One of the most famous of all big band leaders, Basie grew up in New Jersey, and started out playing New York's fashionable 'stride' style of piano. He also learned the organ alongside his contemporary Fats Waller. Around 1923, Basie went on the road with a travelling revue, and it was while backing another touring show that he fetched up in Kansas City in 1927. There he played in some of the famous 'territory' bands, who toured the Midwest - Walter Page's Blue Devils and Bennie Moten's Orchestra.
He led his own band in the after hours clubs of Kansas City, and he became famous for its robust style, built on the blues. Entrepreneur John Hammond heard the band on a broadcast, and helped bring Basie to New York in 1937, where his group became famous. Its soloists included trumpeters Buck Clayton and Sweets Edison, and saxophonists Lester Young and Herschel Evans. Its real strength was its rhythm section with drummer Jo Jones, bassist Walter Page and guitarist Freddie Green joining Basie's minimalist piano to produced an unparalleled mastery of swing.
Basie led this big band until the end of the 1940s , when economics forced him to reduce to an octet, but in the early 1950s he once more formed a big band - known as his 'New Testament' group. This had brilliant arrangements by Neal Hefti, Buster Harding and Ernie Wilkins, plus a new breed of soloist who combined bebop ideas with a sense of blues and swing. Star sidemen included trumpeters Joe Newman and Thad Jones, and saxophonists Eddie 'Lockjaw' Davis, Frank Foster and Frank Wess.
With this band Basie continued to be one of the most influential and popular of all bandleaders right up until the time of his death. He toured constantly, made classic albnums with several singers, including Tony Bennett and Sarah Vaughan, but his finest vocal discs feature the band's original Kansas City blues shouter Jimmy Rushing, or his post-war equivalent, the urbane Joe Williams.