WILL EZELL'S Gin Mill Jazz
Jazz Archives #1000(10”)
Piano solos: #1- 5, and #8 recorded in Chicago; 1928-29
On #6 and 7 only: unknown cornet and guitar added; vocal breaks probably by Ezell
Recorded in Richmond, Indiana; on September 20, 1929
1. Mixed Up Rag(2:39)
2. Heifer Dust (2:57)
3. Playing The Dozen (3:13)
4. West Coast Rag (2:47)
5. Barrel House Man (3:11)
6. Pitchin' Boogie (3:02)
7. Just Can't Stay Here (2:53)
8. Bucket Of Blood (3:02)
Perhaps no one really needs to be reminded that jazz is a music with a sense of humor. Possibly just about everyone recognizes that laughter - which can be anything from the sardonic mockery of a blues verse to the good-time romping of a raucous skiffle band - is one of its basic ingredients. But on the other hand, maybe some of those who write about jazz manage to overemphasize that it's an "art form," that it's often the product of a harsh social environment, and the like. Not that there isn't truth in such statements, but they also can tend to cloud up the atmosphere, and block people off from proper appreciation of the fact that this has always been a music played primarily for kicks. Of that's the case, there surely could be few better antidotes for the after-effects of 'serious jazz criticism' than a large does of rocking solos by WILL EZELL.
Ezell inhabited the South Side of Chicago in the 1920s. Like a good many other such piano men, he featured fast blues, particularly the variation known as boogie woogie. As a personal specialty, he could come up with another traditional piano style that adapted itself well to a solid left-hand beat - ragtime. Will Ezell will never make any lists of "all time greats;" he didn't create a new style or influence any school of musicians. A couple of the numbers he recorded were pretty big successes in their time, but none proved deathless. When the Depression broke up the good-time, easy-money era that jazz had been enjoying, Ezell (like a good many other jazzmen) dropped out of sight. He may (for all anyone we know of can tell) be dead, or retired, or hard at work at some non-musical job, or possibly even playing piano in some bar tonight.
So there's nothing very special about Will Ezell and the kind of jazz he played, you might say. Except this: he played solid piano, that really moved (which is never a too-common quality in any period), and he played with a great joy and spirit that bursts out all over the places you listen to these sides. It's a spirit that actually isn't limited by time or place or musical style, belonging to any joint where a piano man with a sense of humor is playing for people out to have a good time - except that it would have to be an unpretentious, crowded little gin mill of a joint, where the customers are their own floor show (like the girl in the green dress in Pitchin' Bloogie, who of course bears more than a passing resemblance to the girl in a red dress in Pinetop Smith's celebrated tune.)
It should come as no surprise that Ezell himself was the sort of man his music suggests. Aletha Robinson, who was Paramount's recording director in the late '20s, recalls him as "a pixyish sort of guy, full of fun and always able to laugh at himself - mischievous, but never malicious." For example: it was the company's policy to pay their artists' fare from and to their homes in other parts of the country. Ezell always said he was from Texas, and probably was, but there's room for a faint suspicion that he'd picked it as being a sufficiently expensive train-fare's distance from Chicago. "Ezell had a habit of asking for this fare," Mrs. Robinson remembers, "spending it and then asking for more, always on the pretext that he wanted to go home." When folk-singer Blind Lemon Jefferson died suddenly, and someone had to take the body back to Texas, Ezell once again "inveigled the company into advancing him some money," promising to take advantage of this opportunity to go home. "All concerned at the company thought this would be an excellent deal. We had to get Jefferson's body back to Texas and - temporarily at least - we'd be rid of Ezell" and his constant requests for advances. But the day after he was to have left, blues singer Lucille Bogan reported that "Ezell was having a good laugh at my expense all over town. He hadn't had the slightest intention of doing anything except get more money out of the company - remaining in Chicago. But it's to his credit that when I saw to it that he paid up for this maneuver, he laughed the loudest and longest!"
There's also the story of a very naive "legit" bandleader, "misled by all the publicity given Ezell," who hired him as featured pianist, ignorant of the fact that "all Ezell knew about music was what he could hear when he played. He had his own style, couldn't read a note and had no regrets." But he accepted the contract and fare offered by this leader, and managed to freeload food and drinks while "trying to bluff it out with this most dignified band at rehearsal - giving assurances that he'd get himself together in a little while, that he was 'studying' the scores."
"He struck me also as being something of a realist," Mrs. Robinson reports. "He had a good gut-bucket style but the city was full of blues pianists, and so he also picked up enough popular music to enable him to get other work around Chicago." As he told her once: "I've got to learn to play something besides those blues - if I don't, I'll starve to death around here."
"Last time I saw him," she sums up, "was during the heart of the Depression. He was still playing - and still telling jokes on himself, still laughing." A quarter-century after these records were made, the laughter and the exuberance still remain. Here's a musician enjoying himself and inviting you to do the same. It's as simple as that, and no listener should have any real trouble accepting the invitation. The years can create no barrier against this sort of spirit.
A note on the original recordings. All these selections were first issued by Paramount. Since that company's files no longer exist, dates can only be approximated, but Mixed Up Rag, which bears master number 20824 and was on Para 12588, was probably made early in 1928. The true is same of Barrel House Man (891) and West Coast Rag (892), originally coupled on Para 12549, Heifer Dust (21145), Para 12753; and Bucket of Blood (21144)/ Playing the Dozen (21146), coupled on Para 12773, probably belong to an early-1929 session. Just Can't Stay Here (GE 15649) and Pitchin' Boogie (GE 15650), coupled on Para 12855, were made for Paramount at the Gennett studios in Indiana (which fairly frequently did such recording work for other companies). Their files reveal the exact date and the master numbers, which belong to the regular Gennett numerical sequence.
This material reissued by special arrangement with Paramount Records and John Steiner. The slight surface noise audible on this LP is due to the limitations of early recording processes; it has not been entirely removed in order to preserve highest fidelity possible and to give more faithful reproduction of original tone qualities.
Produced by Bill Grauer
Notes by Orrin Keepnews
Cover art by Robert J. Lee; typographical design by Gene Gogerty.
RIVERSIDE RECORDS are released by BILL GRAUER PRODUCTIONS
418 West 49th Street New York 19, N.Y.