Thursday, June 18, 2009

1921: An Aria of Canaries

Eubie Blake, Sounds of Africa.
Eubie Blake, Ma! (He's Making Eyes At Me).
Zez Confrey, Poor Buttermilk.
Frank Banta, Wild Cherry Rag.
James P. Johnson, Harlem Strut.
James P. Johnson, Carolina Shout.
James P. Johnson, Keep Off the Grass.
Fletcher Henderson, Unknown Blues.
Fats Waller, Birmingham Blues.

Pianists in jazz, like canaries in a mineshaft, are messengers of change.

Allen Lowe.

The other sections of the country never developed the piano as far as the New York boys did. Only lately have they caught up.

James P. Johnson.

When I began my work, jazz was a stunt.

Duke Ellington.

The border between ragtime and jazz piano playing is shadowy, porous and heavily-traveled, and making any boundary claim--jazz piano playing begins here--ping!--as if a pin is pressed into a map--is a foolhardy enterprise. But fools we are, so: in 1921, over a series of records cut by a handful of pianists, ragtime piano transmuted into jazz.

In part this is because of who was making records in 1921, the year the master James P. Johnson and the neophyte Fletcher Henderson both made their solo debuts. But even the novelty players, the jokemen and keyboard tumblers, felt something in the air.

Solo piano recordings can seem like outposts in unmapped territories. Their flexibility and cheapness (requiring little arranging and minimal production) means innovation can sometimes get captured on the fly. But certainly, these 1921 recordings were foremost meant to sell--Brunswick and OKeh and the new African-American-owned label Black Swan were not in the business of funding lab experiments; these records are hardly avant garde. Still, something is moving in them.

Consider them a set of mirrors, reflecting light and shadow, sometimes from a forgotten, lost world, sometimes from one just coalescing.

Eubie Blake had played ragtime since his childhood and in 1921 he cut a record, "Sounds of Africa," that's pure hybrid--it's a ragtime piece dating to the turn of the century that Blake plays with a jazzman's style. Lowe, in his That Devilin' Tune, writes of the "burrowing power" of "Sounds of Africa," and there is a relentless push, a shake and a swerve, in Blake's performance here.

Blake always called it his "Charleston Rag." It was one of his oldest pieces--he wrote it in Baltimore when he was 15 and playing piano in a neighborhood bordello. (He would wait until his parents were asleep, then creep out of the house, change into a pair of long pants he rented from a poolhall owner, and play at the whorehouse until dawn.)

The composer Will Marion Cook heard Blake playing "Charleston Rag" in 1906, and said Blake needed to publish it. Cook, always doing his part to uplift black music, rechristened it "Sounds of Africa" and took Blake to see Curt Schindler, the manager of the song publisher G. Schirmer. Schindler loved the rag and offered $100 for it, but rescinded his offer after the notorious hothead Cook yelled at him. The argument, as recalled by Blake, is worth recounting in full:

Schindler says, "I see you go from a G flat to an E flat without any preparation or modulation." Now he don't mean nothin' at all. He bought the tune. He's just curious. Then suddenly Cook gets very indignant. "How dare you criticize Mr. Blake! What do you know about genuine African music? That's genuine African music!" He's lyin' now.

It would be another 11 years before Blake cut the rag as a piano roll, and 15 until it was at last recorded. (From David A. Jasen and Gordon Gene Jones' Black Bottom Stomp and Norman Weinstein's A Night in Tunisia, where the Blake quote is found.)

Eubie Blake makes Noble Sissle dance like a marionette

Compare the 1917 piano roll of "Charleston Rag" and the 1921 record, under its re-assumed alias "Sounds of Africa," and you'll hear the change, one beyond just the difference between the waxwork piano roll and the flesh-and-blood recording. The rag's been heavily seasoned, likely by years of piano cutting contests that Blake played in Harlem.

These contests were a brutal business. Any aspiring pianist had to take on a set of masters, including Luckey Roberts, whose hands were so large they could span a fourteenth (two dozen keys or more) on the keyboard, or Willie "The Lion" Smith, who would stand over a challenger while he played, smoking a cigar and talking trash all the while (if Smith noticed the player had a weak left hand, Smith would gibe "When did you break your left arm?"), or the mysterious player known only as "Seminole" whose ambidextrous powers left Count Basie battered ("he had a left hand like everybody else had a right hand...And he dethroned me. Took my crown!", Basie told Albert Murray).

Here Blake would arrive wearing a raccoon coat and derby, carrying a cane, and saving "his best effects for the piano, where he would lift his hands high...sometimes conducting with one, while continuing to pound the keys with the other" (Ted Gioia). He played "Charleston Rag" relentlessly, and some of the innovation (take how Blake will suddenly shift the standard syncopated ragtime rhythm to a non-syncopated beat), looseness and verve of those battles can be heard, if murkily, in the '21 recording.

Recorded in July 1921 and released as several cylinders and discs: Columbia C3L33, Emerson 10434, Symphanola 4360 and Paramount 14004; on Ragtime to Jazz Vol. 2. "Ma! (He's Making Eyes At Me)," a Broadway staple that Blake churns into another wonderful ragtime/jazz fusion (listen to how he vamps up the melody towards the end) was cut in September 1921 and released as Emerson 10450.

Poor Zez Confrey doesn't fit into any of the fashionable pigeonholes of "jazz." He didn't come up the river from New Orleans, didn't jam on 52nd Street, wasn't a junkie, etc. Or if he was I never heard of it.

Dick Wellstood.

Zez Confrey was a "novelty ragtime" pianist of the early '20s, best known for "Kitten on the Keys," his attempt to replicate the sound he heard one night of his cat walking on his piano keyboard. As per his instructions, pianists playing "Kitten" were advised to "scramble up the octaves in the part which is supposed to sound like a cat bouncing down the keyboard. In other words, make a fist...otherwise it won't sound real."

In the same year, Confrey recorded another novelty, "Poor Buttermilk," which is more in the vein of Blake's "Sounds of Africa"--a prototype ragtime/jazz recording. It has a rhythmic density and a sense of moodiness: its "B" section (starting at :30 in) is one of the thornier pieces in the ragtime canon, a shower of "augmented triads descending in intervals of a minor third" (David Jasen). The stride pianist Dick Wellstood was a fan, writing that "Poor Buttermilk" should be played "slowly and sweetly by a choir of drunken soprano saxophonists."

And Frank Banta's "Wild Cherry Rag," from the same year, also has something of jazz sensibility in Banta's fleetness and solid rhythmic sense--the song is a bit of a musty oldie, but Banta swings pretty well.

"Buttermilk" was recorded sometime between April and July 1921 and released as Brunswick 2112 c/w "You Tell Em Ivories"; on Keyboard Wizards of the Gershwin Era Vol. 4. Banta's "Wild Cherry Rag" was recorded in August 1921 and released as Gennett 4735; on Ragtime to Jazz Vol. 4.

James P. Johnson, brooking no challengers, 1921.

A disciple of Scott Joplin and the mentor of Fats Waller, James P. Johnson is a suspension bridge between ragtime and jazz--he was a ragtime innovator, one of the pioneers of stride jazz piano, and he lived long enough to hear the likes of Art Tatum and Thelonious Monk take his style and mutate it beyond even his imaginings.

The critic Stanley Dance once described Johnson's piano style as being orchestral: "full, round, big widespread chords and tenths; a heavy bass moving against the right hand." Johnson as a child had studied Rachmaninoff and by his early teens was playing ragtime in bars and brothels and in vaudeville theaters. By the mid-'10s he was in New York, churning out hundreds of piano rolls while working at longshoreman dives in the Jungle, the pre-urban-renewal Upper West Side slum.

Johnson's first records seem intended to quietly shatter ragtime's constitution. "Harlem Strut," his debut solo track, is on paper a standard ragtime number in 2/4, but Johnson's relaxed, smooth playing conveys a sense of new, looser sense of time.

And the tracks he cut for OKeh in late '21, "Carolina Shout" (which became a textbook for Waller and Ellington) and "Keep Off the Grass," further show Johnson's innovative rhythmic sense: his ability to balance the "bell-like clarity of his right hand" (Lowe) with his steady, stride-playing left. In the opening bars of "Carolina Shout," Johnson's right hand keeps the same, steady rhythm while his left keeps changing gears, shifting into a 3-3-2 beat pattern, among others. It's a trick he pulls again towards the end of the "Grass", when Johnson's left plays 3-2-3 and his right 3-3-2.

"Harlem Strut" was recorded in August 1921 and released as Black Swan 2026; "Carolina Shout" was recorded 18 October 1921, "Keep Off the Grass" ca. November 1921, and both released as OKeh 4495. On Carolina Shout and the out-of-print Harlem Stride Piano.

Heir apparent: Fats Waller opens an engagement

Finally, two epilogues: Fletcher Henderson, who would be the decade's finest and most unheralded bandleader, started as a pianist trying to key his way out of ragtime's constraints. His "Unknown Blues" is a fairly standard ragtime composition that Henderson makes dance with a deft lightness in his playing.

Recorded ca. August 1921 (there's some dispute as to this, but I'm going by Ross Laird's sessionography) and released as Black Swan 2026; on 1921-1923.

And finally: the 18-year-old Thomas "Fats" Waller's first-ever recording, 1922's "Birmingham Blues." Waller worshiped James P. Johnson so much that Waller even moved into the man's house for a time. The romping "Birmingham" is the first of his many acts of homage.

Recorded either on 21 October 1922 or in December of that year, and released as OKeh 4757 c/w "Muscle Shoals Blues"; on the highly-recommended Handful of Keys.

Top photo: George Gershwin's hands, ca. 1929.

PS: Yes, "an aria of canaries" is allegedly the collective noun for canaries, according to the New Zealand bird and birding pages. I'm also fond of "a deck of cardinals."

Next: Normalcy, really. But first, I'm on a small vacation.

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