William James “Count” Basie performed at Robinson Center throughout his career. His first appearance was in the early days of the building, when it was known as Robinson Memorial Auditorium. His last appearance was in the early 1980s.
Born in New Jersey, he grew up playing the piano. He arrived in Harlem in the early 1920s and took part in the rise of jazz during the 1920s. He split the decade between touring and playing in a variety of Harlem night spots. In 1929, he relocated to Kansas City and became the pianist for Bennie Moten. It was during this time that he started arranging for bands as well. By 1936, Basie had his own band – Count Basie and His Barons of Rhythm. He also started introducing blues music into his sets.
In 1937, he moved back to New York. It would be his base throughout the 1940s. Though he also started appearing in films starting in 1942. He also started incorporating bebop into his music. After World War II, he disbanded his Big Band and reformed with an orchestra. He would lead this group until the early 1980s.
While an outstanding musician, he was also notable for his role as a composer, arranger, and bandleader. He was constantly experimenting. When two of his tenor saxophonists were complaining, he split them and placed them on opposites of the band creating dueling tenor saxes. He also started incorporating flutes into his orchestra, introducing them into more popular music.
As a musical personality, he joined the ranks of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong in helping to break the color barrier. He was featured in movies and TV at time that segregation was still well in practice.
Over his career, Count Basie received nine Grammy awards and has four recordings in the Grammy Hall of Fame. He was a 1981 Kennedy Center Honors recipient, and received the Grammy Trustees Award in 1981 and Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award posthumously in 2002.