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Basie, Count (21 August 1904–26 April 1984), jazz pianist, composer, and bandleader, was born William Basie in Red Bank, New Jersey, the son of African-American parents Harvey Lee Basie, an estate groundskeeper, and Lillian Ann Chiles, a laundress. Basie was first exposed to music through his mother’s piano playing. He took piano lessons, played the drums, and acted in school skits. An indifferent student, he left school after junior high and began performing. He organized bands with friends and played various jobs in Red Bank, among them working as a movie theater pianist. In his late teens he pursued work in nearby Asbury Park, but he met with little success. Then, in the early 1920s, he moved to Harlem, where he learned from the leading pianists of the New York “stride” style, ...

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Ellington, Duke (29 April 1899–24 May 1974), jazz musician and composer, was born Edward Kennedy Ellington in Washington, D.C., the son of James Edward Ellington, a butler, waiter, and later printmaker, and Daisy Kennedy. The Ellingtons were middle-class people who struggled at times to make ends meet. Ellington grew up surrounded by a large, concerned family. His mother was particularly attached to him; in her eyes he could do no wrong. They belonged to Washington’s black elite, who put much stock in racial pride. Ellington developed a strong sense of his own worth and a belief in his destiny, which at times shaded over into egocentricity. Because of this attitude, and his almost royal bearing, his schoolmates early named him “Duke.”...

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Gillespie, Dizzy (21 October 1917–06 January 1993), jazz trumpeter, bandleader, and composer, was born John Birks Gillespie in Cheraw, South Carolina, the son of James Gillespie, a mason and musician, and Lottie Powe. Gillespie’s father kept his fellow band members’ instruments at their home, and thus from his toddler years onward Gillespie had an opportunity to experiment with sounds. He entered Robert Smalls public school in 1922. He was as naughty as he was brilliant, and accounts of fighting, showing off, and mischief extend from his youth into adulthood....

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Johnson, Francis (16 June 1792–06 April 1844), musician, bandleader, and composer, also known as Frank Johnson, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Little is known of his youth and parentage. Most sources cite Martinique as his birthplace, but Stephen Charpié's (1999) work with baptismal records establishes his birth date, birthplace, and status as a free African American. Though skilled at a number of instruments, Johnson seems to have first attained local prominence as a fiddler at dances, parties, and the like; there is some evidence that he played with Matthew “Matt” Black's band in the late 1810s. Johnson also seems to have received some limited instruction during this period from Richard Willis, an Irish immigrant who later directed the West Point military band and who introduced the keyed bugle (also known as a Kent bugle) to the United States....

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Leginska, Ethel (13 April 1886–26 February 1970), concert pianist, conductor, and composer, was born Ethel Liggins in Hull, Yorkshire, England, the daughter of Thomas Liggins and Annie Peck. A child prodigy, Leginska gave her first public piano recital at the age of seven. In 1900 she won a scholarship to study the piano at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt under James Kwast and theory under Bernhard Sekles and Ivan Knorr. In 1904 she began a three-year period of study with Theodor Leschetizky in Vienna and in Berlin. In 1907, the year of her London debut, she married Roy Emerson Whittern, an American who was studying composition; he later changed his name to Emerson Whithorne....

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Rachmaninoff, Sergei (02 April 1873–28 March 1943), composer, pianist, and conductor, was born Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff on his parents’ estate at Oneg, near Novgorod, Russia, the son of Vasily Arkadyevich Rachmaninoff, a wealthy but dissolute army officer, and Lubov Petrovna Butokova. As a result of Vasily Rachmaninoff’s extravagant ways, the family was forced to liquidate its assets, which included a number of country estates, and in 1882 they moved to a small flat in Saint Petersburg....

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Thornhill, Claude (10 August 1909–01 July 1965), pianist, composer, and bandleader, was born in Terre Haute, Indiana. Although Thornhill was initially trained in classical music, as a pianist and composer at the Cincinnati Conservatory in Ohio and Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute in Pennsylvania, he turned to jazz in his late teens. He worked as a band pianist with many dance and swing orchestras in the 1930s, including Hal Kemp, Leo Reisman, ...

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Weston, Paul (12 March 1912–20 September 1996), musician, was born Paul Wetstein in Springfield, Massachusetts, the son of Paul Richard Wetstein, a teacher at Miss Hill's School for Girls, and Anna Grady Wetstein. Educated through high school in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, he was Phi Beta Kappa at Dartmouth College, majoring in economics and leading a jazz band, and graduating cum laude in 1933....