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Donald Carson: 1930-2000
Donald Carson
Piano, arranger, bandleader

Born: 1930 in Washington, DC
Died: February 13, 2000 in Cedar Park, Texas

Man Who Filled The Count's Shoes

Copyright © 2000 

The Scotsman, 2000


Tee Carson is best known as the man who took over the piano chair from Count Basie when the legendary pianist and bandleader’s health began to fail in the late 1970s. Basie had earmarked Carson, who shared his liking for a spare but effective piano style, for the job, and the pianist eventually took over the leadership of the band after Basie’s death in 1984, a role he filled until 1987.

He was born Donald Tecumseh Carson, but in jazz circles was always known simply as Tee, a diminutive of his middle name. Carson succeeded in combining a career as a jazz pianist with full-time employment, initially as an electronics engineer in the early 1950s, and later, following service in the US Army, as a United States marshal working at the Justice Department on surveillance duty, in which capacity he gave evidence during the Watergate hearings.

His musical career began in Washington in the mid-1940s, when he formed a trio to accompany singer Ethel Waters at a new club. His trio went on to enjoy a long engagement at the prestigious Shoreham Hotel in the city, and were a popular attraction in their own right, as well as backing stellar visitors like Pearl Bailey, Lena Horne, and Sammy Davis, Jr.

He formed a close friendship with one of his idols, the great Art Tatum, and went on to perform with Billie Holiday, Joe Williams, Sarah Vaughan, Nancy Wilson, and Tony Bennett. In 1972 he replaced Ella Fitzgerald's regular accompanist at short notice for an engagement in Washington, and later worked full-time for the singer, having received leave of absence to do so.

He retired from the Justice Department in 1977, and moved to San Francisco, where he performed regularly at the Cypress Club and the Fairmont Hotel's New Orleans Room, and hosted a weekly jazz radio show.

His long friendship with Count Basie led to his most famous appointment. He travelled with the band for many years while Basie was still active, and as the leader of the posthumous Count Basie Big Band, he recorded the albums Long Live the Chief (1986) and Legend: The Legacy (1989), and also recorded with saxophonists Richie Cole in 1988 and Frank Wess in 1990.

Tee Carson died of lung cancer at his home in Cedar Park, Texas. He is survived by a sister, Shirley Carson; his wife, Robin LaStofka Carson; two daughters; a son; and two grandchildren.

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