William "Count" Basie was an American jazz pianist, organist, bandleader, and composer. Basie led his jazz orchestra almost continuously for nearly 50 years. Many notable musicians came to prominence under his direction, including tenor saxophonists Lester Young and Herschel Evans, trumpeters Buck Clayton and Harry "Sweets" Edison and singers Jimmy Rushing and Joe Williams. Basie's theme songs were "One O'Clock Jump" and "April In Paris".
William James Basie was born to Harvey Lee Basie, and Lillian Ann Childs, who lived on Mechanic Street 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 families in the area. His mother, a piano player who gave Basie his first piano lessons, took in laundry and baked cakes for sale and paid 25 cents a lesson for piano instruction for him.
Basie was not much of a scholar and instead dreamed of a traveling life, inspired by the carnivals which came to town. He only got as far as junior high school. He would hang out at the Palace Theater in Red Bank and did occasional chores for the management, which got him free admission to the shows. He also learned to operate the spotlights for the vaudeville shows. One day, when the pianist failed to arrive by show time, Basie took his place. Playing by ear, he quickly learned to improvise music appropriate to silent movies.
Though a natural at the piano, Basie preferred drums. However, the obvious talents of another young Red Bank area drummer, Sonny Greer, discouraged Basie and he switched to piano exclusively by age 15. They 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, New Jersey, playing at the Hongkong Inn, until a better player took his place.