Duke Ellington & Count Basie

Count Bassie

Williams James Basie was born in Red Bank, New Jersey on August 21, 1904. Lillian Childs Basie, his mother worked as a laundress. Harvey Lee Basie, his father worked as a groundskeeper and coachman. Although “Count” didn’t grow up with much money the family did manage to get enough to pay for him to receive weekly piano lessons. “Count” was extremely talented being that he was able to play any song that he heard. He dropped out of junior high school, and went on to operating lights, and improvised piano for silent films at his hometown’s local movie theater. That theater is now known as the Count Bassie Theatre. In 1924, Basie  moved to Harlem NY where his career took off quickly. Other Jazz icons such as Willie “the Lion” Smith and Fats Waller took Bassie under their wing and taught him more about the world of music while they toured. In 1935, after performing with multiple big bands Bassie formed his own. Bassie’s band, Barons of Rhythm was a nine-piece band who performed regularly at Reno Club in Kansas City, and live for a radio broadcast. Ever-popular record producer at the time John Hammond heard one of the band’s broadcast and longed to work with them. Soon after traveling to Kansas City, he began to book Bassie’s band and shop them out to record companies and agents. In 1937, Basie’s band traveled to New York to record their first album with Decca Records, with their new name “The Count Basie Orchestra”. The Count Basie Orchestra had plenty of hits such as April in Paris, Jumpin’ at the Woodside, and One O’clock Jump which was an original composition of Basie’s and became the orchestra’s signature piece. Due to financial troubles, Basie was forced to disband the orchestra. In 1958, Basie became the first African American to receive a Grammy, and was the owner of nine at the end of his career. Basie is credited for creating the use of the two “split” tenor saxophone, layering masterful vocals, and emphasizing the rhythm section. Basie passed away in Hollywood, FL on April 26, 1984.

Duke Ellington

Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in Washington, DC on April 29, 1899. He started playing the piano as a child, and was taught by his mother whom also played. By the time “Duke” was seventeen years old he was playing the piano professionally. In 1923, at the age of twenty-four “Duke” moved to New York and formed his own band, called the Washingtonians. By 1927, “Duke’s” band was able to secure regular gig at Harlem’s famous Cotton Club. Ellington left the Cotton Club in 1931, and began touring until the end of his career. In 1939, Billy Strayhorn joined the Washingtonians as a composer, arranger, and sometimes the pianist. Strayhorn made such an impact to the band and wrote one of their biggest hits “Take the A Train”. In the 40’s and 50’s Jazz  and the demand for big bands started to decline. It wasn’t until Duke’s performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956, when Ellington made his triumphant return and became an important voice in contemporary music. Throughout the late 50’s and early 60’s Ellington took a step aside as a composer and band leader, and really used his musical talent as a pianist to take his career to the next level. He released joint albums with other Jazz icons such as John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, and Count Basie. Duke Ellington died of lung cancer in May of 1974 in New York City.

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