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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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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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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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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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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....

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Ory, Kid (25 December 1890?–23 January 1973), jazz trombonist, bandleader, and composer, was born Edward Ory in La Place, Louisiana, of Creole French, Spanish, African-American, and Native American heritage. His father was a landowner; the names and other details of his parents are unknown. Ory first spoke French. The family made weekend visits to New Orleans, thirty miles away, where Ory had many opportunities to hear musicians. He built several instruments before acquiring a banjo at age ten, shortly before his mother died....

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Piron, Armand John (16 August 1888–17 February 1943), jazz and popular violinist, composer, and bandleader, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, the son of “Professor” Piron, a music teacher and bandleader. His mother’s name is unknown. Piron broke his hip at age seven and was unable to walk for five years, during which time he studied violin. Sometime after 1900 he joined his father’s dance orchestra. He became a member of the Bloom Philharmonic Orchestra in 1903 and the Peerless Orchestra around 1910....

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Rogers, Shorty (14 April 1924–07 November 1994), jazz trumpet and flugelhorn player, arranger, and bandleader, was born Milton Michael Rajonsky in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, the son of Abraham Rajonsky, an immigrant tailor from Romania, and Anna Sevitsky, from Russia. Rogers was raised in Lee, Massachusetts, where his father owned a tailor shop. He played bugle from age five. Four years later the family moved to the Bronx, New York. He took up trumpet at age twelve and on the strength of his playing he subsequently enrolled at the High School of Music and Art in New York City....

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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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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....

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Claude Thornhill © William P. Gottlieb; used by permission. William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress (LC-GLB23-1559 DLC).

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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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Watters, Lu (19 December 1911–05 November 1989), jazz trumpeter, bandleader, and composer, was born Lucious Carl Watters in Santa Cruz, California. Nothing is known of his parents. Watters was raised in Rio Vista, near Sacramento, and he loved jazz in his youth. At St. Joseph’s Military Academy he played in the drum and bugle corps. In 1925 the family moved to San Francisco, where Watters formed a band of his own. In the course of this activity, he improved his skills enough to be admitted to the high school band and orchestra the following semester, and at age seventeen he began to teach himself to write musical arrangements. Around this time he began working professionally as a trumpeter on boat cruises, an activity that delayed his graduation from high school....