Hey, Who knew? Count Basie, Red Bank's king of jazz
Tamara Walker @twilderapp7:47 a.m. EST February 28, 2016
How much do you really know about the jazz legend? APP STAFF VIDEO/RYAN ROSS Ryan Ross
Editor's Note: "Hey, who knew?" looks at the Jersey Shore's unique history from the Asbury Park Press archive. As part of our contribution to Black History month, we look back at one of Red Bank's most famous residents.
RED BANK – Before the town on the southern bank of the Navesink River was the place to be on Friday nights, it was known for songs like "Red Bank Boogie" and "The Kid from Red Bank." The "kid" behind those tunes was born William James Basie.
His songs were part of the new rhythm that roared into the 1920s — jazz.
He had flappers tapping their toes and snapping their fingers to ditties that rattled their bones. Words like "cool" and "hip" were used to describe musicians and fans shimmying to the sound. And in smoky rooms filled with good times, Basie was honing his craft.
He would become "Count" Basie as part of his ascent to legend.
You may recognize the name as a theater, but Count Basie was a man. Ya, dig?
Who was Count Basie and how did he get that name?
Born on Aug. 21, 1904, Basie's family lived on Mechanic Street. He attended Red Bank Borough Public Schools. In archive Asbury Park Press stories, his father was said to be a gardener and building supervisor, and his mother laundered clothes and linens. Basie was the oldest of two boys, but his brother died as an infant.
Humble beginnings wouldn't limit his family. With his feet barely touching the foot pedals, Basie began taking piano lessons at the age of five for a fee of 25 cents.
He dreamed of becoming a performer.
An archive story also states that at 17 years old Basie left his home for Harlem to pursue a dream of stardom. He found himself in the right place at the right time in meeting pianist Fats Waller. Basie joined Waller's act and toured the vaudeville circuit across the U.S.
After Prohibition hit, many musicians had to play in the underground world of illegal bars and clubs. Basie continued to master his big-band jazz sound playing these venues night after night. He also joined two rival bands: In 1927, Walter Page's Blue Devils and in 1928, the Bennie Moten Orchestra.
Basie saw many changes as he progressed, including his name. There are varying accounts of how "Bill" got the nickname "Count."
One story stated Basie would disappear during arranging sessions for the Moten Orchestra to go have fun, resulting in Bennie Moten declaring him the "no count" — as in "no good" — rascal.
Another story from the Asbury Park Press attributed the name change to a spontaneous moment ahead of a radio performance.
The story goes that while waiting to play a live radio show at The Reno Club in Kansas City, the radio host recounted several standout artists' names of the period like Duke Ellington, the Baron of Lee, the Earl of Hines and spontaneously dubbed Basie's group the Count with his Barons of Rhythm.
By 1935, Count Basie and his Barons of Rhythm, could be heard all over the airwaves, but the name soon changed to the one the world would forever know — Count Basie Orchestra.
Signing with Decca Record in 1937, his band produced music known for its distinct sound. In 1939, the band left the label and signed with Columbia Records. Selling millions of records, the music he created would define the jazz and swing sounds into the 1940s.
Coming Back to Red Bank
Count Basie always came home for shows and more importantly, benefit performances. Described as a man of his word, Basie would commit to a gig — big or small — if it helped his hometown. Before his passing Hollywood, Florida in 1984 from cancer, organizations recognized him for his outstanding community service and achievements in the music industry.
His contributions stretched far beyond Red Bank, and his hometown has paid homage to him because of them:
In 1974, Count Basie received an honorary degree of Doctor of Music from Monmouth College — known today as Monmouth University. Shrewsbury A.M.E. Zion Church, where his family worshiped when he was a child, also honored him with a plaque for his contributions to the Christian fellowship.
The same year he died the Monmouth Arts Center was renamed Count Basie Theater for his lifetime career achievement as a king of jazz music.
Several organizations also have been named in honor of his legacy: Count Basie Learning Center, Count Basie Foundation, and Count Basie Scholarship Fund.
Did you know?
His band was the first African-American big band to play at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. Count Basie made history in 1958 as the first African-American man to receive a Grammy. He earned nine Grammy Awards over the course of his career. Four of his songs were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame: "One O'Clock Jump" in 1979 "April in Paris" in 1985 and "Everyday I have the Blues" in 1992 and "Lester Leaps" in 2005. Count Basie also recorded with many influential artists including Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., Jackie Wilson and even Quincy Jones.
True or False:
1) Count Basie performed for England's Prince Charles for his second birthday.
2) Count Basie Day is celebrated on June 26th in Red Bank.
3) A community park on Henry Street in Red Bank bears Count Basie's name.