William “Count” Basie
Photo: The Black Archives of Mid-America.
1904 – 1984
The musician most closely associated with Kansas City jazz, pianist and bandleader William Basie was born in New Jersey and came to Kansas City in the late 1920s. He joined Walter Page’s Blue Devils in 1928 and a year later was lured away to the Bennie Moten Orchestra.
As part of that band’s rhythm section, Basie was instrumental in the development of the swinging Kansas City style. After Moten’s death in 1935, Basie took over the group (now called the Barons of Rhythm), playing in local clubs and on area radio stations, and winning a recording contract with Decca Records.
Renamed the Count Basie Orchestra, the 13-piece ensemble became an international hit with records like “One O’Clock Jump,” “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” “April in Paris,” and “Taxi War Dance.” Among the players who came through his band were saxophonists Lester Young and Herschel Evans, guitarist Freddie Green, trumpeters Buck Clayton and Harry “Sweets” Edison, and singers Jimmy Rushing and Joe Williams.
Big bands fell out of fashion after World War II, but Basie was one of the few to keep a large ensemble touring until his death, leading a group for almost 50 years. He also recorded with popular singers like Frank Sinatra and released albums in which he played with small combos.