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Count Basie, c. 1946-1948. © William P. Gottlieb; used by permission. William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress (LC-GLB23-0047 DLC).

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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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Tadd Dameron © William P. Gottlieb; used by permission. William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress (LC-GLB23-0172 DLC).

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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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Duke Ellington. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-115052).

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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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Erwin, Pee Wee (30 May 1913–20 June 1981), musician, composer, and bandleader, was born George Francis Erwin in Falls City, Nebraska, the son of James Oglesby Erwin, a barber, and Chloe Maxine Prater. Both parents were musicians. His father played trumpet and his mother the piano. Erwin learned to play the cornet and joined his father’s band, where he acquired the nickname “Pee Wee” because of his small stature. At the age of eight he played on the radio for the first time, with the Coon-Sanders Nighthawks....

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Europe, James Reese (22 February 1880–09 May 1919), music administrator, conductor, and composer, was born in Mobile, Alabama, the son of Henry J. Europe, an Internal Revenue Service employee and Baptist minister, and Lorraine Saxon. Following the loss of his position with the Port of Mobile at the end of the Reconstruction, Europe’s father moved his family to Washington, D.C., in 1890 to accept a position with the U.S. Postal Service. Both of Europe’s parents were musical, as were some of his siblings. Europe attended the elite M Street High School for blacks and studied violin, piano, and composition with Enrico Hurlei of the U.S. Marine Corps band and with Joseph Douglass, the grandson of ...

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Evans, Gil (13 May 1912–20 March 1988), jazz arranger and bandleader, was born Ian Ernest Gilmore Green in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. His parents’ names are unknown. His mother worked as a cook. He took his stepfather’s name, Evans, and from the age of eight he moved about in the northwestern United States as his stepfather, a miner, secured work. The family settled in Stockton or Berkeley, California (Evans’s recollections were contradictory), where he attended high school and where he discovered jazz through listening to ...

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Dizzy Gillespie Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1955. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-114444).

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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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Goldman, Edwin Franko (01 January 1878–21 February 1956), bandmaster and composer, was born in Louisville, Kentucky, the son of David Goldman, an attorney, and Selma Franko, a musician. He came from a long line of accomplished musicians—composers, conductors, pianists, violinists, and educators. After the death of Edwin’s father, his mother moved the family to New York, where she placed two of the children, Edwin and his younger brother, Walter, in the Hebrew Orphans Asylum. There, Edwin studied both the cornet and the alto horn and played in his first band. He attended public schools but had religious and language studies at home. His mother gave him weekly piano lessons at the asylum. When his mother became financially able, she asked the brothers to return home, but Edwin chose to remain in the orphanage, where he enjoyed the many musical activities....

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Goldman, Richard Franko (07 December 1910–19 January 1980), composer, conductor, and author, was born Richard Henry Maibrunn Goldman in New York City, the son of the famed bandmaster Edwin Franko Goldman and Adelaide Maibrunn Goldman. Richard grew up in a stimulating musical and intellectual environment. He attended Townsend Harris High School, affiliated with the City College of New York for exceptionally gifted children, from which he graduated at age sixteen. He then decided to study music. Clarence Adler taught him piano and composition, and Pietro Floridia, an opera composer, taught him compositional technique by having him copy, note for note, operatic scores of the masters....

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Grafulla, Claudio S. (31 October 1812–02 December 1880), composer and band director, was born on the Spanish island of Minorca. Some accounts list him as Claudius Graffulla or Graffula, and one reference, unsubstantiated, gives the full name as Claude Serafu Grafulla. Nothing is known of his early years before he came to the United States in 1838. It has been suggested that he, like many others at the time, gained passage as a musician on a U.S. warship, and his absence from the index to passenger lists of vessels arriving in New York during that period makes the hypothesis credible. Later accounts state that soon after his arrival he assumed the leadership of the 27th Regiment Band of New York, while others mention a similar position with the New York Brass Band. Napier Lothian’s New York Brass Band was considered the leading band of the city at the time and was regularly engaged by the 27th Regiment for its military functions. It is likely, therefore, that Grafulla served as the regimental bandmaster, directing Lothian’s men for regimental functions. He also served as piccolo player in the New York Brass Band’s nightly concerts at Castle Garden, where performances of many of his works established his reputation as a band composer and arranger....

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Guaraldi, Vince (17 July 1928–06 February 1976), pianist, bandleader, and composer, was born Vincent Anthony Guaraldi in San Francisco, California, of parents whose names are unknown. Guaraldi began his professional career in the newspaper business with the San Francisco Daily News in 1949, until he nearly lost a finger in an industrial accident. After this mishap, and helped by relatives Muzzy and Joseph Marcellino, who had strong ties in both music and television in San Francisco, he returned to his first (and apparently safer) love and talent, the piano. He played with local groups, most significantly with the Bill Harris-Chubby Jackson Sextette and later with the Georgie Auld Band (1953) and ...

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Henderson, Horace W. (22 November 1904–29 August 1988), jazz and popular arranger, bandleader, and pianist, was born in Cuthbert, Georgia, the son of Fletcher H. Henderson, Sr., a teacher, and Ozie Lena Chapman. He studied piano formally from about age fourteen to seventeen, when he left home to finish high school at the preparatory school of Wilberforce University in Ohio and then attend the university. In 1924 he visited his older brother, bandleader ...

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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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Francis Johnson. Courtesy of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania.

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Jones, Thad (28 March 1923–20 August 1986), jazz horn player, composer, and bandleader, was born Thaddeus Joseph Jones in Pontiac, Michigan. The names of his parents and details of his early childhood are unknown. However, it would seem that his was a musical family: his uncle William was a bandleader, and two of his four brothers were musicians....

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Jordan, Joe (11 February 1882–11 September 1971), composer, conductor, jazz and ragtime pianist, and bandleader, was born Joseph Jordan in Cincinnati, Ohio. His father owned a pool hall; his parents' names are unknown. He was raised in Cincinnati and was educated at Lincoln Institute in Jefferson City, Missouri. By 1900 he was playing piano in cafes in St. Louis, where he also played violin and drums in the Taborian Band....