The Blues Piano Artistry of MEADE LUX LEWIS
Meade Lux Lewis (p, celeste) solos
New York City; November 1, 1961
Hammer Chatter (4:31) (Meade Lux Lewis)
You Were Meant for Me (2:35) (Brown-Freed)
Celeste Bounce (3:10) (Meade Lux Lewis)
Bear Trap Stomp (4:26) (Meade Luc Lewis)
Frompy Stomp (6:54) (Meade Lux Lewis)
Rough Seas (5:21) (Meade Lux Lewis)
Madame Vod’s Celeste Blues (5:22) (Meade Lux Lewis)
C-Jam Blues (4:12) (Duke Ellington)
Fate (3:42) (unknown)
Breezing at the Celeste (3:18) (Meade Lux Lewis)
We had just entered the studio to make this album when MEADE LUX LEWIS asked to use the telephone. During his ensuing conversation with a friend, I overheard the veteran piano man make an appointment for three hours later. When its was pointed out to him that a normal amount of time for recording a full LP is apt to be twice that many hours or more, Meade calmly insisted: “Don’t worry, we’ll make it.”
We sis, and it only took a little more than two hours to set down the ten selections – three standards and seven originals – included here. It was not that any one was in a hurry, least of all the easygoing pianist. And I have no doubt he would have hanged the hour of that appointment if his rather startling time estimate had been wrong. But the fact is that virtually every number was done, to the full satisfaction of all concerned, on the very first ‘take’ – possibly because musicians who first recorded back in the long-before-tape days of wax masters learned not to be wasteful in such matters; possibly because Lewis is a man who always seems in command of what he is doing. (Actually, Meade spent more time – and had more trouble – in coming up with names for his new pieces than in playing them.)
Probably the most famous of “boogie woogie” pianists, and a true master of the blues, Meade Anderson Lewis was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1905. His father was a guitarist, and Meade retains childhood memories of playing the violin, accompanied by his father, in saloons around too. Then the family moved to Chicago, where – after hearing Jimmy Yancey for the first time – Meade decided to switch to piano. “We were five kids,” he notes, “and never could afford a piano in the house. I had to practice wherever I could. I would play piano rolls and then stop the machine so I could study the keys, and that’s how I learned the chords. Later I would experiment and change the chords to suit me.”
In September of 1927, Meade made his first recording. It was his own Honky Tonk Train Blues, which was later to be quite famous, but which created no stir at the time. The Paramount label didn’t even release it for nearly two years, and then they coupled it with a solo by another pianist, Charles Avery. Although he did make a few other recordings, accompanying blues singers, Meade then drifted away from the music business for several years. It is quite possible that he might have remained in obscurity, if the original disc of Honky Tonk Train hadn’t come to the attention of John Hammond. An avid jazz enthusiast since the late 1920s (and, in the ‘30s, greatly responsible fro the discovery and/or early success of Benny Goodman, Count Basie, and Charlie Christian), Hammond was led to search for Lewis. He found him in Chicago, washing cars and driving a taxi, in 1935. There wasn’t much marked for jazz records in the United States at that time, but Hammond was able to record Meade (playing Honky Tonk Train) in November of that year, for the British Parlophone label. More recordings, for Victor and Decca, followed in ’36.
Lewis’ big break came in December of ’38, when Hammond included him as part of an all-time all-star lineup in the first of two celebrated “Spiritual to Swing” concerts at Carnegie Hall. That appearance was really starting point for the boogie woogie renaissance of the late ‘30s and early ‘40s. Lewis was teamed with fellow pianists Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson for an engagement at Café Society Downtown, in Greenwich Village, shortly after the concert. They were a huge success; soon Will Bradley and other band-leaders were presenting a commercialized brand of boogie woogie, and it became a nationwide rage. Lewis, both with Ammons and Johnson and on his own, was a firmly established “name.” Although the splashy boogie woogie fad was relatively short-lived, Meade was able to remain in music. Today he lives in Los Angeles, where he keeps busy with night club and TV work (including a recent role on the network “Roaring Twenties” series).
The omission of Honky Tonk Train from this album is both noticeable and deliberate. Meade expressed a strong preference for material he had never done before – including Fate, a number he remembers hearing played by some band in the mid-‘20s and which has stayed in his mind ever since, although he has never been able to find any recoding of it. The two other non-originals here are Duke Ellington’s C-Jam Blues and the one-time Brown-Free pop hit, You Were Meant for Me. The balance of the album consists of Lewis bleus and stomps in a variety of moods – contradicting the twin common beliefs that (1) boogie woogie, with its dominant “walking bass” approach, is monotonously unvarying style and (2) pianists associated with that style are similarly unvaried performers.
Among the four piano originals, Meade himself was particularly fond of Rough Seas, in which he was attempting to re-create a specific part of his past. “It is typical of the way a pianist would bring a blues singer on stage, playing something like this from behind a screen. I call it Rough Seas because it reminds me of rough but beautiful times.”
Three toher numbers are played on the celeste, a small instrument resembling a piano, but with the hammers striking a mallets instead of strings. Lewis first played celeste on a 1936 record date, and later used it on a Blues Note date that included Charlie Christian. Meade’s highly individual and delicate way of handling this uncommon instrument creates a strikingly pleasant mood, especially on Madame Vod’s Celeste Blues (named in honor of a friend in Chicago whose favorite drink is vodka).
Thirty four years separate this date from the time Meade Lux Lewis first sat down to record for Paramount, but his playing here certainly shows no signs of age. This is blues, boogie woogie – and even those couple examples of “pop” music-played at the keyboards with the vitality, rhythm and inventiveness that mark a true master and artist.
Earlier recordings by Meade Lewis are included in Riverside’s “Jazz Archives” series on such albums as –
Giants of Boogie Woogie, with Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson (RLP 106)
Piano, Brass and Blues: classic blues accompaniments (RLP 153)
(This recording is available in both Stereophonic (RLP 9402) and Monaural (RLP 402) form.)
Produced by CHRIS ALBERTSON
Recording Engineer: RAY FOWLER
Recorded and mastered at Plaza Sound studios
Design: KEN DEARDOFF
Back-liner photos by STEVE SCHAPIRO
RIVERSIDE RECORDS are produced by BILL GRAUER PRODUCTIONS, Inc.
235 West 46th Street New York City 36, New York