December 7th, 2007
Delmark has just released a CD of “enhanced pianola rolls” recorded in Chicago in the late 1920s by Jimmy Blythe (one of the first boogie woogie pianists) for the Capitol Music Roll Company’s Nickelodeon series. Around 1970, Paul Affeldt, publisher of Jazz Report magazine, decided to release this material for the first time on LP as part of his Euphonic Sound label (named after his favorite Scott Joplin rag). Working with collector Bill Burkhardt of Grand Rapids, Michigan (who loaned the four rare Nickelodeon rolls) and using a restored player piano, Affeldt and fellow piano roll enthusiast Ed Sprankle meticulously recorded the rolls and released them as part of a two LP set also featuring Clarence Johnson. Delmark acquired the Euphonic master tapes from Affeldt (who passed away in 2003), and has been reissuing the digitally remastered material on CDs (though several of these reissues are clearly labeled “Euphonic series” in the Delmark catalog, Messin’ Around Blues is not labeled as such- at least not on the CD).
Jimmy Blythe was born in Kentucky in 1901 and moved to Chicago as a teenager (sometime between 1915-1918), where he studied with Clarence Jones. By the early 1920s he was well established in the South Side clubs as a ragtime and boogie woogie pianist. Library of Congress copyright records show that he also composed at least 40 compositions between 1922 and 1930, including five works featured on this CD: “Steppin’ On the Gas” (1925), “Forty Blues” (1926), “My Baby” (1927), “I Won’t Give You None” (1929), and “The Folks Down-Stairs” (1930). In addition, Blythe was also extremely active as a recording artist for the Paramount, Vocalion, and Gennett labels, performing both solos and duets, and backing up musicians ranging from Ma Rainey and Blind Blake to Louis Armstrong and Johnny Dodds. His song, “Chicago Stomp,” recorded for Paramount in 1924, is generally considered to be the first recorded example of boogie woogie (according to the liner notes, though earlier examples have been cited elsewhere; see John Tennison’s excellent website on the history of boogie woogie piano). Apparently Blythe made even more piano rolls than 78s- at least 200 for Capitol and its subsidiary labels alone- and these include some of his hottest solo performances.
For those not familiar with piano rolls, there are two types: those which were arranged (i.e., punched by hand by a talented arranger), and those which were played by a pianist sitting at a special recording piano, which faithfully transferred the notes, in tempo, onto a roll. The latter technique, developed around 1915, was employed for all of the Blythe piano rolls, essentially capturing a “live” performance (though some note correcting and doctoring could still be done after the fact). These piano rolls complement Blythe’s solo recordings released on 78s (most were reissued by RST on Chronological Order Piano Solos, 1924-1931), and allow for a much broader study of the artist.
Delmark has done a superb job of remastering the tapes; in fact, its hard to believe that these are not modern recordings (hats off to Frank Himpsl, the restoration engineer). Notable tracks include “Sugar Dew Blues” (a12-bar blues solo with a walking bass), “Function Blues” (a piano duet, though the second artist was never identified), and “Black Gal Make it Thunder,” a great South Side boogie woogie number. I must point out that much of this information comes from the original LP liner notes by Ed Sprankle (sent to me by Delmark along with the CD), which are a treasure trove of information about piano rolls and early Chicago jazz. Its regrettable that Delmark didn’t reprint the notes in their entirety; the extremely brief notes by Bob Koester only paraphrase portions of Sprankle’s original text. Regardless, Messin’ Around Blues is essential for anyone interested in early ragtime and boogie woogie piano. If you purchase the CD, just try to get your hands on a copy of the original notes!
Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss