mid-1950s, Basie’s band had become one of the preeminent backing big bands for some of the most prominent jazz vocalists of the time. They also toured with the “Birdland Stars of 1955”, whose lineup included Sarah Vaughan, Erroll Garner, Lester Young, George Shearing, and Stan Getz.
Basie continued to perform with his band in the US and on world tours almost up until his death. He died of pancreatic cancer in Hollywood, Florida on April 26th, 1984 at the age of 79.
I’ve chosen a classic of Southern cooking and Harlem soul food for Basie, since he spent so many formative years in clubs in Harlem: chicken fried steak with country gravy. Chicken fried steak is one of the myriad versions of breaded, fried beef such as milanesa and Wiener schnitzel. For me it is the country gravy that makes it special, which means it should be served with freshly baked country biscuits. You’ll need cube steak, a cut of top round or top sirloin that has been pounded flat with a meat tenderized (leaving characteristic “cube” marks).
Chicken Fried Steak and Country Gravy
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup all purpose flour
1 tsp onion powder
½ tsp smoked paprika
½ tsp cayenne pepper
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 large egg
¼ cup water
2 lb cube steaks
3 tbsp butter
4 tbsp all purpose flour
1 ½ cups chicken or beef broth
1 cup milk
salt and pepper
For the steaks:
Mix 1 cup flour, onion powder, paprika, cayenne, salt and pepper together in a medium bowl. Pour on to a large platter.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg and water. Pour into a separate large platter.
Heat olive oil and butter in a large non-stick skillet over medium heat until ripples begin to form.
Season the steaks with salt and pepper. Using the wet hand/dry hand technique (using one hand to dip the steaks in the flour, the other for the egg mix), dredge one steak in the flour mixture, then the egg and then back in the flour mixture to coat. Add the steak to the skillet.
Repeat with the remaining steaks adding more oil as needed. Work in batches if necessary so as not to overcrowd the pan. Cook the steaks for 3 to 4 minutes or until crisp and golden brown. Flip the steaks and continue cooking for an additional 4 minutes until golden. Transfer the steaks to a platter or baking sheet and cover with foil to keep warm.
For the gravy:
Add the butter to the skillet the steaks were cooked in and sprinkle over the flour. Whisk together in the pan and cook until golden. Slowly whisk in the chicken stock and continue cooking until thickened. Stir in the milk until smooth and beginning to thicken. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Serve the steaks immediately with the gravy poured over. Serve with mashed potatoes, green beans, and biscuits.