For the first time, artifacts and papers from the Institute of Jazz Studies voluminous Count Basie collection are publicly available through an online data base and small exhibition, providing a window into the jazz giant’s life and times.
The institute, based at Rutgers University-Newark, is the largest jazz archive in the world and the collection of more than 1,000 items belonging to Red Bank native William J. “Count” Basie and his family is filled with memorabilia from his professional and personal life, according to a press release.
Items include a note from Frank Sinatra signed “Ol’ Blue Eyes” and urging “Count – Swing, you mother!” and a telegram from Martin Luther King Jr. to Basie’s wife, Catherine, congratulating her on being honored by the New York Urban League.
There are scrapbooks, newspaper clippings, fan letters, family photos, home movies, telegrams, set lists, cuff links, engraved lighters, Polaroids of friends like Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald, and an array of captain’s hats (a signature look for Basie).
Basie was a towering figure in the world of jazz, renowned as a pianist, composer and big band leader, and recognized as the first Black artist to win a Grammy award in 1958. The collection provides insight into his artistry, career, personal life and the era that shaped him, according to the press release.
“Count Basie is one of the most important figures in both jazz and American music of the 20th century,” said Wayne Winborne, executive director of the institute. “His impact and influence as a bandleader and purveyor of hip swing cannot be overstated.”
The collection, called Count Basie Family Papers and Artifacts, is an essential resource for researchers in jazz, music, post-war American history and American culture, especially Black American culture. It is also critical for scholars, educators, writers, filmmakers, students and the general public because of its breadth and depth, according to the press release.
“Preserving his papers and artifacts is important because they allow for detailed examination of music and life in this country through rapid and often tumultuous musical, sociological, economic and cultural changes,” said Winborne. “Plus, it’s just cool to see this stuff.”
Many items tell the story of Catherine Basie, a former burlesque dancer whose stage name was Princess Aloha. As Basie’s wife, she was involved in the civil rights movement and became a civic-minded organizer and fundrasier in the the couple’s Queens, N.Y., neighborhood.
In early December, all papers from the Basie collection became available online for researchers and the public. More material, including digitized images of family scrapbooks, will be added in 2023, according to the press release.
The archives can be found through the Rutgers University Library system at libraries.rutgers.edu/basie.
A small display of artifacts from the collection, including a pair of Basie’s brown Italian leather shoes, a gold piano key necktie clip and an engraved silver cigarette case, are also on view at the institute, which is open to the public by appointment.
Find more information about Basie and the collection at https://www.newark.rutgers.edu/news/institute-jazz-studies-intimate-look-count-basie