William Basie was a key figure in the development of the jazz big band. Perhaps of secondary importance was his work as a keyboard player — even Basie was sufficiently modest about this area of activity that he once described himself as a "non-pianist." But his bands were also a crucial formative experience for many musicians, who would have received less encouragement and less exposure if Basie had promoted his own playing more.
His early career was in fact closely wedded to the piano. Born in Red Bank, New Jersey on August 21, 1904, he was taught music by his mother but, living so near to New York City, he soon found an outlet for his interest in jazz. As a teenager, Basie initially wanted to be a drummer but, after being regularly outplayed by Sonny Greer (who was well on the way to becoming Duke Ellington’s percussionist), he decided to concentrate on his first instrument. An acquaintance with Fats Waller led to informal lessons with him in the art of New York ragtime, known as stride piano.
Just when Bill Basie became "The Count" is a matter of some dispute. But by 1927, after he had played on the road with vaudeville shows and been left high and dry in Kansas City, his business cards told fellow musicians: "Beware, The Count Is Here".
He too had to beware, for the so-called territory bands based in Kansas City were setting new standards of jazz ensemble playing. The most admired among many competitors were the Blue Devils, led by bassist Walter Page (who was destined to become Basie’s right-hand man a decade later), and the band led by Bennie Moten. Basie first joined the Blue Devils and then, despite the inconvenient fact that Moten was a fellow pianist, the Count made himself indispensable by helping out with Moten’s band arrangements. As a result, he was soon invited to join as second pianist and deputy musical director.With Basie’s input, the Moten outfit became the leading local band. But when Moten died unexpectedly during a tonsillectomy in 1935, Basie soon found himself at Kansas City’s Reno Club as co-leader of a band containing several other ex-Moten musicians.
Fate stepped in again the following year when record producer and general man-behind-the-scenes John Hammond heard this Kansas City group on the radio and quickly supervised Basie’s first records and helped him sign up with a powerful entertainment agency. Since Basie’s co-leader elected to stay at home, the Count was solely in charge as the band began touring — first nationally and later internationally.
His hands-off approach allowed for many pieces of music to be created informally on the bandstand and, though "head arrangements" often seemed no more than a string of solos, the collective enthusiasm of the band members meant that they were constantly thinking of new backings for the soloists. And what soloists they were — the very different tenor saxophonists Lester Young (almost avant garde for the period) and Herschel Evans, and trumpeters Buck Clayton and Harry Edison, who had equally contrasting styles.
Even when he had to commission outside arrangers to ensure a flow of new material, the Count showed his aristocratic manner by quietly but firmly editing the scores that were submitted, so that there would be nothing too complex or difficult to play and the band could maintain the relaxed style for which it was noted. Part of this came from the unique rhythm section, with the light but driving sound of drummer Jo Jones permitting the flowing propulsion of guitarist Freddie Green and bassist Walter Page to come through, despite the lack in those days of any amplification whatsoever. Similarly, the leader’s formerly busy piano playing had been pared back to the absolute minimum necessary for assisting the band’s momentum and its excellent control of volume.
Obviously, Basie could not hope to retain these collaborative talents forever. There was also a stylistic hiatus in 1950–51 when economic realities forced Basie to cut his payroll to a mere seven sidemen, but after he reconstituted the big band in 1952, he enjoyed renewed success. In addition to enjoying continued popularity, Basie successfully demonstrated that a big band could be flexible as well as powerful, and that it could be a breeding ground for strong soloists such as Buck Clayton and Lester Young. In a word, he epitomized all that was best about the big-band style, and his minimal piano work proved that the band as a whole was always more important than his personal reputation.
Excerpted from: Ken Burns’ Jazz: The Definitive Count Basie