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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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Brubeck, Dave (06 December 1920–05 December 2012), jazz pianist, bandleader, and composer, was born David Warren Brubeck in Concord, California, the youngest son of Howard Peter Brubeck, a rancher, and Elizabeth Ivey, a pianist and music teacher. In the mid-1890s his grandfather bought a ranch at the northern foot of Mount Diablo in Clayton, California. His parents' home was in the adjacent town, Concord, where young Dave attended elementary school. His brilliance would eventually be obvious, but as a child he was placed in a slow learning group because he had difficulty with spelling and reading. Dave was born cross-eyed and later in life speculated that he may also have had an unidentified learning disability....

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Calloway, Cab (25 December 1907–18 November 1994), jazz and popular singer and bandleader, was born Cabell Calloway III in Rochester, New York, the son of Cabell Calloway, a lawyer who also worked in real estate, and Martha Eulalia Reed, a public school teacher and church organist. Around 1914 the family moved to Baltimore, Maryland. His father died around 1920, and his mother married John Nelson Fortune, who held a succession of respectable jobs. Calloway sang solos at Bethlehem Methodist Episcopal Church, and he took voice lessons at age fourteen. He was nevertheless an incorrigible teenager, and in 1921 his stepfather sent him to Downingtown Industrial and Agricultural School, a reform school run by his granduncle, a pastor in Downington, Pennsylvania. In the spring of 1922 Calloway returned home on his own initiative, by his own account not reformed, but now a man rather than a boy. He thereafter moved comfortably between the proprieties of mainstream American life and the depravities of American entertainment....

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Dameron, Tadd (21 February 1917–08 March 1965), arranger, bandleader, and composer, was born Tadley Ewing Peake Dameron in Cleveland, Ohio. Information on his parents is not available. Dameron attended Oberlin College and took premed courses before deciding to become a musician. His career began rather inauspiciously as a singer in 1938 with Freddy Webster’s band. It then continued with several lesser-known groups that included Zach Whyte, Blanche Calloway ( ...

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Davis, Miles (25 May 1926–28 September 1991), jazz trumpeter and bandleader, was born Miles Dewey Davis III in Alton, Illinois, the son of Miles Dewey Davis, Jr., a dentist, and Cleota Henry. When Davis was one year old, the family moved to East St. Louis, Missouri, where his father practiced dental surgery and farmed, raising special breeds of hogs. They settled in a white neighborhood while Davis was in elementary school....

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Donahue, Sam (08 March 1918–22 March 1974), jazz and popular tenor saxophonist and bandleader, was born Samuel Koontz Donahue in Detroit, Michigan. His parents’ names and occupations are unknown. Donahue began clarinet at age nine and saxophone in high school. He played in the Redford High School band while also working locally as a sideman and with his own band from 1933 until 1938. In the latter year he gave his Detroit band over to arranger Sonny Burke and became a soloist in ...

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Dorsey, Jimmy (29 February 1904–12 June 1957), and Tommy Dorsey (27 November 1905–26 November 1956), jazz musicians and bandleaders, were born James Francis Dorsey in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, and Thomas Francis Dorsey, Jr., in Mahanoy Plane, Pennsylvania, respectively, the sons of Thomas Francis Dorsey, Sr., a miner, and Theresa “Tess” Langton....

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See Dorsey, Jimmy

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Eckstine, Billy (08 July 1914–08 March 1993), vocalist and band leader, known as “Mr. B”, was born William Clarence Eckstein in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the son of William Eckstein, a chauffeur, and Charlotte (maiden name unknown), a seamstress. He changed the spelling of his name as a young adult, at the suggestion of a nightclub owner who thought his name looked too Jewish. Eckstine had no extensive formal musical education while he was growing up, but his mother was always singing hymns and popular songs, and he sang at local social events and for a short time in the Episcopal choir in Pittsburgh. Around age sixteen he moved to Washington, D.C., and lived with his sister Maxine while finishing high school. On a dare, in 1933 he sang at an amateur show at the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C., and won first prize. In his last year of high school, much to his parents’ dismay, Eckstine worked at the Howard Theater, singing songs while the chorus girls danced. His parents had their hearts set on all of their children going to college, and Eckstine, undecided between singing or football, won a scholarship in 1934 to study physical education at Howard University but quit after a year after he broke his collar bone. Returning to Pittsburgh, he sang in local clubs and then made his way to Chicago, where, while singing in the DeLisa Club, he was heard by ...

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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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Goodman, Benny (30 May 1909–13 June 1986), jazz musician and bandleader, was born Benjamin David Goodman in Chicago, the son of David Goodman, a garment worker, and Dora Rezinsky. His parents were Jewish immigrants from East Europe, and Goodman was raised in near poverty in Chicago’s Jewish enclave....

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Gray, Glen (06 July 1906–23 August 1963), saxophonist and band leader, also known as “Spike” Gray, was born Glen Gray Knoblaugh in Roanoke, Illinois, the son of Lurdie C. Knoblaugh, a clerk in the family store, and Agnes Cunningham.

Not an innovator nor performer of extraordinary gifts, Gray’s significance was more historical than musical, residing in the transitional role he and his Casa Loma Orchestra played in the evolution of the large dance orchestra—the big band—between 1930 and the end of World War II. Together they helped to transform the “salon” commercial dance orchestra of the 1910s and 1920s into the swing-oriented bands that began to dominate the business during the mid-1930s....

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Grimes, Tiny (07 July 1916?–04 March 1989), jazz and rhythm-and-blues guitarist and bandleader, was born Lloyd Grimes in Newport News, Virginia. Grimes told interviewer Bob Kenselaar that he was unsure of his birth date, there being no certificate. He told writers Stanley Dance and Arnie Berle that he was born in 1917, but other published sources give 1916 or 1915. Details of his parents are unknown. Grimes took up drums in a Boy Scout marching band. He played regularly at a beach dancehall near Newport News until a storm and subsequent flood destroyed the hall and his drums. Around the seventh grade he dropped out of school to work typical boyhood jobs selling papers and shining shoes. He taught himself to play piano, and while living in Washington, D.C., he became a pianist and singer in a trio called Wynken, Blynken and Nod. The group performed regularly on radio on “ ...

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Hackett, Bobby (31 January 1915–07 June 1976), cornetist, trumpeter, and bandleader, was born Robert Leo Hackett in Providence, Rhode Island. His father was a blacksmith; his parents’ names are unknown. Hackett played ukelele at age eight and studied violin for a year at age ten. He had added banjo by age twelve, when he acquired his first cornet. At fourteen he quit school to play guitar in what he described as a lousy band at a Chinese restaurant; he endured the job by courting Edna (maiden name unknown), his childhood sweetheart and future wife. He played banjo and guitar in little-known bands in Providence and Syracuse, where he began performing on cornet as well. From 1933 to 1934 he worked alongside ...

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Herman, Woody (16 May 1913–29 October 1987), jazz bandleader, reed player, and singer, was born Woodrow Charles Thomas Herrmann in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the son of Otto C. Herrmann, a shoemaker, and Myrtle Bartoszewicz. With his father’s encouragement, the young Herrmann began performing in a kiddie revue at age eight. He tried playing piano and violin before settling on alto saxophone and clarinet. He also studied dance. Billed in vaudeville as the Boy Wonder of the Saxophone, he was performing regularly by age ten while attending a public school. He transferred to St. John’s Cathedral Preparatory School, where teachers and administrators were willing to encourage a boy who sometimes worked late hours in show business....

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Hines, Earl “Fatha” (28 December 1905–22 April 1983), jazz pianist and bandleader, was born Earl Kenneth Hines in Duquesne (later absorbed into Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania, the son of Joseph Hines, a foreman on the coal docks. His mother, whose name is unknown, died when he was an infant. From the age of three he was raised by his stepmother, Mary (maiden name unknown), an organist. His father played cornet and led the local Eureka Brass Band, an uncle was an accomplished brass player, and an aunt sang light opera. Thus immersed in musical influences, Hines commenced classical piano studies in 1914. He possessed an immense natural talent. While making rapid progress through the classics he also began playing organ in the Baptist church and covertly entertaining at parties, this last activity a consequence of his ability to learn popular songs by ear. His life, like his music, moved fluidly between middle-class proprieties and wild pleasures....

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James, Harry (15 March 1916–05 July 1983), trumpeter and bandleader, was born in a show business hotel in Albany, Georgia, the son of Everette Robert James, director of and trumpet soloist in the touring Mighty Haag circus, and Maybelle Stewart, a circus aerialist. His middle name was Haag. James’s father taught him drums around age seven and trumpet by age ten. Within a few years James was leading the second band in the Christy Brothers Circus. In 1931 the family settled in Beaumont, Texas, where he attended high school and where his father eventually headed a music school....

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Anthony J. Agostinelli

Kenton, Stan (15 December 1911–25 August 1979), jazz musician, was born Stanley Newcomb Kenton in Wichita, Kansas, the son of Thomas Floyd Kenton, a salesman and entrepreneur, and Stella Emily Newcomb, a piano teacher. At age five, Kenton moved with his family to Los Angeles. As a child he studied piano with his mother and in later years with Frank Hurst, a theater organist; Kenton’s early influences were ...

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Kirby, John (31 December 1908–14 June 1952), jazz bassist and bandleader, was born in Baltimore. Details about his parents are unknown. Abandoned, Kirby had a horrible childhood in an orphanage; it “left him without social graces, and he lacked formal education.” He sold newspapers, shined shoes, and groomed horses before securing a job as a Pullman porter on the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1924 he came to New York with a trombone, which was immediately stolen. He worked in restaurants to buy a tuba and then performed in Harlem, returning to the railroad when opportunities to play were scarce. He was a member of Bill Brown and his Brownies briefly in 1928 and again from 1929 into early 1930. Having begun to play string bass as well as tuba, he switched between both on Brown’s recording “What Kind of Rhythm Is This?” (1929)....