LOW DOWN PIANO
MONTANA TAYLOR / CRIPPLE CLARENCE LOFTON
Jazz Archives #100(12”)
Montana Taylor: Piano solos (*also vocals by Taylor)
Recorded in Chicago; 1946
Indiana Avenue Stomp (2:43)
Montana’s Blues (*) (3:02)
Rotten Break Blues (*) (3:02)
In the Bottom (3:09)
Low Down Bugle (3:00)
I Can’t Sleep (*) (3:06)
Cripple Clarence Lofton: Piano solos; recorded in Chicago; 1939
Sweet Tooth (2:49)
Sixes and Sevens (3:01)
Clarence’s Blues (3:05)
Lofty Blues (2:55)
House Rent Struggle (3:07)
Juice Joint (2:42)
Of all the many piano men who have played in the hard-hitting, barrelhouse style, certainly none has dealt more effectively in such qualities as sheer power and musical toughness than the two heard here.
Both belong, of course, to a long and great jazz tradition that stretches back to the early years of this century, to the work camps of the deep South where a crude and rhythmic style of pounding the blues out of a piano had begun to evolve. By the 1920s, it had developed into much the form that they play here, and that a great many men were playing throughout the Midwest, particularly in Chicago. It became the staple item at the “rent parties” of that period, and in countless back rooms and honkytonks. Basically, this music is a part of the blues, and through it runs a prominent strain of the special technique known as “boogie-woogie,” with its fast, repeated bass chords providing a foundation upon which the right hand can build its blues variations.
Clarence Lofton is undoubtedly much the better known of the two to followers and collectors of early jazz, for he was playing and making records in the 1920s and he kept at it through the next couple of decades, sometimes as a soloist, sometimes accompanying himself or other blues shouters, always seeming to tear at the piano with an inexhaustible vigor and producing surges of great power. It was almost like a one-man revolt against the ever-increasing softness and sophistication of so much of jazz, like a constant reminder that this is essentially a tough-minded music that comes out of a hard way of life. That although it can be tender as well as hard-boiled (as suggested in Lofty Blues), it must even then stay free of sweet sentimentality.
Little is known of the details of Lofton’s life, but one of the most knowledgeable of jazz authorities, William Russell, writing in that invaluable 1939 volume of history and color, “Jazzmen,” devoted a substantial portion of his chapter on “Boogie Woogie” to a remarkably vivid description of this “picturesque and eccentric” man and his music. Russell began by stressing the “almost savage crudeness and intensity of his playing,” and then went on to a first-hand account of how it was on the South Side in the late ‘30s:
“Sown on South State Street, a little above 47th, is a saloon, lately known as the Big Apple, that might well be called ‘Cripple Clarence’s Boogie School.’ Here many young aspiring blues players meet to hear and learn from Lofton and one another. Sometimes a fellow who is only a beginner comes in and Lofton shows him a few things, and before long he can play a piece or two. As Cripple Clarence say, ‘I gotta help these boys along, so when us old fellow are gone there’ll be some more coming up.’
… When he really gets going he’s a three-ring circus. During one number, he plays, sings, whistles a chorus, and snaps his fingers with the technique of a Spanish dancer to give further percussive accompaniment to his blues. At times he turns sideways, almost with his back to the piano as he keeps pounding away at the keyboard and stomping his feet. … Suddenly in the middle of a number he jumps, his hands clasped in front of him and walk around the piano stool, and then, unexpectedly, out booms a vocal break in a bass voice from somewhere. One second later, he has turned and is back at the keyboard, both hands flying at light-ning-like pace. His actions and facial expressions are as intensely dramatic and exciting as his music.
“Clarence’s joint is no high-class place: bear and sandwiches are five cents, other drinks ten. There’s no checkroom; you park your coat and hat on top of the piano, or leave them on, and pull up a chair beside the piano and get your ear full of the crudest and most honest-to-goodness piano playing you ever heard.”
The half-dozen examples heard here were recorded at just about the time Russell was writing about, making them the next-best thing and only remaining alternative to pulling up a chair beside that piano – since Lofton died, at the age of sixty, in January of 1956. Recorded for Dan Qualey’s short-lived Solo Art label (which was devoted to just such capturing as this of an even-then disappearing jazz form), they remained unreleased until the mid-1950s, when Riverside acquired the rights to this and much other similar material. These selections were among a number of “lost” masters that were then turned up and issued on 10-inch LP; this is their first appearance in 12-inch form.
If Cripple Clarence much be rated as “obscure” by any normal standard of evaluating fame, then it is hard indeed to find a word to fit Montana Taylor. Even fellow musicians knew just about nothing about him, and the usually not-to-be-stumped Bill Russell could merely report, in that same chapter of “Jazzmen,” that Taylor had “disappeared” and “no one can tell what happened to him.” (Actually, things did not remain that bad; in 1946, Rudi Blesh, in the process of a most commendable project of unearthing such vanished artists for his Circle label, found Montana living quietly in Cleveland and recorded several sides, including those heard here.)
Apparently not a full-time Chicagoan – Russell reported hat he had lived there “for a while, (but) also spent some time in Indianapolis and Detroit) – Taylor was nevertheless fully within the sphere of the Chicago-based Midwestern style of lowdown tough blues. Virtually everything said and quoted in these notes about Lofton’s playing and setting can properly be applied to Montana. Specifically, though, Russell (referring to an earlier Taylor recording of the number that opens this album) noted that “his Indiana Avenue Stomp shows that Montana was a pianist gifted with great rhythmic solidity and fertile melodic imagination.”
Many of the piano men of this school were given to equally fierce and compelling blues-singing, and Taylor’s voice is heard on three numbers here (four, if you count one burst of humming). Blesh, who describes him, possibly a bit over-fervently, as a “fantastically accomplished and imaginative player,,” calls I Can’t Sleep “a masterpiece of despair, conveyed in song” by a “rough, low voice … haunting beyond description.” He also points out that his, and other Taylor blues as well, are “remarkably personal and original … twelve-bar variant(s) of the standard blues.” This is a most important point: it is far too easy to think of the blues as some sort of stylized formula and all pianists like these as being more or less alike. But this is a thoroughly misleading, and illogical, conception. These tough-minded “primitive” stylists were highly unlikely to be either restricted by format or unduly derivative of each other. And even the most causal listening should make it clear that spontaneity, freedom and intense – usually highly competitive – individuality were the keynotes of the whole “barrelhouse” approach.
Russell, in writing about Lofton, offers the conclusion that he is more than just a performer: “he lives the blues.” Unless our ears deceive us badly, the same holds true of Montana Taylor, and of a great many of their colleagues. And this sort of undiluted, instinctive sincerity, in which a man’s music is fully part of him, not merely a conscious skill used to earn his pay or impress the world, is surely the key to the amazing impact of this form of jazz.
(the paragraph by William Russell are quoted, by permission, from the book “Jazzmen,” edited by Frederic Ramsey, Jr., and Charles Edward Smith; copyright, 1939, by Harcourt, Brace and Co., Inc.)
Other notable examples of early jazz piano are available on Riverside in albums by such artists as –
Jelly Roll Morton (RLPs 111, 132, 133, 140)
Jimmy Yancey (RLP 124)
James P. Johnson (RLPs 105, 151)
Fats Waller (RLPs 103, 109)
Album designed by KEN DEARDOFF
Re-mastered 1961, by PLAZA SOUND STUDIOS
RIVERSDIE RECORDS are produced by BILL GRAUER PRODUCTIONS, Inc
235 West 46th Street New York 36, N.Y.