Eubie Blake - piano
Eubie Blake's appearance at the 1973 Newport Jazz Festival, at age 90, was both a look into the past and an example of a young-at-heart musician playing strictly in the moment, which is the imperative of all good jazz. Four years earlier, Blake had released to much fanfare The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake on Columbia, which sparked something of a ragtime renaissance. Performing unaccompanied renditions of some of his most famous rags, along with other compositions originally written for musical theater productions on Broadway in the 1930s, Blake won over this Carnegie Hall crowd with his old school pizzazz.
Opening his set with his own "Troublesome Rag," Blake instantly lifts spirits with his giddy, bluesy stride playing. He continues with an invigorating rendition of the upbeat "Elite Syncopation" by Scott Joplin, whom he calls "the Daddy of us all ragtime players." He next unveils a new composition, the charming and humorous suite "Rhapsody in Ragtime" (with an obvious tip of the hat to George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue"), which receives a standing ovation. And he concludes his appearance at the 1973 Newport Jazz Festival in New York with his romantic signature piece "Memories of You," which was originally written for Lew Leslie's Blackirds of 1930 and later popularized by the Benny Goodman Orchestra.
Born James Hubert Blake in Baltimore on February 7, 1883, he showed an early interest in music and began music studies at age seven. By age 15, without his parents' knowledge, he was playing piano in a Baltimore bordello. His first legit job came in 1907, playing piano at the Gans Goldfield Hotel. It wasn't until 1915 that Blake learned to write in musical notation, at which point he began documenting some of his earlier compositions like "The Charleston Rag." Shortly after World War I, Blake joined forces with performer Noble Sissle to form a vaudeville music duo called The Dixie Duo. They later incorporated many of the songs they had written together into a musical revue, Shuffle Along, which premiered in June 1921 and became the first hit musical on Broadway written by and about African-Americans. That production introduced the hit song "I'm Just Wild About Harry."
Blake went on to appear with Sissle in films during the '20s. His career, which began winding down by the end of World War II, was revived in the 1950s with a ragtime resurgence that swept the nation. Blake signed record deals with 20th Century Records and Columbia Records, and lectured at major colleges and universities all over the world while also appearing as a guest performer and clinician at top jazz and rag festivals (including a show-stopping appearance at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival). He was also a frequent guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and The Merv Griffin Show during the '70s. The musical revue about his life, Eubie!, debuted in 1978 and ran for 439 performances on Broadway. The following year Blake appeared, at age 96, as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live.
In 1981, at age 98, Blake received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by President Ronald Reagan. He continued to play and record up until his death on February 12, 1983, just five days after celebrating his 100th birthday. In 1995, the United States Postal Service posthumously issued a stamp in his honor.
-Written by Bill Milkowski