A mental bank shot put me in mind of a musician I had not listened to in several years: Charles Luckeyth Roberts. Not that there’s much of him you can listen to. Despite a long and successful career (he died in 1968 at 80), he left no more than 12 dazzling tracks and 11 misguided toss-offs. It’s something of a miracle that we have anything, because his first records were made in 1946, six years after a car wreck smashed his hands. The last ones followed a stroke. Perhaps those who saw him in the flesh can detect the effects of either infirmity. I can’t.
The bank shot worked like this: In February, I heard the Cecil Taylor Trio play a magnificent set at the Blue Note, vibrant with dynamics, variety and suspense. I had (not for the first time) a distinct impression that Taylor had devised a few new keyboard acrobatics. This cue ball of illumination rebounded off the cushion of blurred recollection and found Luckey Roberts hiding in the shadows. A luxurious immersion in the latter’s few recordings disclosed at least three points of contact.
First: They are constant and intrepid explorers in the heart of the heart of their instrument, searching the 88s not just for melody and harmony but also to invent configurations, stratagems, strikes and feints. Their hands dance across the keys as on a stage. Dexterousness is a means to an end, but these two know that pyrotechnical éclat is a not unworthy part of that end. Second: They are power players, piano percussionists for whom muscular techniques mix rhythms and shake foundations. Third: They offer secret melodies. In Roberts’ case, the proof came in bountiful royalties.
One of Luckey’s early rags, “Ripples of the Nile,” opens with a strain so fast and intricate that George Gershwin, who acknowledged Roberts as a significant influence on his developing piano style, could not quite master it-though it did inspire Gershwin and pianist-composer Will Donaldson to try their own alternative, “Rialto Ripples,” in 1917. Many years later, someone got the idea to slow Luckey’s strain way, way down: A lyric was added, turning it into a chart-buster for Glenn Miller, called “Moonlight Cocktail.” Taylor’s music also shines with melodies swept up in pianistic exuberance-the opening motif of The Willisau Concert begins with three notes similar to Jerome Kern’s “Yesterdays” before spinning off into tuneful variations.
Luckey was born to a Quaker family in Philadelphia, in 1887, and by age five was doing tumbles in vaudeville. As a budding pianist, he had tutors in ragtime and classical music, including the older Eubie Blake, who with James P. Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith considered him the most accomplished of the Harlem pianists-a mentor to those who came under his spell. Well-mannered and articulate, he eventually became a favorite of the haut monde, charging fancy prices to perform or organize bands for private parties. He was not exactly Peter Nero. Standing two inches short of five feet, he had long arms, huge hands and a face that his frequent collaborator Garvin Bushell described as “like a little gorilla.” But he made the most of his hands, which could reach 14ths, and his arms, which could maximize the contrasting extremes of the keyboard.
Roberts was apparently the first of the New York ragtime players to push the envelope rhythmically and improvisationally into the realm of what would become known as stride or, for that matter, jazz piano. In 1908, he wrote a cutting-contest closer (no one could follow it) called “Nothin’,” which took ragtime playing light years beyond Sedalia; in 1913, he was the first of his generation to publish an important new piece, “Junk Man Rag.” Three years later, he recorded for Columbia, but the selections were rejected and are presumed lost. Roberts didn’t care; he had more work than he could handle and soon became a powerful producer and composer of musical revues. When the revue era ended and the Depression dried up his affluent clientele, he lucked out with two big band hits-remember Anita O’Day with Gene Krupa’s band swinging “Massachusetts”? He wrote that one with Andy Razaf.
We can thank two critics for the joy of actually hearing Luckey. In 1946, Rudi Blesh produced six tracks now available on Solo Art as Luckey Roberts & Ralph Sutton: The Circle Recordings. What a party it is: the crashing dissonances and turnback glissandi of “Railroad Blues,” the stomp episode and slo-mo parody of Tin Pan Alley ballads in “Ripples of the Nile,” the Keystone Kops calamity and rhythmic shifts of “Pork and Beans,” the wily barroom tremolos and borrowing from Scott Joplin in “Shy and Sly,” the classical pomp and bridgelike B-strain in “Music Box Rag,” the delirious triple over duple meter trickery of “Junk Man Rag” and, throughout, bass lines that could march an army out of combat.
Still, if you want your mind blown, go straight to “Nothin’,” one of six tracks Nat Hentoff oversaw in 1958, for Les Koenig’s Good Time Jazz-available on that label as Luckey & The Lion: Harlem Piano. With one hand deep in the bass and the other high in the treble, Roberts lets loose cataracts of slushing keys and volcanic trembles, and if you think he’s gone manic in the B strain, wait ’til you hear the stomp. Nat’s session (he also recorded Willie “The Lion” Smith) came at an especially propitious time, because earlier in the year Period Records persuaded Roberts to play a recalcitrant upright for a quartet album called Happy Go ‘Lucky’ [sic], which boasts a lousy piano as an indication of honky-tonk authenticity. Luckey, pointedly, plays none of his own music, though he does focus on black composers (eight out of 11 songs). The album is notable mostly for the rare chance to hear Gavin Bushell stretch out on clarinet.
The lively piano and high fidelity provided by Good Time Jazz must have acted like a tonic. After “Nothin'” and the beguiling “Spanish Fandango,” with its swirling tour de force arpeggios, the program is a bit more conventional but always absorbing. Roberts turns up the power for a facelift of “Railroad Blues,” lays back with rolling bass lines on “Complainin’,” waltzes expansively on “Inner Space” (intriguingly textured chords, percussive yet harmonically lovely second strain, crystal voicings in both hands) and alternates vigorous rhythms and evenly paced flurries on “Outer Space.”
Just think: Next year Luckey Roberts will be 120. We grow old, but we stay young.