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JIMMY YANCEY: a lost recording date

Jazz Archives #1000(10”) 

Eight previously unissued blues piano improvisations


Jimmy Yancey (p)     Recorded in Chicago; Spring 1939


1. La Salle Street Breakdown (3:02)

2. Two O’Clock Blues (2:56)

3. Janie’s Joys (2:56)

4. Lean Bacon (3:06)


5. Big Bear Train (3:07)

6. Lucile’s Lament (3:06)

7. Beezum Blues (3:16)

8. Yancey Limited (2:59)

   JIMMY YANCEY was a small, quiet, apparently rather shy man who spent very little of his life as a fulltime musician. He made very few records, managing to avoid the recordings studios until the last decade of his life, with a persistent reticence that surely must have been deliberate. Altogether, he was one of the most unlikely candidates for the role of a major figure in jazz history. Yet it seems quite certain that he is fully deserving of such a position.

   Fortunately, his retiring nature didn’t carry over into his piano style. As these eight previously unissued selections show, he was an unexcelled master of that unique approach to jazz piano that is, as a whole, best described as barrelhouse. He was teacher, influence or inspiration to almost every man who played in this vein since the early 1920s, although he was largely known to the general public only indirectly, by way of the success that was eventually achieved by such followers of his as Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons.

   But if you are looking for a colorful, bawdy, freewheeling life story, to fit the ‘lower depths’ stereotype of the legendary jazzman. Yancey is not your man. And if you’re looking for impressive technique (in the musically-educated sense), or for broad variety, or stylistic contrasts and development, it must be admitted that Yancey did not provide that, either. He played blues piano and he could play it fast or slow, mournfully or leaping with joy. But it was always in a rough-hewn barellhouse style, often in that heavily rhythmic special variation that has come to be known as “boogie woogie.” That’s about all he ever played – but it was certainly enough, considering that he played it as well as, or better than, anyone else could ever hope to. You can almost sum it up by appropriating a remark that Jelly Roll Morton once made about someone else, a New Orleans piano player of his youth, who “could hardly play anything else, but ….really could play this.”

   Yancey’s greatness was that of a man who felt and understood what he was playing, rather than having been taught it. He probably never really thought of himself as a professional musician: his job, for two decades, was as a groundskeeper at the ball park of the Chicago White Sox. His show business career had begun and ended long before that : he made his debut on the vaudeville stage at the age of six, toured the United States and Europe as a singer and dancer, and ‘retired’ in 1913 to his native Chicago. He remained there almost constantly until his death, which came late in 1953. There is no evidence that he ever studied piano, although presumably his brother Alonzo, a ragtime pianist, may have provided some help. Jimmy apparently just picked up his style through wanting to play and through living on Chicago’s South Side, which was then rapidly becoming a focal point for Negro jazz musicians.

   The ‘20s in Chicago were the era of that remarkable institution, the “rent party.” There, as in New York’s Harlem, some of the most accomplished piano men were to be found attempting to outdo each other on someone’s battered upright for as long as the liquor held out, which was usually all night. In this setting, Yancey stood out sharply. He has been called the “Father” of boogie woogie, a term which it stems, originated in the crude efforts of Negro workers in the turpentine camps of Mississippi and similar places, and by the ‘20s had filtered up to the mid-west. There it was shaped into a definite, recognizable style, a process in which many pianists assisted. But just about all of them learned from Papa Jimmy Yancey, whether as actual students of his (as Ammons and Lewis’ apparently were) or in the sense that they acknowledged his mastery of the music and his ability to show them how it should be done – the firm, economical left-hand beat and the imaginative, plunging force of the right hand.

   Jimmy seemed always inclined to let others struggle for fame; even in the ‘20s, when just about everyone who could play some blues was recorded by one of the local jazz labels, he stayed away. Later he worked for the White Sox, sometimes sat in with friends playing in South Side joints, occasionally took a job in a bar. Finally, after boogie woogie had been turned into a household word (and, very often, much diluted and distorted for popular consumption), he did record the comparatively few sides through which, despite their being so few, his fame is likely to be lastingly secured, at least in jazz circles. None of his solos are any more exciting and moving than these eight improvisations. Being inevitably constructed out of all that he had played and heard and felt in the many years before 1939, they contain traces of standard blues at times (notably the How Long Blues, always one of his favorites). But basically they are his own creations, and taken together they form a portrait of a unique jazz personality.

   There is considerable irony in the fact that it has taken an additional fifteen years for these numbers, among the first he ever recorded, to be issued.  Early in 1939, Dan Quarley, the jazz enthusiast whose short-lived Solo Art label produced some remarkable piano recordings, prevailed upon Yancey to cut several sides, two of which were issued in that year. Solo Art ceased operations shortly thereafter: when the label later passed into the hands of Circle Records, its masters and related c’ata were apparently in quite incompletely catalogued form. And from all appearances, these particular Yancey solos (as well as several by another infrequently-recorded Chicago pianist, Cripple Clarence Lofton) were not to be found among them. For years, very existence remained little more than a rumor in the jazz world.

   Then, during the process of Riverside’s recent acquisition of rights to Circle material (and the accompanying sorting-out of the long-unassorted paper and accumulated piles of records and parts that inevitably build up in any record company’s offices), the recordings unexpectedly came to light. A small, mysterious metal box turned up; unmarked and no more than three inches high, it was perfectly designed to have been overlooked for years. Inside, as it happened, were the “lost” Solo Arts. Included were these remarkable examples of the rugged piano style of Jimmy Yancey, which can now be heard for the first time. It’s quite safe to say that they were worth waiting for.

This LP produced by Bill Grauer

Notes by Orrin Keepnews

Cover by Robert J. Lee


418 West 49th Street New York 19, N.Y.

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