Perhaps you noticed that our JazzTimes 10 from the Swing Era was missing a crucial component. That wasn’t an accident: Count Basie is too important to be limited to one list item.
You’ll often hear Basie being discussed in glowing, even hyperbolic terms: He led the swingingest band that ever was! He could swing on one note! The one-note part is an exaggeration—what Basie could do was find and play the right note, in the right place, to make an already-moving ensemble swing. As for the swingingest band … well, it might be subjective, but show me a swinging-er one.
Basie also sowed many of the seeds for what would later become bebop. His star soloist, tenor saxophonist Lester Young, transformed the way his instrument was played and broke new ground in phrasing and vocabulary (as did, to a lesser extent, trumpeters Buck Clayton and Sweets Edison and Basie himself). His rhythm section—guitarist Freddie Green, bassist Walter Page, drummer “Papa” Jo Jones—was responsible for so many innovations that they’re still being counted. The “Salt Peanuts” lick that introduced bebop to the world? That was a lick from Basie’s piano.
Yet Basie’s band found itself unable to compete with the rise of bebop—so the maestro reinvented it in the 1950s. Basie’s “New Testament” orchestra was a favorite playground for arrangers; it had its share of star soloists (trumpeter Thad Jones and trombonist Al Grey among them), but its real star was the ensemble, especially what might be the finest brass section ever assembled. When Basie died in 1984 (the orchestra continues today, led by trumpeter Scotty Banhart), he had a tremendous and transformative legacy to bequeath.
Here’s a list that only scratches the surface of that legacy—but scratching the surface is a great way to start digging.
Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring most of the tracks in this JazzTimes 10: