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Count Basie And The Aristocracy Of Swing Music

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Way back in the early years of my burgeoning infatuation with swing music, I began to notice that there seemed to be a lot of musicians with nicknames that bestowed nobility — even royalty. Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, King Oliver, Count Basie, and of course the King of Swing, just to mention a few. (If any readers have some to add, your comments are welcome. It might be fun to see how many we can list.)

I guess it's a phenomenon that's not limited to those early days. In the years since we've had The King (who has definitely left the building), the King of Pop, Prince, and at least one female member of nobility, Queen Latifah.

But at the time of my initiation into swing music, all the nicknames seemed kind of funny and confusing. For example, who ranked higher in the aristocracy of swing, the Count or the Duke? I'm kidding, but I did get them mixed up initially until I began to listen and learn about the men, their history, and of course their music.

The Duke came to prominence in the East as both a bandleader and a composer, and to the average fan today is probably the more famous of the two, but I'm going to focus on Basie for now. He appeared out of the booming Kansas City jazz scene back in the thirties, first as a pianist with various groups and then as the leader of a driving, talented swing band that included Lester Young on tenor sax and vocalist Jimmy Rushing. The band's first big hit – "One O'Clock Jump" – also became its theme song.

Basie's group enjoyed a lot of success for many years, then experienced the same kind of decline in popularity that hit many of the big bands in the post-war years. However, Basie eventually hit it bigger than ever in the fifties and sixties, with a revitalized band that included vocalist Joe Williams and enjoyed some new hits, among them "Every Day (I Have The Blues)" and "April In Paris". 

Until his death (at age 79) he continued to enjoy both critical and popular success, often teaming up with star vocalists such as Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, and Ella FItzgerald, and generating Grammy-winning music.

Count Basie's position in the hierarchy of swing nobility seems secure, and I haven't gotten him mixed up with Duke Ellington for a long time.

For samples, I'm posting two tunes from the album The Essential Count Basie, which features his band of the late thirties. Leading off is a stirring song called "Pound Cake", which features lots of solos including three by Lester Young. That's followed by "Taxi War Dance", which spotlights the strong Basie rhythm section.

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  • The Duke came to prominence in the East as both a bandleader and a composer, and to the average fan today is probably the more famous of the two

    That’s because the Duke transcended “swing music.” He transcended jazz, too; he was probably the greatest composer in American history. He had a big band and his greatest commercial success was during the swing era, but the only real way to describe his music is “Ellingtonian.”

    Basie, on the other hand, is the epitome of swing music. Swing is rhythm, and there was nobody with a greater rhythmic core and feeling than the Count and his band. When you’re talking about swing music, you’re really talking about Count Basie.

    Also, lest we forget, it’s not a royal name, but Lester Young was The President.

  • I read somewhere that Basie received his nickname because he was a no-‘count.

  • Bliffle

    Duke, count, etc., were nicknames imposed on players by club owners and publicists. They generally didn’t like the nicknames. I talked with Bill Basie for an hour one night in 1962 and he noticeably winced when anyone came up and called him “Count”. No one who knew him called Edward Fitzgerald Ellington anything other than Eddie.