Mention Swing Band, and You Better Mention Count Basie

It's been called swing music, swing jazz, and sometimes just "swing." This form of jazz music emerged in the early 1930s. By 1935, jazz music, which would eventually manifest itself in the swing band format, had established itself as a distinctive style in America.

So, exactly what is this swing music? What is a swing band?

A swing band is characterized by having a bullish anchoring rhythm section that provides the base for a lead section. The swing band lead section can include brass instruments such as trumpets and trombones. Woodwinds often used are clarinets and saxophones. Stringed instruments include violins and guitars.

The swing tempo of the swing band can be medium to fast and the rhythm itself can be defined as a "lilting" swing time. A distinct feature of the swing band is the soloist who improvises a unique melody over the arrangement. Bandleaders such as Benny Goodman and Count Basie are credited with popularizing the "danceable swing style"—establishing itself as the dominant form of American popular music during the ten year period of 1935 to 1945.

To get the most out of our understanding of swing music and the swing band, let's turn our thoughts to the famous Count Basie, the guy in charge for what many feel is the most notable swing band of its era.

Born in Red Bank, New Jersey in 1904, Willam (his real name) Basie studied music under his mother as a child, then begin learning the fundamentals of early ragtime from several of the great Harlem pianists. If Fats Waller rings a bell to you, then you know where William got introduced to the organ.

Professionally, Basie got his start playing for vaudeville acts. He actually replaced Fats Waller in an act named Katie Crippen and her Kids. Playing a stint with June Clark led to work with Sonny Greer, who eventually became Duke Ellington's drummer.

Traveling with a vaudeville show found Basie stranded one day in Kansas City. The show had broken up and suddenly Basie was looking for work. It was while playing in a movie house that he was noticed by Jimmy Rushing, who, down the road, would become a key vocalist in the Count Basie swing band. The encounter led to a job with the Walter Page Blue Devils, a forerunner to the swing band era.

Eventually, Basie organized his own group and it wasn't long before he found steady work at the Reno Club in Kansas City.

Basie's swing band soon went on a tear. More musician’s joined the band—quality musicians. By now, this swing band was being regularly broadcast live by a small Kansas City radio station. It was on one of these broadcasts that John Hammond, a wealthy jazz aficionado in the area, decided Basie's swing band had to go to New York.

With Hammond's moral support, and even his financial backing, the band's membership grew, and it landed in New York in 1936. Within a year the Count Basie swing band produced its first recording with Decca Records.

A year later, after having developed an international reputation, Basie's big swing band had also made its mark in New York and the neighboring Northeast. Basie's simple and lean piano style, combined with a great rhythm section and great vocalists, was packing them in. Much of this success can be attributed to the band's arrangements. Everyone got in the act and the "swing" from this swing band began taking on a style all to its own.

What set Count Basie apart was the infectious rhythm, enthusiastic musicians, and a horde of talented soloists who were always coming and going.

Suffice to say, there's only been one group like The Beatles…and well, there's only been one swing band like Count Basie's. Long live them both!

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