William James Basie was born in Red Bank, New Jersey to Harvey Lee Basie and Lillian Ann Childs, who lived on Mechanic Street. His father worked as a coachman and caretaker for a wealthy judge. After automobiles replaced horses, his father became a groundskeeper and handyman for several families in the area. His mother took in laundry and baked cakes for sale and paid 25 cents a lesson for piano instruction for him.
Basie was not much of a student and instead dreamed of a traveling life, inspired by the carnivals which came to town. He only got as far as junior high school. He would hang out at the Palace theater in Red Bank and did occasional chores for the management, which got him free admission to the shows. He also learned to operate the spotlights for the vaudeville shows. One day, when the pianist didn’t arrive by show time, Basie took his place. Playing by ear, he quickly learned to improvise music appropriate to silent movies.
Though a natural at the piano, Basie preferred drums. However, the obvious talents of another young Red Bank drummer, Sonny Greer (who was Duke Ellington's drummer from 1919 to 1951), discouraged Basie and he switched to piano exclusively by age 15. They played together in venues until Greer set out on his professional career. By then Basie was playing with pick up groups for dances, resorts, and amateur shows, including Harry Richardson’s “Kings of Syncopation”. When not playing a gig, he hung out at the local pool hall with other musicians where he picked up on upcoming play dates and gossip. He got some jobs in Asbury Park, playing at the Hongkong Inn, until a better player took his place.
Around 1924, he went to Harlem, a hotbed of jazz, living down the block from the Alhambra Theater. Early after his arrival, he bumped into Sonny Greer, who was then the drummer for the Washingtonians, Duke Ellington’s early band. Soon, Basie met many of the Harlem musicians who were making the scene, including Willie “the Lion” Smith and James P. Johnson.
Basie toured in several acts between 1925 and 1927, including Katie Krippen and Her Kiddies as part of the Hippity Hop show, on the Keith, the Columbia Burlesque, and the Theater Owners Bookers Association (T.O.B.A.) vaudeville circuits, as a soloist and accompanist to blues singers Katie Krippen and Gonzelle White.His touring took him to Kansas City, St. Louis, New Orleans, and Chicago. Throughout his tours, Basie met many great jazz musicians, including Louis Armstrong.
Back in Harlem in 1925, Basie got his first steady job at Leroy’s, a place known for its piano players and its “cutting contests”, The place catered to “uptown celebrities”, and typically the band winged every number without sheet music (using “head” arrangements). He met Fats Waller, who was playing organ at the Lincoln Theater accompanying silent movies, and Waller taught him how to play that instrument (Basie later played organ at the Eblon Theater in Kansas City). As he did with Duke Ellington, Willie “the Lion” Smith helped Basie out during the lean times arranging gigs at house-rent parties, introducing him to other top musicians, and teaching him some piano technique.
In 1928 Basie was in Tulsa and heard Walter Page and his Famous Blue Devils, one of the first big bands, which featured Jimmy Rushing on vocals. A few months later, he was invited to join the band, which played mostly in Texas and Oklahoma.Show more