Count Basie (1904-1984) an Unexpected Success


This famous jazz musician born in New Jersey was an accomplished pianist, composer and bandleader who began his career in 1924 at New York and gained notoriety for his compositions and improvisations during live performances with the Basie Count Orchestra and songs like One O’Clock Jump in 1939.

His Early Career

While many have a set notion of the 1920s as a happy time for everyone due to the portrayal of the Golden Twenties in media of a near perfect and prosperous decade were everybody with ambitious could thrive, this wasn’t true for everyone especially African Americans. Count Basie was no exception. His first job was at a movie theater where he played and improvised music for silent films. Basie wanted to travel around the world, and as a professional musician, he would have the opportunity to do so. After doing many odd jobs at different venues in his hometown, Basie decided it was time for a change and moved to Harlem, one of the best places for jazz musicians.

In New York, he had a similar fate, through 1920 and 1924 he managed to find more work as a pianist to different bands and a soloist as well while traveling through the TOBA circuit with established acts that eventually lead him to Kansas City.

The importance of Kansas City to Basie´s career.

Kansas City in 1924 was an important place to be if you were a musician, though it didn’t seem that way when our lucky traveler arrived there for the first time. For a black musician, it was hard to find work in the western parts of Missouri, were the African Americans were few in numbers and scattered all over. Needless to say, black musicians from the Deep South and the eastern states avoided the City.

The lack of job opportunities made the musicians accept low paid jobs in concerts around the city, the way they made a living was mostly through tips. By the time Basie arrived, the dynamics of the place started to change, since musicians weren’t expecting a decent payment, they could afford to become more playful and experimental in their concerts, thus jam sessions began to take place among the stranded musicians.

The Aftermath

This spontaneity suited Count and by the time he joined Walter Pages’ Blue Devils he already had the fundamentals of what would be his Orchestra. The experience with Big Bands and Swing proved to be the key to success, living his life as a traveler made him a laid back and humble man, who liked to drink and party with the members of his band, being more a companion than a boss.

The friendship paid off because despite not being the best piano player, the way he composed and directed songs relied on a close relationship with his fellow musicians inviting them to play key roles in the performance when they felt like it was necessary. During its most successful years, Basie’s Orchestra became a group of talented soloist among an energized group that produced amazing great performances.