Mention the Count Basie Orchestra, and several aural images spring quickly to mind. The grooving, in-the-pocket swing of the rhythm section, its drive energized by Basie's brisk piano punctuations and the subtle understatement of Freddie Green's guitar; the crisp, utterly unified thrust of the ensemble, swinging as a single man; the instantly memorable compositions; the extraordinary soloists, from Lester Young and Harry Edison to Frank Foster and Thad Jones.
There was never just one Basie ensemble, and each installment, over the more than six decades of its existence, has had its own character. Initially a group whose personality was centered on its superb soloists, the Basie band was reduced to the small group sound of six- to nine-piece ensembles in the cost-cutting post-World War II years. The big Basie units that followed in the '50s and '60s were composer-arranger-oriented, with a series of vigorous charts provided by Neal Hefti, Quincy Jones, Frank Foster, Thad Jones and others.
Basie had formed his first band at 13 to play for school dances. One day his pianist failed to appear, so Basie took over on that instrument and turned the drums over to his friend, Sonny Greer, who later became a drummer for Duke Ellington.
In 1922, Basie went to New York City, eventually getting a job playing piano at a nightclub. He joined a road show called "Gonsell White and His Big Jamboree Review" only to get stranded in Kansas City when it folded.
But Kansas City was a lively spot for a jazz musician and by 1935 Basie had formed his own nine-piece group. For its trek out of Kansas City in October of 1936 to hoped for prominence in the music world, the band added four pieces — creating a remarkable rhythm section.
After a rough start, they had their first hit with "One O'Clock Jump" and the Basie band was made. Somewhere along the line a radio announcer decided William Basie should be "Count" because Ellington was "Duke" and Benny Goodman was "The King of Swing." "Count" stuck, although Basie allowed that he hated the name.
"I wanted to be called 'Buck' or 'Hoot' or even 'Arkansas Fats,' " he said.