The story of Count Basie, a Jersey original
Legendary musician and bandleader William “Count” Basie was born on August 21, 1904 in Red Bank.
He took music lessons and originally wanted to be a drummer, but after hearing Long Branch’s Sonny Greer, Basie decided he would never be as good as Greer, so he focused on the piano. Good move. He started playing piano at silent movie theaters and accompanying vaudeville acts, gaining valuable experience. He moved to New York in 1924 and joined the burgeoning jazz scene that was developing in Harlem. He took a job with a traveling troupe of musicians that broke up in Kansas City in 1927, stranding Basie in the midwestern city.
It was while in Kansas City that he got the nickname “Count." One account has a radio announcer giving him the name and apparently Basie himself gave different versions regarding the genesis of the name with the best known being that another bandleader, Bennie Moten, always asking where the “no ‘count rascal” went. Basie led his first band while in Kansas City, then going to Chicago before traveling to Buffalo, and, eventually the Roseland Theater in New York.
After signing to Decca Records, the Count Basie Orchestra recorded what would become their signature tune, “One O’Clock Jump.” In 1938, he performed a homecoming performance in Red Bank with singer Billie Holiday. Over the following years and decades, the Count Basie Orchestra refined their jazz sound with a heavy emphasis on swing, helping the style become wildly popular. Basie earned nine Grammy Awards and made history in 1958 by becoming the first African-American to receive the award.
Basie’s renown became so great that he was asked to perform at President Kennedy’s inauguration in 1960. In 1984, the Monmouth Center for the Performing Arts was renamed the Count Basie Theater, now just known as “The Basie.” He died of cancer at age 79; he was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame in 2010.
The post above reflects the thoughts and observations of New Jersey 101.5 talk show host Bill Doyle. Any opinions expressed are Bill Doyle's own.