Monday, July 24, 2017

DownBeat's Hall of Fame Celebrates Eubie Blake

Eubie Blake in Berlin in 1972 playing several of his most famous compositions, 
Charleston Rag, I'm Just Wild About Harry and Memories of You.

Among the three individuals selected by the Veterans Committee for DownBeat's Hall of Fame was James Hubert Blake (February 7, 1887 - February 12, 1983), known as Eubie Blake. Blake was an American composer, lyricist, and pianist of ragtimejazz, and popular music. In 1921, he and his long-time collaborator Noble Sissle wrote Shuffle Along, one of the first Broadway musicals to be written and directed by African Americans. Among the compositions he is still remembered for are  "Bandana Days", "Charleston Rag", "Love Will Find a Way", "Memories of You" and "I'm Just Wild About Harry". The musical Eubie!, which opened on Broadway in 1978, featured his works.

Blake was born in Baltimore of two former slaves, and the only one of eight children to survive infancy. He worked first in a bordello, then a Black and Tan Club and then on a medicine show circuit. Blake said he composed the melody of the "Charleston Rag" in 1899, when he would have been only 12 years old, but it was not committed to paper, however, until 1915, when he learned to write musical notation. In 1912, Blake began playing in vaudeville with James Reese Europe's Society Orchestra, which accompanied Vernon and Irene Castle's ballroom dance act. 

After World War 1, Blake first joined with Noble Sissle to work as a vaudeville act, and then they worked on Shuffle Along. The Blake-Sissle partnership ended in 1925, but Blake continued to evolve. In 1930, he collaborated with Andy Razaf on Blackbirds, which introduced, among other numbers, “Memories Of You” and “You’re Lucky To Me.”

Louis Armstrong's classic recording of You're Lucky To Me.

After decline in interest in ragtime, his career went on an upswing in the 1950s when interest in ragtime revived and Blake, one of its last surviving artists, found himself launching yet another career as ragtime artist, music historian, and educator and recording with 20th Century Records and Columbia Records. Additionally another ragtime revival engendered by the 1973 film The Sting—along with the 1978 musical Eubie!—helped to elevate Blake’s profile during his final decade. 
Through the last decades of his life lectured and gave interviews at major colleges and universities all over the world, and appeared as a performer and clinician at top jazz and rag festivals as well as appearing on television as a guest on the Tonight Show with John Carson and Merv Griffin, and was featured with orchestral performances conducted by Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Fiedler.

A 1932 film of Eubie Blake and His Orchestra that includes the Nicholas Brothers

Terry Waldo, author of This is Ragtime, said of Blake "He lived long enough to convey to later generations all of his knowl- edge about the whole history of American music, and the ways in which black music was entwined within it.” Furthermore, in the DownBeat article accompanying his selection to the Hall of Fame, Ted Panken observes that "younger musicians imbued with an “all jazz is modern” aesthetic, such as vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant and pianist Ehud Asherie, continue to find inspiration in his works. It is quite a legacy.

The material in this appreciation is taken from Blake's Wikipedia entry and Ted Panken's article in the August 2017 DownBeat. We close with a clip of Eubie Blake with John Denver as Eubie plays and they announce the Best New Artist award on the 1979 Grammy Awards TV show.

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