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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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Dohnányi, Ernst von (27 July 1877–09 February 1960), composer, concert pianist, teacher, and conductor, also known as Ernó and baptized Dohnányi Erno Jeno Frigyes, was born in Pozsony, Hungary-later known as Pressberg, then Bratislava, Slovakia. (The population of Pozsony was approximately half Hungarian and half German, so Dohnányi was comfortable with the language and heritage of both.) He was the son of Frederick von Dohnányi (Dohnányi Frigyes), professor of mathematics and physics at the Royal Catholic Chief Gymnasium (Királyi Katolikus Fögimnásium) and an accomplished cellist and composer. Dohnányi's mother, Ottilia Szlabey, was tiny; she was sometimes referred to as fiercely determined and willing to sacrifice her comfort for others. Dohnányi embodied these characteristics as an adult helping family and friends survive the vicissitudes of wartime Europe. His sister, Mitzi, was a year younger. A brother died in infancy. When traveling outside of Hungary, he called himself Ernst von Dohnányi....

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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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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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Humiston, William Henry (27 April 1869–05 December 1923), organist, conductor, and composer, was born in Marietta, Ohio, the son of Henry Humiston and Margaret Voris. As a child, Humiston moved to Chicago with his family, where he completed high school in 1886. He continued his education at Lake Forest College, graduating in 1891 with a B.A. During these years and even later, he studied piano and harmony with ...

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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....

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Ethel Leginska Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-97196).

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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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Mitropoulos, Dimitri (01 March 1896–02 November 1960), conductor, pianist, and composer, was born in Athens, Greece, the son of Jean Mitropoulos, a leather merchant, and Angeliki Anagnostopoulos. He was musically precocious and began to play the piano at the age of seven. He studied at the Athens Conservatory of Music, where Ludwig Wassenhoven taught him piano and Armand Marsick taught him composition. After fighting on the Bulgarian front during World War I, Mitropoulos returned to the conservatory and graduated in piano in 1918 and in composition in 1920. During these early years Mitropoulos composed several songs to Greek and French texts, a symphonic poem entitled ...

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Perez Prado, Damaso (11 December 1916–14 September 1989), pianist, composer, and bandleader, was born in Matanzas, Cuba. His mother was a schoolteacher and his father was a journalist. He studied classical piano during his youth and worked as a pianist in a charanga orchestra. By the early 1940s he was based in Matanzas and performing in various orchestras. During the mid-1940s he began to experiment with the mixture of jazz and Afro-Cuban musical genres. He became known by his double family name, Perez Prado, many having confused “Perez” as his first name. In 1948 he moved to Mexico City....

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Sergei Rachmaninoff Photograph by Arnold Genthe, 1918. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-G432-2683).

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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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Rapee, Erno (04 June 1891–26 June 1945), composer, conductor, and pianist, was born in Budapest, Hungary. A piano virtuoso, he studied composition and piano at the Budapest Royal Conservatory, graduating at the age of eighteen. A conducting student of Ernst Schuch, the general musical director of the Dresden Royal Opera House, Rapee held conductor and assistant conductor posts with various European theaters. Following a concert tour of South America and Mexico, he came to New York City in 1912. Arriving literally without funds, Rapee found employment as a musician at New York’s Cafe Monopole for $25 a week. He also worked briefly as an accompanist for Harry Lauder, the popular Scottish singer and comedian. In 1913 he was engaged as musical director for New York City’s Hungarian Opera Company. The following year he made his American vaudeville debut, playing classical numbers and patriotic medleys on the piano....

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Russell, Luis Carl (06 August 1902–11 December 1963), jazz bandleader, arranger, and pianist, was born in Careening Cay in Bocas Del Toro Province, Panama, the son of Felix Alexander Russell, a pianist and music teacher who taught him several instruments. In 1917 he played piano accompanying silent films and the next year moved to Colon, where he played in the Casino Club with a small dance band. Nothing is known of Russell’s mother except that in 1919 she and her daughter accompanied him to New Orleans after he had won $3,000 in a lottery. Once settled, he studied jazz piano with Steve Lewis and in the fall of 1921 worked at the Cadillac Club in Arnold De Pass’s band, where he first met clarinetist ...

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Schelling, Ernest Henry (26 July 1876–08 December 1939), pianist, composer, and conductor, was born in Belvidere, New Jersey, the son of Felix Emmanuel Schelling, a physician and musician from St. Gall, Switzerland, and the English-born Rose White Wilkes of Philadelphia. Schelling’s early musical studies were under the strict training of his gifted father. Ernest’s public debut at age four at the Philadelphia Academy of Music was hailed by a review in the ...

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Schreiber, Frederick Charles (13 January 1895–15 January 1985), organist, conductor, and teacher, was born in Vienna, Austria, the son of Charles Robert Darwin Schreiber, a doctor, and Anna (maiden name unknown). Both parents were musicians who delighted in playing piano, and they provided countless hours of musical enrichment for Frederick and his sister Ella. In this way Schreiber learned to appreciate the classical repertoire. Schreiber began formal study of the piano at age eight and wrote his first composition when he was just ten years old. He attended the Humanistic High School in Vienna, the Vienna University, and the State Academy of Music, studying composition, conducting, piano, and violoncello....

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Sun Ra (22 May 1914–30 May 1993), jazz bandleader, composer, and keyboard player, was born in Birmingham, Alabama. Nothing is known of his father; his mother ran restaurants. Sun Ra claimed that he was a visitor from Saturn and acted accordingly, often discouraging investigations into his earthly upbringing. His given name was Herman and his surname may have been Lee, but his siblings were named Blount, perhaps from a stepfather. He denied that his surname was really Blount, and yet this surname was documented early in his professional career. In childhood he received the nickname Sonny....