Born: February 20, 1898 Primary Instrument: Piano
Jimmy Yancey- piano, composer, recording artist (1898-1951)
Boogie Woogie can best be defined as solo piano music based on the twelve or eight bar patterns, characterized by the repeated use of the bass figures. The Boogie Woogie piano craze had a short run of popularity in the late ‘30’s and into the mid ‘40’s where then it slipped back into a more straight blues style. There were but a few real players of the form, although scores of pale imitators. There is a story of a recording session in 1938 where the pianist just finished a song, with a strange tango bass in eight to the bar, with unusual harmonies, delivered in a quiet thoughtful mood. The engineer asked the name of the song, the player said “Yancey Special”, leading right to “who’s Yancey”? The player on this date was boogie woogie champion Meade Lux Lewis, talking about his mentor Jimmy Yancey, a most reluctant piano hero if there ever was one.
It is told that in 1913 a young Jimmy Yancey began playing his self taught blues piano in the Chicago South Side, in the saloons, gin mills, rent parties or “skiffles”, as they were called, and anywhere locally where there was a piano. By this time he was a retired vaudevillian singer/dancer who had been a pro since the age of six, had toured from coast to coast, been in Europe for two years, and was by then playing baseball with the Chicago All-Americans in the Negro League. He was fifteen years old.
Born James Edward Yancey in Chicago, in 1898, his father was a professional singer/guitarist who was also in vaudeville. He learned piano from his brother Alonzo, and came up right at the time of the ragtime rage that swept across the music world. His music certainly has strains of this influence, though the style he played could also be traced back to turn of the century habaneras, and even minstrel music. Though credited by many as the father of boogie woogie, this genre developed all around the country in various forms or another. He didn’t really play in that style, he was basically a blues player, but did germinate it by playing boogie blues, later known as Chicago blues.
Jimmy Yancey never really set out to and never became a professional piano player though he did play for many years in the South Side area. He always had a day job, and viewed playing as more of a hobby. He lived by the ball park, Comiskey Field where he worked, and his house was a gathering place for local musicians and budding pianists, for whom he became a teacher as he was viewed as a world wise entertainer. Several of his disciples which later carried on the tradition on a grand scale were Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Clarence “Pintetop” Smith. He was close friends with Cripple Clarence Lofton, who was an accomplished pianist himself, and had a small tavern nearby. Yancey played locally, and never sought out the spotlight, and recording seemed to have passed him by. By 1925 he took a full time job at the ball park, and stayed there for many years to come.
It was not until 1939, that he made his first recordings; this was after Meade Lux recorded “Yancey Special”, and gave him full credit for the song and teaching him. His first sessions were for Solo Art that year, and he recorded seventeen sides. He went on to record for Victor, Bluebird and Vocalion from 1939 to 1943, some of these sessions included his wife Estella better known as “Mama Yancey”, a very good blues singer. Yancey used a limited repertoire, and most of his songs are variations on three or four bass patterns, rarely playing more than single bass notes. His approach to blues was contrapuntal, pioneering a pure style marked by distinctive bass patterns and deceptively simple rhythmic interplay between the hands. He had great timing and touch, and performed with a depth of feeling. He did sporadic recording throughout the ‘40's, and only a few sides when he did, as for Paramount in 1950. He was again recorded in 1951 by Atlantic in what would be his last sessions known as “Chicago Piano Vol. I ”. They represent some of his finest work. There are only about sixty eight known Jimmy Yancey songs, of these many are duplicates or alternate takes.
Jimmy Yancey died in Sept. 1951, shortly after his last sessions for Atlantic. He never lived to see how far his simple style of piano playing would go, and the energy it would generate in the years to come. His influence can be heard in the Boogie Woogie Kings Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson. In what would become known as Chicago blues in the post war period, he can be heard in Otis Spann, who played for Muddy Waters. In Johnny Johnson, who was Chuck Berry’s piano man, but spent a lot of years in Chicago post war. Memphis Slim was one who picked up the Yancey style and turned it into his own brand of flat out boogie blues. Let us not forget the great Roy Byrd better known as Professor Longhair, whose piano has Yancey all over it especially in his chord turnarounds. Jimmy Yancey was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, and as we mentioned in the opening, a reluctant piano hero indeed.