The Count Basie Orchestra is a 16 to 18 piece big band, one of the most prominent jazz performing groups of the swing era, founded by Count Basie in 1935 and recording regularly from 1936. Despite a brief disbandment at the beginning of the 1950s, the band survived long past the Big Band era itself and the death of Basie in 1984. It continues as a 'ghost band'.
Originally including such musicians as Buck Clayton and Lester Young in the line-up, the band in the 1950s and 1960s made use of the work of such arrangers as Neal Hefti and featured musicians such as Thad Jones and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis. Its recordings of this era included collaborations with singers such as Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.
Count Basie arrived in Kansas City, Missouri in 1927, playing on the Theater Owners Bookers Association (TOBA) circuit. After playing with the Blue Devils, in 1929 he joined rival band leader Bennie Moten's band.
Upon Moten's death in 1935, Basie left the group to start his own band, taking many of his colleagues from the Moten band with him. This nine-piece group consisted of Joe Keyes and Oran 'Hot Lips' Page on trumpet, Buster Smith and Jack Washington on alto saxophone, Lester Young on tenor saxophone, Dan Minor on trombone, and a rhythm section made up of Jo Jones on drums, Walter Page on bass and Basie on piano. With this band, then named The Barons of Rhythm, Basie brought the sound of the famous and highly competitive Kansas City "jam session" to club audiences, coupling extended improvised solos with riff-based accompaniments from the band. The group's first venue was the Reno Club in Kansas City, later moving to the Grand Terrace in Chicago.
When music critic and record producer John Hammond heard the band on a 1936 radio broadcast, he sought them out and offered Basie the chance to expand the group to the standard 13-piece big band line-up. He also offered to transfer the group to New York City in order to play at venues such as the Roseland Ballroom. Basie agreed, hoping that with this new band, he could retain the freedom and spirit of the Kansas City style of his nine-piece group.
The band, which now included Buck Clayton on trumpet and the famous blues "shouter" Jimmy Rushing, demonstrated this style in their first recordings with the Decca label in January 1937: in pieces such as "Roseland Shuffle", the soloists are at the foreground, with the ensemble effects and riffs playing a strictly functional backing role. This was a fresh big band sound for New York, contrasting the complex jazz writing of Duke Ellington and Sy Oliver and highlighting the difference in styles that had emerged between the east and west coasts.
New York City:
Following the first recording session, the band's line up was reshuffled, with some of players being replaced on the request of Hammond as part of a strengthening of the band. Trumpeters Ed Lewis and Bobby Moore replaced Keyes and Smith, and Earle Warren replaced the alto saxophonist Coughey Roberts. In March 1937 the guitarist Freddie Green arrived, replacing Claude Williams and completing what became one of the most respected rhythm sections in big band history.Billie Holiday also sang with the band during this period, although she never recorded with them for contractual reasons.
Hits such as "One O'clock Jump" and "Jumpin' at the Woodside" (from 1937 and 1938, respectively) helped to gain the band, now known as the Count Basie Orchestra, national and international fame. These tunes were known as "head-arrangements"; not scored in individual parts but made up of riffs memorized by the band's members. Although some of the band's players, such as trombonist Eddie Durham, contributed their own written arrangements at this time, the "head-arrangements" captured the imagination of the audience in New York and communicated the spirit of the band's members.
In 1938, Helen Humes joined the group, replacing Billie Holiday as the female singer. She sang mostly pop ballads, including "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" and "Blame it on My Last Affair", acting as a gentle contrast to the blues style of Jimmy Rushing.
The band became increasingly dependent on arrangers to provide its music. These varied from players within the band, such as Eddie Durham and Buck Clayton, to professional arrangers from outside the group, who could bring their own character to the band with each new piece. External arranger Andy Gibson brought the band's harmonic style closer to the forward-looking music of Duke Ellington, with arrangements from 1940 such as "I Never Knew" and "Louisiana" introducing increased chromaticism to the band's music. Tab Smith contributed important arrangements at this time, such as "Harvard Blues", and others including Buster Harding and veteran arranger Jimmy Mundy also expanded the group's repertoire.
But the many new arrangements led to a gradual change in the band's sound, distancing the group musically from its Kansas City roots. Rather than the music being built around the soloists with memorised head arrangements and riffs, the group's sound at this time became more focused on ensemble playing; closer to the traditional East Coast big band sound. This can be attributed to the increasing reliance on arrangers to influence the band with their music. It suggested that Basie's ideal of a big band-sized group with the flexibility and spirit of his original Kansas City 8-piece was not to last.
During the World War II years, some of the key members of the band left: the drummer Jo Jones and tenor saxophone player Lester Young were both conscripted in 1944, leading to the hiring of drummers such as Buddy Rich and extra tenor saxophonists, including Illinois Jacquet, Paul Gonsalves and Lucky Thompson. The musicologist Gunther Schuller has said that when Jo Jones left, he took some of the smooth, relaxed style of the band with him. Replacements such as Sonny Payne, drummed much louder and raised the dynamic of the band to a "harder, more clamorous brass sound." The ban on instrumental recordings of 1942-1944 adversely affected the finances of the Count Basie Orchestra, as it did for all big bands in the United States. Despite taking on soloists from the next generation such as Wardell Gray, Basie was forced to temporarily disband the group for a short period in 1948, before dispersing again for two years in 1950. For these two years, Basie led a reduced band of between 6 and 9 people, featuring more new players such as Buddy Rich, Serge Chaloff and Buddy DeFranco.
The 'Second Testament':
Basie reformed the jazz orchestra in 1952 for a series of tours, not only in the United States, but also in Europe in 1954 and Japan in 1963. The band released new recordings; some featuring guest singers such as Joe Williams, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Eckstine. All relied on contributions from arrangers, some of whom are now synonymous with the Basie band: Neal Hefti, Quincy Jones and Sammy Nestico. Michael G. Nastos wrote of the recording with Eckstine:
"When the Count Basie Orchestra consented to team up with vocalist Billy Eckstine, choruses of angels must have shouted hallelujah. The combination of Basie's sweet jazz and Eckstine's low-down blues sensibilities meshed well on this one-shot deal, a program mostly of downtrodden songs perfectly suited for the band and the man."
This new band became known as "The Second Testament". With albums such as The Atomic Mr. Basie (1958), April in Paris (1957)and Basie Plays Hefti (1958), the new Count Basie Orchestra sound became identifiable. The sound of the band was now that of a tight ensemble: heavier and more full bodied, contrasting with the riff-based band of the late 1930s and early 1940s. Whereas previously the emphasis had been on providing space for exemplary soloists such as Lester Young and Buck Clayton, now the focus had shifted to the arrangements, despite the presence of soloists such as trumpeter Thad Jones and saxophonist Frank Foster. This orchestral style continues as the typical sound of the band up to the present day; which has been criticized by some musicologists. In his book The Swing Era, Gunther Schuller described the group as "perfected neo-classicism...a most glorious dead end."
The continuing band:
After Basie's death in 1984, the band has continued to play under the direction of some of the players he had hired, including Eric Dixon, Thad Jones, Frank Foster, Grover Mitchell, Bill Hughes, and Dennis Mackrel. The current director is Scotty Barnhart. New recordings have continued to be released, for example Basie is Back (2006) which features new recordings of classic tunes from the Basie Orchestra's catalog, including "April in Paris" and even the band's early hit "One O'clock Jump". The group also continues to produce collaborations with high profile singers, such as Ray Charles in Ray Sings, Basie Swings (also 2006), and with arranger Allyn Ferguson on the album Swing Shift (1999).
Awarded the Grammy Award 17 times, including in 1999 for the album Count Plays Duke and in 1997 for the album Live at Manchester Craftsmen's Guild,
Included in the Down Beat Reader's Poll in 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1996 and 1997 (the last time as 'Best Big Band'),
Included in the Down Beat Critic's Poll 1984, 1986, 1991, 1993 and 1994,
Included in the Jazz Times Critic's and Reader's Poll in 1994 and 1995
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