Born James Hubert Blake, February 7, 1883, in Baltimore, MD; died February 12, 1983, New York, NY; son of James Sumner Blake and Emily Johnston; married Avis Lee, July 1910-1939; Marion Gant Tyler 1945- 1983.
African-American ragtime pianist and composer of over 300 songs and musical pieces, Eubie Blake enjoyed a career which took him from the early years of African American stage theater to television and concert appearances in the 1970s. In his classic work Early Jazz: It's Roots and Modern Development, Gunther Schuller commented that Blake "was probably the leading exponent of the ragtime piano style that developed somewhat independently of the Midwestern branch all along the Eastern seaboard as far south as Charleston, with headquarters in Baltimore." Blake's piano pieces revealed a strong folk ragtime strain that prevented him from being associated historically with some of the lesser commercial work associated with the publishing industry of New York City's Tin Pan Alley. Apart from a talented keyboardist, Blake conducted, composed, and arranged music that helped cultivate and broaden the role of African American stage theater.
James Hubert "Eubie" Blake was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on February 7, 1883. Former slaves, his parents John Sumner Blake and Emily Johnston, instilled the values of hard work. A literate man who had been taught to read by his former master's daughter, Blake's father "never stopped preaching to his son about the evils of race hatred," wrote Al Rose in Eubie Blake. "Even though he'd been a slave, he insisted there were good and bad white people just as their were good and bad Negroes."
Blake learned his first rudiments on a Estey organ purchased by his mother. Not long after he received instruction from his next door neighbor, Margaret Marshall, a young organist at a Methodist church. Around age six Blake studied piano with Llewelyn Wilson, sang in church, and later played cornet in a local bi-racial band.
Without the knowledge of his parents, Blake worked Aggie Shelton's bordello at age fifteen, entertaining customers with light classics and popular rags such as "Hello, Ma Ragtime Gal" and "After the Ball." With little interest in school, Blake sought to become a full time musician, and at age sixteen performed professionally in a Baltimore nightclub. In 1899 he composed his first piano rag later titled the "Charleston Rag." The piano roll of "Charleston Rag" (1917), observed Mark Tucker in Ellington the Early Years, "features a walking bass in broken octaves, flashy appregiated breaks, chromatic seventh chords, and certain rhythmic tricks."
In 1901 Blake danced and played melodian with Dr. Frazier's Medicine Show. In the following year, he joined the touring company In Old Kentucky, which took him briefly to New York City. From New York, Blake returned to Baltimore and landed a job as a relief pianist for Big Head Wilbur at Alfred Greenfield's saloon, an establishment built by light weight boxing champion Joe Gans. After two years at Greenfield's, Blake found steady work at Annie Gilly's sporting house. In This is Ragtime, Blake related how he "ragged" popular songs and classics from Wagner to Viennese waltzes. Able to transpose numbers in any key, and possessing a finger span of twelve notes, Blake earned a reputation as one of the finest ragtime pianists of the eastern school.
In 1911, Blake wrote his piano rags, "The Chevy Chase" and "Fizz Water." During the next few years, Blake was kept busy through seasonal work in Baltimore and Atlantic City where he performed at such places as Ben Allen's Boathouse and the Bucket of Blood. The great stride pianist, James P. Johnson heard Blake in Atlantic City during the summer of 1914. "[Blake] was playing at The Belmont," recalled Johnson in Jazz Panorama, "Eubie was a marvelous song player. He also had a couple of rags. One, 'Troublesome Ivories,' was very good." In 1915 Blake met Noble Sissle while performing with Joe Porter's Serenaders at Baltimore's Riverview Park. Within a few days, Blake and Sissle wrote the number "It's All Your Fault" which became an immediate hit for singer Sophie Tucker. Their number "Have a Good Time Everybody" subsequently found its way into Tucker's repertoire.
In 1916 after Sissle joined James Reese Europe's Society Orchestra, he urged the famed bandleader to hire Blake. Accepting the offer, Blake came north to join the Harlem-based orchestra. "As performers, both Sissle and Blake fit the Europe model of the black professional entertainer perfectly," wrote Reid Badger in A Life in Ragtime. "Blake had both experience performing and writing for whites, and they both understood how to please them without demeaning their own personal or professional dignity." Blake soon received promotion from solo pianist to assistant orchestra leader. "Jim Europe was the biggest influence in my musical career," stated Blake in Eubie Blake: Keys of Memory. "He was at a point in time at which all roots and forces of Negro music merged and gained its wildest expression."
When Sissle arrived back in New York after serving in France with the 369th Infantry Division, he and Blake toured on the Keith circuit as the Dixie Duo. In 1920 they met the comedy team of Flournoy E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles in Philadelphia. Along with Miller and Lyles, Blake and Sissle created the 1921 musical stage production, Shuffle Along. Based upon Miller's and Lyles' proposed Broadway-style show, "The Mayor of Jimtown," Shuffle Along emerged as the first all-black post- World War I stage production. Responsible for the music and lyrics, Blake and Sissle provided several classic numbers including "I'm Just Wild About Harry," "Bandana Days," and "Love Will Find a Way." Originally planned for a black audience, the show ran two weeks at the Howard Theatre in Washington D.C. and at the Dunbar Theatre in Philadelphia, before opening at New York City's 63rd Street Music Hall on May 23, 1921. After 504 performances, Shuffle Along closed with a reported gross of eight million dollars. In the work The Cotton Club, Jim Haskins noted that Shuffle Along succeeded because "in earlier shows, ragtime had been hidden under the heavy overlay of operetta. By the time the show opened in New York, Blake had already won fame as a composer, and ragtime was present in pure form in Shuffle Along."
The success of Shuffle Along ushered in a new era for Blake-- one that, as he stated in DownBeat, had taken him "from barrelhouse pianist to writing a Broadway musical." In 1924 he wrote the score for The Chocolate Dandies. Traveling to Europe in 1926, Blake and Sissle dropped the name theDixie Duo for the stage title "American Ambassadors of Syncopation." They played in England and Paris. Back in America the duo broke up in 1927. In October of the same year, Blake organized a new act with Broadway Jones for the Keith circuit.
After launching the show Shuffle Along Jr. in 1928, Blake earned $250 a week with the 1930 production of Lew Leslie's Blackbirds, billed as "Glorifying the American Negro." The experience with the show brought Blake together with famed lyricist Andy Razaf. In describing Razaf's skills, Blake told Al Rose in Eubie Blake, that his song writing partner "never had to change anything. His meter was perfect, and he could write the words nearly as fast as I could whistle the tune. God, he was smart!" Their collaborative efforts included the number "You're Lucky to Me." In Eubie Blake Al Rose explained that the number "introduced new and modern concepts about intervals that challenged other musicians and won enough adherents to become permanently incorporated into common musical idiom." Years later, the number was performed as an instrumental by Benny Goodman and the Casa Loma Orchestra.
Due to the affects of the Depression, the Blackbirds production closed after two-month run. Blake then wrote music for Jack Scholl's "Loving You the Way I Do" which became the Broadway hit of the year. In 1933 Blake, Miller, and Sissle attempted to take a rendition of Shuffle Along on the road. Though a fine production, the show was forced to close. During the 1930s Blake recorded with his own orchestra and wrote shows under the funding of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
During World War II, Blake served as musical director with several U.S.O (United Service Organization) tours. In the late 1940s Blake went into retirement and studied the Schillinger System of Music at the University of New York. The ragtime "Scott Joplin" revival of the 1950s brought renewed interest in Blake's music. Rudi Blesh's and Harriet Janis's book They All Played Ragtime (1950) and Gilbert Chase's America's Music (1955) helped find a new audience for one the last of the original ragtime pianists and composers.
In 1968 music impresario John Hammond organized a session for Blake which brought forth the 1969 two-album recording The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake. That same year, he played a successful concert at the Newport Jazz Festival. In 1971 Blake launched his own record company, Eubie Blake Music Inc. During the heightened "Scott Joplin boom" of the 1970s, he appeared on the cover of Time and Newsweek, and was a guest on television shows hosted by Johnny Carson, Mike Douglas, and Merv Griffin. At the pianist's ninetieth birthday party at New York's Hampshire House, jazz writer Dan Morganstern observed, in a 1973 issue of DownBeat, that Blake was "in better shape, mentally and physically, than many a man 20 years younger." When Leonard Feather referred to Blake, during a Down Beat interview, as "ninety years young" his spright subject immediately answered "No, I'm 90 years old and proud of it."
During the 1970s Blake was awarded honorary degrees from such distinguished institutions asDartmouth College, Rutgers University, and the New England Conservatory. In 1976 he provided the introduction for Terry Waldo's book, This is Ragtime. In 1981 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a White House ceremony. Suffering from pneumonia, Blake was unable to attend several celebrations held in his honor of his 100th birthday. He died in New York on February 12, 1983. About five years before his death, Blake told his biographer Al Rose, in Eubie Blake, "When you leave the theater, it feels like you're leavin' the real world and the fake world is out here in the street where nobody knows anybody else." Though Blake belonged to a close knit creative fraternity, his music touched the lives of several generations of listeners who resided outside the world of the musical theater.
Eubie Blake's Career
Began career as ragtime pianist in 1898; composed first piano rag, 1899; performed in Dr. Frazier's Medicine Show in 1901 and toured with the stage show Old Kentucky in 1902; performed as a pianist at the Goldfield Hotel, Baltimore, 1907-1915; met Noble Sissle in 1915 and began musical association; toured with Sissle as the Dixie Duo, 1915-1920; appeared as a member of Jim Reese Europe's orchestra, 1916-1919; composed music for stage musicals Shuffle Along (1921), Chocolate Dandies (1924-1925); recorded and toured with own orchestra in the 1930s; toured with U.S.O. during World War II ; appeared at 1969 Newport Jazz Festival; recorded and performed on television programs in the 1970s.
Eubie Blake's Awards
Honorary degrees from Brooklyn College of the City University of New York (1973); Dartmouth College (1974); Rutgers University (1974); The New England Conservatory of Music (1974); University of Maryland (1979); received Presidential Medal of Freedom 1981.
- Selective Works
- Albums The Wizard of Ragtime Vol. I, 20th Century Fox, 1958.
- The Marches I Played on the Ragtime Piano, RCA, 1959.
- The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake, CBS, 1969.
- Rags to Classics, Eubie Blake Music, 1971.
- Eubie Blake and His Friends, Eubie Blake Music, 1971.
- Jazz Piano Masters, Chairoscuro.
- Live Concert, Eubie Blake Music, 1973.
- Tricky Fingers, Quicksilver.
- Memories of You, Biograph, 1990.
- "Charleston Rag," written 1889 and originally titled "Sounds of Africa," Ampico piano roll 1917.
- "Fizz Water," 1911.
- "Brittwood Rag," 1911.
- "The Chevy Chase," 1911, piano roll 1917.
- "Troublesome Ivories," 1911.
- "Novelty Rag," 1910.
- "Blue Thoughts," 1933.
- "Blue Classic," 1939.
- "Blue Rag in Twelve Keys," 1969.
- "Memories of You," piano roll, QRS, 1973.
- "I'm Just Wild About Harry, piano roll, QRS, 1973.
- Stage Music Shuffle Along, 1921.
- The Chocolate Dandies, 1924.
- Elsie, 1924.
- Charlot's Revue Of 1924, (contributed compositions).
- Blackbirds of 1930, 1930.
- Hot Rhythm, 1930, (contributed compositions).
- Shuffle Along Jr., 1933.
- Swing It, 1937.
- Tan Manhattan, (contributed compositions), 1941.
- Blake was also the subject of a documentary: Reminiscing with Sissle and Blake, 1974.
- Carter, Lawrence T, Eubie Blake, Keys Of Memory, Balamp, 1979.
- Haskins, Jim. The Cotton Club, Hippocene Books, 1977.
- Jazz Panorama: From the Birth of Dixieland to the Latest 'Third Stream' Innovations: The sounds of Jazz & the Men Who Made Them, edited by Martin Williams, Collier Books, 1958.
- Ragtime, Its History, Composers, and Music, edited by John Edward Hasse, Schirmer Books, 1985.
- Rose, Al, Eubie Blake, Schirmer Books, 1979.
- Schuller, Gunther, Early Jazz: It's Roots and Musical Development, Oxford University Press, 1968.
- Tucker, Mark, Ellington: The Early Years, University of Illinois Press, 1991.
- Waldo, Terry with a foreword by Eubie Blake, This is Ragtime, Da Capo, 1976.
- Periodicals DownBeat, March 29, 1973; May 24, 1973.