Count Basie was among the most important bandleaders of the swing era. With the exception of a brief period in the early '50s, he led a big band from 1935 until his death almost 50 years later, and the band continued to perform after he died, led in turn by Thad Jones, Frank Foster, and Grover Mitchell. Basie's orchestra was characterized by a light, swinging rhythm section that he led from the piano, lively ensemble work, and generous soloing. Basie was not a composer like Duke Ellington or an important soloist like Benny Goodman. His instrument was his band, which was considered the epitome of swing and became broadly influential on jazz. Basie was admired as much by musicians as by listeners, and he displayed a remarkable consistency in a bandleading career that lasted long after swing became an archival style of music. His lengthy career resulted in a large discography spread across all of the major labels and quite a few minor ones as well.
Basie got his big break when one of his band's radio broadcasts from its residency at Reno Club in Kansas City was heard by journalist and record producer John Hammond, who touted him to agents and record companies. As a result, the band made its recording debut on Decca Records in January 1937. Their recording of "One O'Clock Jump" became the band's first chart entry in September 1937 and became their theme song. Basie switched from Decca to Columbia Records in 1939, then went to the West Coast, where he and the band appeared in five films, all released within a matter of months in 1943. The big bands' decline in popularity in the late '40s hit Basie as it did his peers, and he broke up his orchestra at the end of the decade, opting to lead smaller units for the next couple of years. In 1962, Basie switched to Frank Sinatra's Reprise Records in a bid to sell more records. This initiated a period largely deplored by jazz fans that ran through the rest of the 1960s, when Basie teamed with various vocalists for a series of chart albums. By the end of the 1960s, Basie had returned to more of a jazz format. In the early '70s, after a series of short-term affiliations, Basie signed to Pablo Records, with which he recorded for the rest of his life. ~ William Ruhlmann