Joe Turner - Pianists in my life (1/3)

In 1952, jazz piano authority Johnny Simmen sat with stride master Joe Turner and got this very graphic recapitulation of his career and the great pianists he met. These memoirs were originally published in an European jazz periodical, and have appeared, excerpted, as liner notes on the LP Stride By Stride (77 Records, LA 12/32) and in their complete form, but divided in two parts, on the Solo Art CD reissue of the 77 Records LP, Stride By Stride, Volume 1 (Solo Art SACD-106) and its subsequent follow-up Still Stridin’ Along, Volume 2 (Solo Art SACD-116). I can strongly recommend both CDs, recorded live at the Cafe Africana, Zurich, as a magnificent example of what Joe Turner was doing by 1960.

This is the first installment of the complete text, which will come in three parts.

"I was born November 3, 1907 in Baltimore, Maryland. At the age of five my mother taught me piano (ear training) and then, after awhile, I improved alone. When I was twelve I took music lessons for six months. My very first teacher, a women, was a "clock-watcher" which I didn`t like. I paid her 75 cents an hour. The week after, I took lessons from a new teacher, a Mrs. Alma J. Thomas, wife of A. Jack Thomas, a well-known musical director in Baltimore. What I liked about Mrs. Thomas is that she was not a "clock-watcher," but really interested in my playing, even cracking my fingers with a ruler when I made mistakes. So, not too long after that I used to stand by the piano and say to my Aunt Katie, "I sure wish I could play like that," and then I started playing "shout piano," copying her, but without the benefit of the left hand. Gradually I made such progress in that style that people started considering me a good pianist. I entered into a piano contest one night (my first one, in fact; my latest one having taken place last August when the marvelous Ralph Sutton and I were taking turns at the piano in one unforgettable session.)

While we were waiting at the theatre to be called on stage, a tall, smooth-talking fellow by the name of Frank Johnson came up to me and said, “Kid, I want you and the rest of the fellows to do your best tonight because I’ll win the contest anyway. I know I can win, not even playing my best". I stomped with my "shout piano" through "Oh Baby, Don’t Say No, Say Maybe" and came in second. Frank Johnson won, as he had said, and I became very interested in him and asked him to teach me a few piano tricks. He agreed on the condition that I’d buy the music to the latest tunes and teach them to him because he couldn’t read. His style of playing was so similar to a good piano roll that you could not tell the difference. Frank was the first one, too, who mentioned the name of James P. Johnson to me, making clear that James P. was known, in fact, as the greatest jazz pianist in the world. That was in 1923.

I learned so rapidly from Frank’s teaching that the entire city of Baltimore was comparing me to him. That’s when he decided not to teach me any further because he did not wish to have that much competition. I take off my hat to him for being honest and plain spoken.

My interest in my left hand began when I heard Eddie Gibson of Baltimore, who had one of the greatest left hands I ever heard in my life. I would frequently visit his home and he’d play for hours with his left hand along and he was always complaining that his left hand must be brushed up!! This became boring to me at that time but I found out later that it was necessary to have a powerful left hand to play piano properly.

I copied numbers from James P. Johnson’s piano rolls such as "Harlem Strut" and the "Carolina Shout" and copied them so well that I was considered a sort of child wonder. After being encouraged to go to New York I considered it, and went. I arrived in New York City with only one dollar and twenty-five cents in my pocket, and a suitcase made of a carton. (I had told my Mother I had a job in NY, which explained my reason for not taking more money but in reality I had no job; I was just trying to make my luck in the big city). I asked the first person I met where I could find the colored section. I was told to take the E1 train to 130th Street in Harlem. There I asked where the musicians were hanging out. They told me that it was a placed called "The Comedy Club". Going there I had a drink, set my bag down and noticed that anyone who wished could play the piano. Realizing that none of the pianists who had performed before me had done anything special I walked over and started in. After a warm-up number I went into the "Harlem Strut" and then I went to the climax with “Carolina Shout”. When I had finished people swarmed around me and wanted to know where I came from. After I’d told them, someone in the crowd told me that the composer of the last two numbers I had just played was in the room: James P. Johnson! Of course, you can imagine how I felt! I must have impressed him however, since he left his table, came up to the piano and played the same two numbers as nobody in the world could! After it was over someone asked me if I wanted a job and of course I said “Yes” then asked “When do I start?”, at which point he replied “Right away, just come with me”.

I went with him to Baron (sic) Wilkins’ Club (most famous piano club in Harlem, all the best pianists having played there one time or another) where I met, for the first time, and played with, Hilton Jefferson, the great alto man. When the boss told me he could only pay thirty dollars a week I almost fainted because I had never made more than twelve dollars. I worked there for a few months then joined the red hot band of trumpeter June Clark, who was a carbon copy of Louis Armstrong. June and Jimmy Harrison were known as the greatest brass team of that wonderful period. Jazz Carson, a fine drummer, completed our quartet.

During these first few months in NY I visited Clarence Williams’ office where I met one who I considered a truly great pianist, Eddie Blind Steele. This was also the time when we had the world’s most exciting piano contests night after night with the following pianists regularly present: James P., Willie The Lion Smith, Fats Waller and Joe Turner. Very rarely did other pianists dare to play. Of course, there were times when Stephen The Beetle Henderson was getting into the contest and he was demanding the greatest respect for his perfect left hand. Two others who would try their luck occasionally were Corky Williams and Willie Gant (...)."

1 comentario:

  1. Great article.
    Very encouraging especially for those who aspire to be a good pianist.