Kansas City Jazz: Count Basie

Count Basie at the piano with vocalist Bob Crosby, ca. 1941

Count Basie at the piano with vocalist Bob Crosby, ca. 1941

When we last left off our Kansas City jazz series, Bennie Moten – our homegrown musician and leader of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra – had just died from a botched tonsillectomy. The man who took over leadership of the group, who eventually led a new band full of Moten alumni to an even wider jazz audience, was none other than Count Basie, one of the biggest names in jazz.

Count Basie began his life in New Jersey and ended in New York City, but a very important chapter in his musical development happened right here in KC. Basie began playing piano as a child, and after an early stint with jazz drumming, he settled on the piano exclusively at the age of 15. At the age of 20, Basie moved to Harlem, and then joined a series of traveling performance groups, which took him across the country over the next five years.

In 1929, Basie settled in as the pianist for the Moten orchestra, inspired by Moten’s goal of becoming as big as the bands led by Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson. Basie helped make arrangements, and he even did some four-hand and dueling piano stuff with Moten himself. After Moten’s death, in 1936, Basie formed a new band, including several Moten alumni and the soon-to-be-famous tenor sax player Lester Young. The band spent a few more months in KC before moving to Chicago then eventually to New York.

Many more pages can be written about Count Basie’s long and fruitful career, which lasted until his death in 1984 at the age of 79. For now, though, we’ll end here by mentioning one of Count Basie’s signature songs, first improvised on a live radio broadcast right here in Kansas City. The famous song was born in the wee hours of the morning, hence the name: “One O’Clock Jump.”

Have you known and loved the music of the Count Basie orchestra? Did you know he started making waves right here in Kansas City? (I sure didn’t before starting to research KC jazz!) Please share your thoughts and memories below!

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