One of my great regrets is not having the opportunity to hear Eubie Blake in person. The closest I ever came was when he appeared at the Palm Beach Jazz Festival during the late 1970s; I had tickets to see classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz in Miami Beach on the very same day. My mother said something like "He's getting up in years so he'll probably play a token performance." In a newspaper review of his set the very next day, he was described as playing a long set, followed by eight encores.
Fortunately, I have been able to collect numerous recordings by Blake, many of which have been out of print since shortly after death in 1983 (or longer). But one of my greatest treasures is a live performance by the pianist (at the age of 94) aboard the New Orleans riverboat S. S. President during the 1977 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. It was broadcast on the National Public Radio program Jazz Alive! in 1978, when I happened upon it.
Blake could teach today's jazz artists a few things about working the audience. He takes the time to introduce each tune, often adding an anecdote or a touch of his humor. Blake even jokes about faking parts that he can't remember or forgetting the name of the next song he's about to play.
The ragtime great opens with his "Troublesome Ivories," which he has no trouble with at all, followed by his 1911 ballad "Chevy Chase." He fakes his way through "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans" and "Waiting For the Robert E. Lee" (appropriately a riverboat song), scatting a bit on the latter piece and getting the audience to clap along.
The crowd really awakens with his introduction of a medley of stride pianist James P. Johnson's songs. Blake even gets up from the piano to demonstrate the "Charleston," before launching into a rag interpretation of it. Next is a dreamy "Old Fashioned Love" and a cheerful "If I Could Be with You (One Hour Tonight)," with Blake happily singing "If I could be with you one hour tonight/That's all the part of the lyrics that I do know."
Blake's best known song is "Memories of You," written with Andy Razaf for Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1930. Having played it hundreds of times over nearly a half century, his poignant interpretation detours into an amusing ragtime finale. Remarking that since the audience "enjoys semi-classics, too," he surprises them with excerpts from George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" (working in a bit of ragtime) with "The Man I Love." Blake composed the "Charleston Rag" in 1899, when he was just 16 years old. He has no problems with this difficult rag, written in G Flat (with 6 flats). His finale is John Philip Souza's "The Stars and Stripes Together," which was also, for a time, an encore favorite for Vladimir Horowitz. His ragged version of this old march has the audience clapping along almost from the beginning.
With 2005 rapidly approaching, don't be surprised if there is yet another ragtime revival in the near future. Eubie Blake was the last remaining icon of the ragtime era, he is sorely missed, but this broadcast, which ought to be commercially released, adds to his already immense legacy.
- Troublesome Ivories (Eubie Blake)
- Chevy Chase (Eubie Blake)
- Way Down Yonder in New Orleans (Henry Creamer/Turner Layton)
- Waiting For the Robert E. Lee (L. Wolfe Gilbert/Lewis F. Muir)
- Charleston (James P. Johnson/Cecil Mack)/Old Fashioned Love (James P. Johnson/Cecil Mack)/If I Could Be With You [One Hour Tonight](James P. Johnson/Henry Creamer)
- Memories of You (Eubie Blake/Andy Razaf)
- Excerpts from Rhapsody in Blue (George Gershwin)/The Man I Love (George & Ira Gershwin)
- Charleston Rag (Eubie Blake)
- The Stars and Stripes Forever (John Philip Souza)
Recorded April 1977