New Orleans music is renowned for its piano players. Here we take a look back at some of the greatest as we prepare for Jon Cleary & the Absolute Monster Gentlemen show at the JAS Cafe July 25-26.
Jelly Roll Morton
When Jelly Roll Morton introduced himself, he often said, “I invented jazz.” Turns out, he was probably right. Buddy Bolden may have been the first musician to add improvisation to what would eventually become known as jazz, but Morton is regarded as the first true jazz composer. He was the first to write down his jazz arrangements – a number of which became jazz staples.
By the time Jelly was in his early twenties, he was an in-demand musician, playing the entire Gulf Coast. From 1917 to 1922, he was conquering the West Coast. And in 1922, he left California for Chicago. During that period, he created some of the most innovative and creative music that ever emerged – tunes like “King Porter Stomp,” “New Orleans Blues,” “Kansas City Stomp,” “Shreveport Stomp” and the “Original Jelly Roll Blues.” In his typical humble way, Jelly once said, “Everyone today is playing my stuff and I don’t even get credit. Kansas City style, Chicago style, New Orleans style hell, they’re all Jelly Roll style.”
In 1938, Jelly capped a brilliant musical career with a grand recording session for the Library of Congress. Fifty-two records with more than one hundred individual compositions resulted. Jelly would be the first to tell you, “They were the greatest.” He died in 1941.
Fats Waller was the son of a preacher who started playing piano at the age of six, became a professional organist at 15, and by 18 he was a recording artist. His innovations in the Harlem stride style laid the groundwork for modern jazz piano. His best-known compositions, “Ain’t Misbehavin” and “Honeysuckle Rose”, were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Throughout the 1930s and 40s Waller became one of the most popular performers of his era, star of radio and nightclubs, touring internationally and achieving critical and commercial success in the US and Europe. He died unexpectedly of pneumonia at age 39.
Henry Roeland “Roy Byrd” – better known as Professor Longhair or “Fess,” for short – stands as the foremost exponent of New Orleans piano style. His idiosyncratic style is a rhythmic jambalaya reflecting the freewheeling, good-time spirit of the Crescent City. Byrd soaked up influences from close-at-hand sources – barrelhouse boogie-woogie, Caribbean rhythms like the rumba, and New Orleans’ “second line” parade rhythms. But it was the way he pieced these elements together that made his style such a marvel of fluidity and drive.
Professor Longhair served to influence profoundly a generation of New Orleans pianists that came up behind him, many of whom made their mark in interlocking worlds of R&B and rock and roll. He has been hailed as “the Picasso of keyboard funk” and “the Back of rock.”
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