Today is the birthday of the American musical innovator Jimmy Yancey, who was a self-taught piano playing sensation. He arrived on the planet in Chicago near the end of the 19th century, and didn’t become known outside Chicago until he made some recordings in 1939.
Yancey is credited with developing a distinctive rolling boogie woogie bass figure for the left hand, and recording some notably gentle but intricate pieces. No matter which key he started in, he always finished his tunes in E flat.
It’s important to know what you like.
It was Jimmy Yancey’s style of playing I had in mind when I set out to learn to play the piano in 1985.
Like many others, I felt the influence of that classic “They all Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano …” advertisement pictured at the top of this post. John Caples, the guy who wrote that ad sure knew what kind of story appeals to the common folk. Being mocked, belittled, sold short, and then dishing the humiliation back to your critics! I love this quote about his philosophy, taken from his NY Times obituary:
“He debunked humorous advertising copy, saying that ”only half the people in this country have a sense of humor, and clever ads seldom sell anything.” He also advised copywriters to ”use words you would expect to find in a fifth-grade reader” because ”the average American is approximately 13 years old mentally.'”
In fact I think I was 13 years old when I first saw that “They All Laughed …” ad. I was going to have the same experience – all I needed was a piano, a party, and some talent. But in spite of my best intentions and the not-nearly-enough-hours I spent at the keyboard, I never came close to what Yancey had done. My excuses – work, parenthood, life. Prime time TV and laziness had something to do with it too, but I never mention them, and consequently I never sit at the piano at parties.
Of course Jimmy Yancey also had a life to live outside music, and yet that didn’t prevent him from being great. For twenty six seasons he was a groundskeeper for the Chicago White Sox, working on the field at Comiskey Park through all the struggles and recording sessions and being eclipsed by other players or ignored all together even though he was a fine artist.
And yet during that same quarter century, the White Sox never had a first place finish and only managed seasons over .500 nine times. What a shame for the many thousands of fans who attended those games looking for greatness – they didn’t know the most genuine superstar on the field was the guy smoothing the dirt and trimming the grass.
What’s your best “They All Laughed When I …” moment?