A native of Red Bank, New Jersey, William "Count" Basie was born on August 21, 1904. His first piano teacher was his mother Lillian Basie. As a teenager, Basie played piano for silent films shown at the local Red Bank cinema. By 1924, he was hanging out in Harlem, where he met and befriended Harlem stride piano masters like Fats Waller, Willie "The Lion" Smith and James P. Johnson, all of whom introduced Basie to other top musicians while sharing piano tips with the young player. He later got his first road experience accompanying performers on the vaudeville circuit and in 1927 found himself stuck in Kansas City when the troupe he was traveling with disbanded. The 23-year-old pianist remained in that Midwestern town, picking up some freelance work before eventually hooking up in 1928 with Walter Page's Blue Devils. Bassist Page would later become part of Basie's all American rhythm section (alongside drummer Jo Jones and guitarist Freddie Green). The singer in Page's Blue Devils band, Jimmy Rushing, would later become a star with the '30s edition of the Count Basie Orchestra. In 1935, after a stint in Bennie Moten's territory band, Basie formed his own nine-piece band (originally called the Barons of Rhythm) with former Moten bandmates Page on bass, Green on guitar, Jones on drums, Lester Young on tenor sax and Rushing on vocals. They were discovered by talent scout and record producer John Hammond, who was able to secure high-profile gigs for the band at the Grand Terrace in Chicago and the Roseland Ballroom in New York. This led to a recording contract with Decca Records in 1937. Their recording of "One O'Clock Jump" later that year was the band's first chart-topper and ultimately became the Count Basie Orchestra theme song for the next half century.
Basie spent the early '40s touring extensively with his orchestra. During the World War II years, they appeared in five films, including Reveille with Beverly, Stage Door Canteen, and Crazy House while also scoring hits with "I Didn't Know About You," "Red Bank Blues," "Rusty Dusty Blues" and "Blue Skies." In 1954, Basie went overseas for the first time to play in Scandinavia. Another Basie band staple, "April in Paris," was released the following year on an album of the same title for the Verve label. Vocalist Joe Williams was introduced to Basie fans on 1955's Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings, which included the hit single, "Every Day (I Have the Blues)." Williams remained a key component of the Count Basie Orchestra until 1960. In January 1960, the Basie band performed at one of the five John F. Kennedy Inaugural Balls. That summer, Basie and Duke Ellington combined forces for the recording First Time! The Count Meets the Duke, each jazz icon providing four numbers from his play book.
In 1962, Basie scored a big commercial success with Sinatra-Basie on Frank Sinatra's Reprise label and they repeated that formula on 1964's It Might As Well Be Spring. Through the '60s, Basie teamed with other vocalists in a series of successful recordings, including Ella Fitzgerald (1963's Ella and Basie!), Sammy Davis, Jr. (1965's Our Shining Hour) and Jackie Wilson (1968's Manufacturers of Soul). He returned to a purely instrumental straight ahead jazz format with 1969's Grammy nominated Standing Ovation and in 1970 recorded Afrique with arranger/conductor Oliver Nelson. Basie recorded through the '70s in a variety of small group settings for Norman Granz's Pablo Records, including 1972's Loose Walk (with Roy Eldridge), 1974's The Bosses (with Big Joe Turner), 1975's Basie Jam (with Harry "Sweets" Edison, J.J. Johnson, Zoot Sims, Ray Brown and Louie Bellson), 1976's Basie and Zoot (with Zoot Sims), 1977's Satch and Josh…Again (with Oscar Peterson) and 1978's The Gifted Ones (with Basie and Dizzy Gillespie). He won a Grammy in 1980 for On the Road and in 1983 earned a Grammy nomination for Farmer's Market Barbecue. Basie remained a tireless road warrior until the end, driving an electric wheelchair onto the stage at performances all over the world. He died of pancreatic cancer on April 26, 1984 at age 79. Basie's legacy was carried on by a tribute band led in turn by Thad Jones, Frank Foster, and Grover Mitchell. The current Count Basie Orchestra is under the direction of trombonist Bill Hughes, who appeared with the Basie band at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1957 and 1959.