Pianist Kris Tokarski (“Lendítsd a zongorán!” TST, May 2020) hails from the home state of James P. Johnson and currently lives in Jelly Roll Morton’s hometown. Kris is a world-class interpreter of Johnson’s and Morton’s music, but he also has great admiration for the keyboard artists who developed the “Chicago Style” of piano during the 1920s and 1930s. Kris and I hope that the following dialogue will stimulate readers of The Syncopated Times to seek out and listen to historic recordings of Chicago Style pianists.
Hal Smith: Since the years preceding World War I, many great jazz pianists have made Chicago their home, even if it was just a temporary stay. But I am sure Kris will agree that the most influential pianist in the Chicago Style is Earl “Fatha” Hines. For me, Hines is consistently exciting—as a soloist, sideman or riding high over the top of his own orchestra. I can easily hear Hines’ influence on younger pianists beginning almost immediately from the time he arrived in Chicago.
Kris Tokarski: Thank you for thinking of me for this article. I feel this is especially appropriate for you and I to have this discussion because you were the one who brought the Chicago school of jazz piano to my attention. In academic settings, the piano styles that emerged from New Orleans and Harlem are often the only styles discussed. It will be nice to give the Windy City the credit it’s due for producing some of the hottest piano players of the 1920s and ’30s.
I was of course more than aware of Hines, but was unaware of his vast influence on pianists in and associated with Chicago. He is in my top three favorite early jazz pianists, which also include James P. Johnson and Jelly Roll Morton. Of those three, Hines is in my opinion the most unpredictable and that in and of itself produces a sort of excitement. As jazz musicians we learn first through imitation of the masters, similar to learning languages, but Hines is one of the most difficult pianists to imitate. He has a distinct sound that I can recognize almost immediately, however he is one of the few who is not prone to repeating “licks” and is always reinventing songs (we may never know the “true” chord structure to the bridge to “Monday Date!”)
One of the elements of his playing I find an exciting contrast to stride pianists, is how he is always breaking up the left hand from a typical ragtime oom pah pattern. There is always the interjection of unexpected chord or bass note jabs, chromatic sweeps, rhythmic interplay between the hands, and a feeling of time being suspended… then WHAM, the beat is back! You have introduced me to pianists like Joe Sullivan, Jess Stacy, Tut Soper, Alex Hill, Cassino Simpson and William Barbee; all of whom very clearly have been influenced by Hines.
HS: I have really enjoyed sharing those recordings with you, and it’s great to know that they went to a good home! You mentioned William Barbee, who probably came as close to Hines’ sound as any of the Chicago pianists—to the point where some discographers mistakenly listed Hines instead of Barbee on certain records! I hear a couple of slight differences in Barbee’s playing versus Hines, and would like to know how you compare their sounds at the keyboard.
KT: Gosh, it’s much more difficult to discuss their differences than their similarities. I think the main thing might be that Barbee’s playing is more square to the bar than Hines. This is not to say that Barbee is not rhythmically adventurous; he absolutely is and he has an unpredictable quality as well, but this is of course a comparison to HINES. I wouldn’t say this is necessary a difference between the two, but rather something striking to me about Barbee is his style of harmony.
His playing on “For Just a Little Love From You” with Helen Savage is a good example. The chord structure of the song is nothing special and can be found in many other tunes, but Barbee makes use of what I think of as tritone substitutions. It’s something associated with more with the bebop generation when academia compartmentalizes jazz and music history, but of course that’s not the real picture. He makes great use of this sound in his soloing. Unfortunately he didn’t appear on very many records and we don’t know much about him, however readers need to go listen to his work under the “Dixie Rhythm Kings,” with Omer Simeon, and two sides with Helen Savage.
KT: I know one of your favorite Hines disciples is Joe Sullivan, who embodies the Chicago style so perfectly. Can you talk a little on the elements of his playing that you think are indicative of Chicago style piano?
HS: Joe Sullivan’s records were the first I heard—after Hines’—that illustrated the Chicago Style. As soon as he was old enough to get around the town, Joe listened to New Orleans musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Johnny and Baby Dodds, and of course Jelly Roll Morton. He fell in with the so-called Austin High Gang and played on the 1927 records by “McKenzie and Condon’s Chicagoans.”
Joe’s personal style was still developing then, and his first recordings sound a bit stilted in comparison to how he played just a few years later. On those early records he doesn’t venture too much into the treble range of the piano and his rhythm is not especially adventurous. However, he attacks the instrument with a real Windy City spirit!
Later on, Fats Waller and Earl Hines became major influences on his playing, as did Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong (“I love Bix like my right arm, but I go by way of Louis”). Beginning in the early 1930s, you hear all these influences, melded into a very personal style. He might begin a solo with a stride left hand and typical Waller phrases in the right, suddenly suspend the rhythm in the left hand, play a daring Hines-like arpeggio with the right, then bring the right hand crashing down on the keyboard in a tone cluster!
Many of his solos also included “trumpet style” single notes inspired by Armstrong and—especially on pretty songs—melodic lines and complex harmonies that clearly originated with Beiderbecke. Still, there can never be a question that the listener is hearing Joe Sullivan. His unbreakable spirit and unpredictable solo choruses are some of the best examples of Chicago Jazz ever recorded.
HS: One of the pianists that we both admire was slightly older than Joe Sullivan, but claimed many of the same influences: Jess Stacy. For my money, he was one of the greatest band pianists and vocal accompanists of all time, though his solos are pretty wonderful too!
KT: I agree that Jess must have been highly coveted as a band pianist. Of the Chicagoans he had the smoothest and most even touch in addition to his impeccable swing feel and natural accompaniment instincts. This would make him an easy favorite for horn players to blow with. It’s easy to hear his influence from Hines and Armstrong with his trumpet style octaves in the right hand. Most likely by way of Louis Armstrong, Hines used octave tremolos to mimic a trumpet shake.
Jess developed his own interesting way of imitating this effect by playing octaves in the right hand with a couple chord tones in the middle couple fingers. He had a way of trilling or shaking these notes up in the middle to get a similar sound. This little device became distinctive part of his style and it is something I can immediately recognize Stacy by on record.
I think Sullivan was perhaps a more dramatic pianist whose bravado was taken from Louis Armstrong while Stacy’s style is more reminiscent of Bix Beiderbecke’s more contained approach that highlighted his beautiful and subtle sound. Jess clearly had a special relationship with Bix’s music as he learned and recorded his piano pieces. Take a listen to his piano solo at the famous Goodman Carnegie Hall concert on “Sing, Sing, Sing.” You hear moments of impressionistic harmony; a clear sign he ran in Bix’s musical circle.
KT: Speaking of great band pianists, I believe you have a cat named after the great Alex Hill! For my money, Hill is the most well-rounded musician of the Chicago pianists. He was equal parts band pianist, hot soloist, composer, arranger, and leader.
HS: Alex the cat appreciates your shout-out! He actually recognizes his namesake’s music and will come into the room, curl up and enjoy the music whenever I play any of Alex Hill’s recordings. I am a big fan of his compositions—especially the ones that employ the “hot chord” sequences (for lack of a better term) such as “Madam Dynamite” and “’Long ’Bout Midnight.”
I also love his uncluttered, swinging arrangements, his hot, but well-organized bands and his distinctive vocal style—as well as his piano playing! A friend of mine who was actually acquainted with Earl Hines and other keyboard greats described Alex Hill’s piano style as “romping.” I think that fits perfectly. He certainly had an unusual style, and I would be very interested to hear your description of the techniques that define the “Alex Style” on piano.
KT: Alex Hill has a sound that I can usually pick out when I hear him on record. One thing that comes to mind is the full range of the piano that is almost always being used. His right hand is often well up into the upper range while his left hand keeps a steady stride bass. For most pianists, the middle register is often the preferred home base for the right hand to work from. Hill’s voice on the piano tended to stay on the higher end a little more.
This sound and some of the “tricks” Hill plays are reminiscent of earlier styles. Perhaps he had an influence from novelty piano or someone like Clarence Jones. Something I hear in his left hand that I consider to be a hallmark of his style is his “wobbly bass” (broken octaves from the bottom up). He will do this even on fast tunes like “Stompin’ ’Em Down.” Hill’s playing is not as rhythmically adventurous as Hines or his diehard disciples. However, there is a clarity and directness in his playing that made him an EXCELLENT and successful band pianist.
HS: Alex Hill could definitely “romp” on a hot solo like “Stompin’ ’Em Down,” but he sounds almost reserved in comparison to the wild keyboard excursions of Zinky Cohn!
KT: That’s a perfect way to describe Zinky’s piano solos! You mentioned Alex Hill’s miscredited appearance on Bessie Smith’s “On Revival Day.” Readers should take a listen to that record alongside Jimmie Noone’s recording of the same song with Zinky on piano. It’s no wonder Noone hired him when Hines was not playing with the Apex Club Orchestra.
Hines was clearly Zinky’s biggest influence. In addition to the “trumpet style” octaves riding high during ensembles, he puts to great use those wild runs up the piano and angular harmony that Hines is so well known for. These devices give the impression that the piano is fluttering over the steady time of the band. His half chorus on “Somebody Stole My Gal” with Frankie Franko and His Louisianians is a great example of this.
One thing I’d like to point about Zinky, which is a common thread in Chicago style piano, is the use of ornamental piano “tricks” and “modernistic” harmony. Zinky and William Barbee most likely took these things straight from Fatha Hines. Sullivan had his own more personal touch on these ideas. In my opinion, these guys took these sounds by way of Hines who took them by way of an earlier Chicago piano style, novelty piano. Zez Confrey and several other novelty pianists were active in and around Chicago in the 1910s and early ’20s. There’s no doubt in my mind of the influence this had on Hines and his disciples.
KT: Since you took me down the path of “wild piano excursions,” we should mention Cassino Simpson. Simpson is an exciting pianist who, like Zinky, doesn’t get enough credit. I know Cassino best from his recordings with Jabbo Smith as well as a handful of solo piano recordings made a bit later in his career in 1942.
HS: Cass Simpson was actually making records long before any of the other pianists we have discussed. He even has a solo on a record by Bernie Young’s Creole Jazz Band (“Dearborn Street Blues”) made in 1923! His playing at that time reminds me of the way Fats Waller sounded on his early piano rolls. Simpson recorded with Arthur Sims’ Creole Roof Orchestra three years later and you can hear some Novelty piano influence, and even some of the types of phrases that Alex Hill would later use.
At some point, probably in the late 1920s, Simpson studied with Zinky Cohn. After that, you can really hear a difference in his playing! Even when he doesn’t solo, you can hear him playing trumpet-like octaves above the ensembles, the solos, and the vocals—particularly with King Oliver (“Can I Tell You?”), and on records with vocalists Laura Rucker, Emmet Mathews, and Ruth Johnson.
His solos with Jabbo Smith, from the same era, are not as consistent. He has a Hines-like sound on “Little Willie Blues,” but the solo on “Take Your Time” sounds more like Jimmy Bertrand’s xylophone playing! His last commercial recording session was in 1933, with vocalist Frankie “Half Pint” Jaxon. A couple years later, Simpson tried to kill Jaxon and was committed to the Illinois State Hospital in Elgin.
He played in the hospital orchestra and even played bass drum in their marching band! Chicago Jazz historian/writer/record producer John Steiner recorded Cassino Simpson at the hospital in 1942. Simpson’s playing on those recordings—especially on “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” and “Tea For Two”—is wilder than anything Earl Hines or Zinky Cohn could have ever imagined!
HS: One Chicagoan who was a marvelous pianist, but should be much better known is Tut Soper.
KT: I imagine Tut never received the recognition he deserved because he seems to be under-recorded. The only recordings of him that I was aware of until recently where a handful of duo recordings he made with drummer Warren “Baby” Dodds, in 1944. In my opinion something was clearly wrong during that session, since the accompaniment he received was often pretty bizarre. Despite this, we do get some great Chicago style piano playing from Tut. My personal favorite side from that session is a bluesy sounding thing called “It’s a Ramble.” You can hear what a fiery player he was on “Oronics No. 3” and clear indication of why Fatha Hines took a liking to Tut!
Amidst our discussion you just hipped me to a Marty Grosz record, Hooray for Bix! from 1957, which features Soper on piano. This is an opportunity to hear Tut in higher fidelity, in a more favorable playing situation, and he is still playing great. Readers should especially listen to his solos on “Cryin’ All Day” and “I’m Gonna Meet My Sweetie Now.” They have all the hallmarks of the Chicago style: trumpet style octaves and tremolos, displaced left hand rhythms, and fiery attack on the keyboard.
HS: You know, there are several more Chicago pianists who were inspired by Earl Hines who we haven’t mentioned. And we didn’t even talk about the other pianists who were active in Chicago in the ’teens and ’20s: Jelly Roll Morton, Richard M. Jones, Charley Straight, Mel Stitzel, Lil Hardin, Elmer Schoebel, Clarence Jones, Jimmy Blythe, Teddy Weatherford, and Frank Melrose. For space considerations, I think we should save those subjects for a future discussion. Does that work for you?
KT: Let’s do that Hal! Most of the pianists and recordings we referenced were at their height in the late 1920s. A “prequel” to this conversation might let readers know how much can change in just a few years as we look at what was happening in the early and mid ’20s. It will also give us a chance to discuss the relationship between Chicago and New Orleans pianists and other who migrated from the American South. I’ll be looking forward to it in the meantime. Cheers!
HS: This dialogue has been a lot of fun, and now I know the correct terminology for the devices all those wild Chicago pianists were using! Thanks very much for all your insight, Kris. I’m going to look forward to that “prequel!”
Visit Kris Tokarski online at www.kristokarski.com.
Chicago Style Piano – Selected Discography
The Earl Hines Collection, Piano Solos 1928 – 1940 Collectors Classics COCD – 11
Earl Hines and his Orchestra 1932 – 1934 Classics 514
Earl Hines and his Orchestra 1934 – 1937 Classics 528
The Jimmie Noone Collection vol. 1 1928 Collectors Classics COCD – 6
Jimmie Noone Chicago Rhythm – Apex Blues: The Recordings of Jimmie Noone 1923 – 1943
JSP – 926 (4 CD set) including tracks with Earl Hines, Alex Hill, Zinky Cohn
Ain’t It Nice? The Recordings of Alex Hill 1928 – 1934 vol. 1 Timeless CBC 1 – 050
In Chronological Order 1924 – 1931 RST JPCD 1510 – 2
Kansas City Frank Melrose: Jelly Roll Stomp Solo Art BSCD 35
Marty Grosz and his Honoris Causa Jazz Band: Hooray For Bix! Good Time Jazz GTJCD 10065 – 2
Bob Crosby and the Bob Cats vol. 3 1940 Swaggie CD 503
Ziggy Elman and his Orchestra 1938 – 1939 Classics 900
Bud Freeman 1928 – 1938 Classics 781
Lionel Hampton and his Orchestra 1937 – 1938 Classics 524
Harry James Basie Rhythm Hep CD 1032
Jess Stacy Pianist Personified Vintage Music Productions VMP 0231
Jess Stacy Tribute to Benny Goodman Koch KOCD 8506
Benny Goodman and his Orchestra 1931 – 1933 Classics 719
Joe Sullivan 1933 – 1941 Classics 821
Joe Sullivan 1944 – 1945 Classics 1070
Joe Sullivan 1945 – 1953 Classics 1353
The Piano Artistry of Joe Sullivan Jazz Unlimited JUCD 2051
Black & White Piano vol. 2 1929 – 1942 Document DOCD 5597 including tracks with Alex Hill, Frank Melrose, Cassino Simpson (note: two of the tracks are labeled Frank Melrose, but were actually played by John “Knocky” Parker)
Get Easy Blues: Chicago 1928 – 1930 Frog DGF 9 including tracks with Alex Hill, Frank Melrose, Zinky Cohn
Jazz & Blues Piano vol. 2 1924 – 1947 Document DOCD 5662 including one track with Jimmy Blythe and several with Tut Soper
That’s My Stuff Frog DGF 7 including tracks with William Barbee, Alex Hill, Zinky Cohn
Note: Recordings by all the pianists mentioned in this discussion may be heard on YouTube. The videos listed below actually show the pianists onscreen.