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Chronology: Memories of Eubie Blake

Choice moments from the long career of a master improviser

Eubie Blake (L) with McCoy Tyner at his “99th” (actually 95th) birthday party, 1982 (photo: McCoy Tyner Archives)
Eubie Blake (L) with McCoy Tyner at his “99th” (actually 95th) birthday party, 1982 (photo: McCoy Tyner Archives)

The most visible aspects of Eubie Blake’s unique career were in two discrete stages: first as a songwriter, later as a pianist.

Jazz musicians have recorded Blake’s “Memories of You” over 700 times. Those lyrics are by Andy Razaf; before that, Blake’s partner was lyricist/singer Noble Sissle, with whom he created the groundbreaking 1921 musical Shuffle Along. James Weldon Johnson said that Shuffle Along “legitimized the African-American musical,” while Langston Hughes credited the show as the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance. Its biggest hit, “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” would go on to be a familiar piece of Americana and the theme song of Harry Truman’s presidential campaign.

Some lean years followed, but then, after the success of the 2-LP set The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake in 1968, Blake would spend the next 15 years endlessly concertizing as the honored living representation of a historical tradition: ragtime. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan and appeared on a U.S. postage stamp.

Like many other early jazz masters, Blake is hidden in plain sight. Some of his finest recordings are barely known. The single best Eubie Blake album I’ve heard is an obscure 1960 LP, The Marches I Played on the Old Ragtime Piano. The conceit is perfect: Blake “rags” John Philip Sousa and other march composers with swing, syncopation, and a full complement of pianistic glamour. In the liner notes, he says this approach dates back to when he was working long shifts at the Old Boathouse in Atlantic City circa 1906.

Blake’s playing is at his most relaxed on The Marches I Played, partly because he’s joined by an all-star band: Kenny Burrell, Milt Hinton, Panama Francis, and legendary clarinetist Buster Bailey. Blake gives special credit to Francis’ swinging quarter-note beat: “I tell Panama, I’ll give you the tempo. Then if I start going faster, don’t let me. In the excitement of playing, you’re apt to pull up in the tempo. But nobody can go faster than that bass drum. You can’t fight it. It keeps you in line.” This is a piano record, full out, and a joyous dance record besides. The last track, “Tricks,” is the first time Blake talks on tape (later LPs and concerts would feature storytelling). He explains a few of his special approaches, says George Gershwin borrowed a lot from Luckey Roberts, and credits Franz Liszt as a major influence.

Liszt was an improviser too, but that’s not preserved on record; however, we do have video of prime Eubie Blake improvising virtuoso variations on “Swanee River,” in an astounding clip that can be seen on YouTube under “EUBIE BLAKE: DeForest Phonofilm, 1923.” The two takes are different, proving that Blake is truly making it up on the spot.

There’s no syncopation or blues in the “Swanee” variations, but those elements are very present for “Sounds of Africa,” Blake’s first 1921 recording of his most familiar instrumental piece, “Charleston Rag.” The whole first bass line is “backwards,” an effect Blake said that he invented when composing the work in 1899, the same year Scott Joplin published “Maple Leaf Rag.” We don’t have any 78s of Joplin at his peak, but we do have “Sounds of Africa.”

“I tell Panama, I’ll give you the tempo. Then if I start going faster, don’t let me. In the excitement of playing, you’re apt to pull up in the tempo. But nobody can go faster than that bass drum. You can’t fight it. It keeps you in line.”

Other enjoyable bits and pieces survive on record from the earlier days, but frustratingly, the first full-length recital of Blake playing solo piano is The Eighty-Six Years. It’s a marvelous historical document, essential to any jazz piano library, but there’s also something a shade uncharismatic and rushed in its presentation. The presence of a studio audience turns it into a show, and—just like anybody else—the old master could have used another take here and there to get all the repertoire down cleanly.

There are far fewer clinkers on Eubie Blake Volume 1 (featuring Ivan Harold Browning) from 1971, the first release on his own label Eubie Blake Music. (The sound’s better too.) A good sampling of original composition is on side A. Like Muhal Richard Abrams, Blake studied the Schillinger system, and his “Dicty’s on 7th Ave.” was a kind of Schillinger graduation piece, a fabulous Harlem-style work with more whole-tone chords than usual. “Ragtime Merry Widow” gives us the famous waltz “as is” before taking it to a stomping 4/4, while the amusing “Novelty Rag” does Zez Confrey better than Confrey.

The second side has Browning, born in 1891, one of the stars of Shuffle Along and someone who kept his voice in gorgeous shape. Shuffle Along has never been revived successfully, in part because later African-American performers considered it just one step from a minstrel show (although everyone credits its importance). What transpires as Browning declaims “Love Will Find a Way” while Blake charmingly and sensitively accompanies his old friend isn’t jazz, and it isn’t minstrelsy either—it’s just great Black music from a vanished age. Listening to Browning and Blake together explains something about the history of race relations in America that no words can ever express.

FURTHER EXPLORATIONS

Eubie Blake: Rags, Rhythm, and Race by Richard Carlin and Ken Bloom (Oxford University Press, 2020) – This stylish biography is notably strong on the musical-theatre side of Blake’s work; it also does a good job placing his later career in the context of the ragtime revival.

Black Bottom Stomp: Eight Masters of Ragtime and Early Jazz by David A. Jasen by Gene Jones (Routledge, 2001) – Blake is profiled in a terrific book that sympathetically chronicles the years when words like “ragtime,” “jazz,” and “blues” didn’t quite mean what they do today. Jasen studied with Blake, so his insights have special weight.

Ehud Asherie: Shuffle Along: Solo Piano Interpretations from Blake and Sissle’s 1921 Broadway Musical (Blue Heron, 2014) – Ehud holds it down in NYC as a scholar and performer of the whole literature of jazz. I suspect Blake himself would approve of the “classical” approach to the first chorus of “I’m Just Wild About Harry.”

Ethan Iverson

Ethan Iverson

Ethan Iverson has been writing about jazz for 15 years, mostly on his blog Do the Math. While he was the founding pianist of the Bad Plus, these days Iverson performs in a duo with Mark Turner and in Billy Hart’s quartet, has a longstanding relationship with Mark Morris, and teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music.