Thursday, January 9, 2014

Jumpin' at the Woodside

   Count Basie was one of the great bandleaders in jazz history, whose long career and influential performances created a lasting musical legacy. He was born William Basie in the Jersey Shore community of Red Bank, where the theater in town currently bears his name. He grew up playing piano and sneaking into the local theater before heading to Harlem as a 16 year old in 1920. His early career included lots of motley gigs and jobs in Harlem where he learned stride piano from James P. Johnson, Willie "The Lion Smith, and Fats Waller. He also spent lots of time touring and eventually ended up in Kansas City in 1929 at the peak of the hot jazz movement in KC. After refining his skills as a bandleader he headed back to Harlem and took up residency at the Woodside Hotel on 142nd Street and 7th Ave. Basie and his band would practice and jam in the basement, and through these jam sessions their hit "Jumpin' at the Woodside" would emerge.

   Later, in 1939, would be one of Basie's most famous Harlem performances. Chick Webb led the band at the Savoy Ballroom on Lenox Ave and the venue's two stages allowed for some amped-up cutting contests. Much like the rap battles of today, cutting contests pitted two virtuosos against each other trading solos, usually at the piano, for jazz supremacy. Not only were the bandleaders of fearsome reputation, but each employed young female singers. Webb featured Ella Fitzgerald and Basie had Billie Holliday. Not only did Basie hold his own in Chick Webb's own theater, but many thought Basie's poise and subtle musicianship bested Webb's furious playing and bombastic style.
   Over the course of his career, Basie would work with an incredible roster of vocalists. He played with Holliday in the 30s and 40s and would later record with Ella, Jimmy Rushing, Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis, Jr, and Bing Crosby. Plus Basie gets a special thumbs up from me for his very funny cameo in the Mel Brooks classic Blazing Saddles.

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