Count Basie was both the master of minimalism, as well as the king of swing. Basie was perhaps the most economical piano player that ever led a big band. He would play an opening series of single notes, setting the stage for his bands to introduce the theme and then take off with the most swinging of jump, swing, and blues numbers. Basie used space like an abstract painter would use splashes of color. He had no need to dazzle because his roster of all stars ranging from Hershel Evans, Lester Young, & Sweets Edison in the 30s up to his comeback band of the 50s thru 60s with Frank Foster, Frank Wess, Thad Jones, Al Grey and a myriad of others took charge, setting the standard for a swinging band.
Basie did not have to rely on his horns since he had the premiere rhythm section in the business with bassist Walter Page, guitarist Freddie Green, and the incomparable Jo Jones on drums. His choice of vocalists over the years ranged from early Billie Holiday to the two greatest blues-based male jazz singers, namely Jimmy Rushing and Big Joe Williams.
William Basie was born to Harvey Lee and Lillian Basie in Red Bank, New Jersey. 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 wealthy families in the area. Both of his parents had some type of musical background. His father played the mellophone, and his mother played the piano; in fact, she gave Basie his first piano lessons. She took in laundry and baked cakes for sale for a living. She paid 25 cents a lesson for piano instruction for him.
Not much of a student in school, Basie dreamed of a traveling life, inspired by touring carnivals which came to town. He finished junior high school but spent much of his time at the Palace Theater in Red Bank, where doing occasional chores gained him free admission to performances. He quickly learned to improvise music appropriate to the acts and the silent movies.
Though a natural at the piano, Basie preferred drums. Discouraged by the obvious talents of Sonny Greer, who also lived in Red Bank and became Duke Ellington's drummer in 1919, Basie at age 15 switched to piano exclusively. Greer and Basie 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 at the Jersey Shore, and played at the Hong Kong Inn until a better player took his place.