The blues piano style known as boogie-woogie is familiar to most people who have plunked out its basic patterns on a keyboard—so familiar, in fact, that few of those people stop to think about where the style came from. A teacher to many younger blues pianists, Yancey was dubbed the father of boogie-woogie by some; and he was certainly one of the first boogie-woogie musicians in the crucial blues center of Chicago. Yancey made a living outside the music business for much of his life, and his contributions to the traditions of boogie-woogie and blues piano were captured only intermittently on recordings. The music by Yancey that has survived, however, is enough to give modern listeners an idea of what an original musician he was.
James Edward Yancey was born in Chicago on February 20, 1898. Although he would work outside music as an adult, he was a professional musician from early childhood. His father, Mose, who sang bass and played the guitar, got involved in the new vaudeville and musical shows that African Americans were beginning to put on in Northern urban theaters, and soon he brought his young son on board to sing and dance. As early as 1903, Yancey appeared at Chicago's Pekin Theater in a show called The Man from Bam, and he remained part of the company there for several years.
In 1908 the ten-year-old Yancey went on the road. Touring with groups such as the Jeannette Adler Company, the Cozy Smith Troupe, and the Bert Earle Company, he worked under the aegis of the Theater Owners Booking Agency or TOBA, sometimes dubbed Tough on Black Artists, or referred to with even more colorful interpretations of the acronym. For the young Yancey, however, duty on the so-called chitlin' circuit turned into a way to see the world. Joining a troupe that toured the Orpheum theater circuit, he traveled to Europe and gave a command performance in England for King George V, Queen Mary, and the royal family at London's Buckingham Palace in 1913.
For all this time, Yancey was a singer and dancer, not a pianist. He learned to play the piano from his brother Alonzo after returning to Chicago soon after his European tour. Even then, he didn't embark on the career that would make him famous. With his eye on a career in baseball's Negro Leagues, Yancey played for several years with a Chicago team called the All-Americans. Married in 1919 to Estella Harris, a singer later known as Mama Yancey, he settled for a steady baseball paycheck beginning in 1925, as a groundskeeper for the Chicago White Sox. He and Estella raised one son, and he remained with the White Sox until 1950, shortly before his death.
Beginning in the late 1910s, Yancey played the piano around Chicago at small clubs and "rent parties," at which musicians would perform and pass the hat to help out a financially strapped apartment dweller. Prohibition in the 1920s and early 1930s added speak-easies to the list of venues requesting his piano services, and his name became well known around the city. Younger musicians sought him out; he influenced and occasionally gave lessons to Pinetop Smith, Albert Ammons, and Meade "Lux" Lewis, who switched from violin to the piano after hearing Yancey play. These musicians all made recordings in the 1920s, but Yancey, either because of his part-time musician status or because he was known as a shy man uncomfortable with self-promotion, did not record.
In 1936, with a wider musical public becoming aware of boogie-woogie, Meade "Lux" Lewis recorded a version of his mentor's "Yancey Special," and white bandleader Bob Crosby later cut a version of the same tune. Yancey, however, was temporarily sidelined by a stroke during this period. He didn't make his recording debut until 1939, when he was sought out by New York bartender and blues piano lover Dan Qualey to record for Qualey's Solo Art label. Along with other pieces, Yancey recorded "The Fives," a number originally known as "Five O'Clock Blues" that he had composed at the very beginning of his piano-playing career. Other companies caught on quickly, and Yancey recorded 78 rpm records for Victor (1939 and 1940), Vocalion and Bluebird (1940), and Session (1943, making a group of recordings that some historians consider his best). Not all his records were piano solos; he sang on many pieces and recorded for Vocalion with singer Faber Smith.
Boogie-woogie, with its barroom and party origins, was a music generally noted for speed and power rather than subtlety, but Yancey's style differed from the norm. In place of the usual repeated patterns played by the pianist's left hand in the music's style, Yancey offered varied rhythms that created complex relationships between the left- and right-hand parts. Some writers detected a Latin influence in his style comparable to the music of New Orleans jazz legend Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton. Jazz historian Max Harrison, author of the book Blues Who's Who, wrote that "Yancey was undoubtedly the greatest exponent of the boogie idiom and was, indeed, one of the very few musicians in all jazz whose work ever attained to profundity."
Yancey's music was easily recognizable, due to highly individualistic twists such as his tendency to bring every solo piece to rest in the key of E flat, no matter where it had begun. Opinions differed as to Yancey's vocal skills; All Music Guide called him "an undistinguished blues singer," but writer Rudi Blesh (as quoted in Blues Who's Who) characterized him as "an archaic blues singer of the most touching accents." His vocal version of the often-recorded "Death Letter Blues" was generally thought to be one of his best records.
Yancey's recordings brought him national exposure, and he began to appear in person beyond Chicago. He appeared on the CBS radio network show We the People in 1939 and performed at the Ross Tavern in New York City that same year. After World War II, he began occasionally performing with Mama Yancey; the pair traveled to Minneapolis and appeared in concert at New York's Carnegie Hall in 1948. That year, Yancey began a three-year residence at Chicago's Bee Hive club, performing in the intermissions between the club's regular stage acts.
Suffering from diabetes later in life, Yancey and his wife held parties and jam sessions at their South Side Chicago apartment to raise money. Those sessions were well attended by Chicago jazz fans, and Yancey returned to the recording studio to make new records for the Paramount label in 1950 and for Atlantic in 1951. He died on September 17, 1951, and was memorialized with a jazz funeral.
Selected 78 rpm recordings
"Yancey Stomp"/"State Street Special," Victor, 1939.
"Slow and Easy Blues"/"The Mellow Blues," Victor, 1939.
"Cryin' in My Sleep"/"Death Letter Blues," Bluebird, 1940.
"Yancey's Bugle Call"/"35th and Dearborn," Victor, 1940.
"At the Window," Session, 1943.
For the Record …
Born on February 20, 1898, in Chicago, IL; died of complications from diabetes on September 17, 1951, in Chicago, IL; married Estella Harris (later known as "Mama" Yancey), 1919; children: one son.
Began performing at age five; toured as singer and dancer in vaudeville theaters, ca. 1910; performed for England's royal family, 1913; played semi-professional baseball; Chicago White Sox, groundskeeper, 1925-50; performed on piano at parties and small clubs, 1920s and early 1930s; made recording debut on Solo Art label, 1939; also recorded for Victor, Vocalion, Session, Bluebird, Paramount, and Atlantic labels; appeared at Bee Hive club, Chicago, 1948-51; with wife, "Mama" Yancey, performed at Carnegie Hall, New York City, 1948.
Selected CD reissues
Chicago Piano, Volume 1, Atlantic.
(With "Mama" Yancey) Evening with the Yanceys, Pax.
Jimmy Yancey, Atlantic.
(With "Mama" Yancey) Jimmy and Mama Yancey, Atlantic.
Pure Blues, Atlantic.
Yancey Special, Atlantic.
Yancey's Getaway, Riverside.
Feather, Leonard G., The Encyclopedia of Jazz, Oxford, 1999.
Harris, Sheldon, Blues Who's Who, Arlington House, 1979.
Hentoff, Nat, and Albert J. McCarthy, editors, Jazz, reprint ed., Da Capo, 1974.
Lyons, Len, The Great Jazz Pianists, Morrow, 1983.
"Jimmy Yancey," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (March 20, 2005).
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