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The Piano Rolls

Elektra Nonesuch 9 79287-2

Realized by Artis Wodehouse

1.  Sweet and Lowdown
(George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin) (3:30)
(from Tip-Toes) Fox Trot, arranged and played by George Gershwin, April 1926 Duo-Art 713214

2. Novelette In Fourths
(George Gershwin) (2:24)
Salon Selection, played by George Gershwin, 1919 Welte-Mignon 3968

3. That Certain Feeling
(George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin) (2:45)
(from Tip-Toes) Fox Trot, arranged and played by George Gershwin, April 1926 Duo-Art 713216

4. So Am I
(George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin) (4:14)
(from Lady, Be Good!) Ballad, played by George Gershwin, September 1925 Duo-Art 102625

5. Rhapsody In Blue
(George Gershwin) (14:22) arranged and played by George Gershwin
Part 1: played January 1927, Duo-Art 70947 (issued 1927)
Part 2: played May 1925, Duo-Art 68787 (issued 1925)

6. Swanee
(George Gershwin and Irving Caesar) (2:17)
One Step, played by George Gershwin, February 1920 Duo-Art 1649

7. When You Want ‘Em, You Can’t Get ‘Em, When You’ve Got ‘Em, You Don’t Want ‘Em
(George Gershwin and Murray Roth) (1:57)
Fox Trot, played by George Gershwin, September 1916 Universal 202864

8. Kickin’ The Clouds Away
(George Gershwin and B.G. DeSylva) (3:20) (from Tell Me More)
Fox Trot, played by George Gershwin, July 1925 Duo-Art 713122

9. Idle Dreams
(George Gershwin and Arthur Jackson) (2:59) (from Scandals of 1920)
Fox Trot, played by George Gershwin, August 1920 Mel-O-Dee 203579

10. On My Mind The Whole Night Long
(George Gershwin and Arthur Jackson) (2:30) (from Scandals of 1920)
Blues – Fox Trot, played by George Gershwin, August 1920 Universal 203577

11. Scandal Walk
(George Gershwin and Arthur Jackson) (3:15) (from Scandals of 1920)
Fox Trot, played by George Gershwin, August 1920 Mel-O-Dee 203583

12. An American In Paris
(George Gershwin) (16:35)
played by Milne and Leith, June 1933
Part 1: Duo-Art 74678
Part 2: Duo-Art 74688


George Gershwin recalled that one of his first musical memories went back to the age of six: “I stood outside a penny arcade listening to an automatic piano leaping through Rubinstein’s Melody In F. the particular jumps in the music held me rooted. To this very day I can’t hear the tune without picturing myself outside the arcade on 125th street, standing there barefoot and in overalls, drinking it all in avidly.”

The player piano was a central force in American musical life between 1900 and 1930. Referred to variously as automatic pianos, pianolas and reproducing pianos, players of all types were found not only in penny arcades, but in homes, concert halls, restaurants, saloons, stores – virtually anywhere music was heard. Player pianos are normal acoustic pianos except than an internal piano-playing mechanism works as a computer using air pressure instead of electrical energy. The paper piano rolls are the “software” used to activate the notes to play. A punched hole in a paper piano roll causes a corresponding note to play as it goes across a “reader”; a five-note chord has five perforations, and so on. Air pressure in player pianos is established by foot-pumping the bellows to exhaust the air. In later models, the bellows were motor-driven.

Gershwin’s second contact with a player piano was more sustained than the chance encounter in the penny arcade. At around the age of 10, he began teaching himself to play at the home of a friend who had a player piano. Slowly foot-pumping through a roll, the boy placed his fingers over the keys as they were depressed by the roll-playing mechanism. This method of learning was so successful that when a piano intended for brother Ira Gershwin was hoisted into the family’s flat, Ira recalled that “No sooner had the upright been lifted through the window of the front room then George sat down and played a popular tune of the day I remember being particularly impressed by his left hand.”

This incident triggered formal piano studies for Gershwin who by then was 12. Is progress was so rapid that by the age of 15, he quit high school and took a position with a large publishing house, Remick, in New York’s Tin Pan Alley. There he worked as a song-plugger, demonstrating the company’s tunes for prospective performers who routinely visited the publishing house searching for catchy new material. Gershwin was at the piano daily for hours at a time, transposing and embellishing to enhance the appeal of the tunes. Eubie Blake recalled hearing about Gershwin: “James P. Johnson and Luckey Roberts told me of this very talented ofay [white] piano player at Remick’s. They said he was good enough to learn some of those terribly difficult tricks that only a few of us could master.”

Gershwin’s keyboard skills led him to make piano rolls, beginning when he was a song-plugger and continuing through his early career as accompanist to vaudevillians and as a rehearsal pianist on Broadway. Before the late twenties, only a player piano could compete with live performance for sonic presence. The phonograph was still in its infancy, and the old 78 discs produced a thin, bass-weak sound. While Gershwin was growing up – he was born in 1898 – player pianos and piano rolls became a huge, lucrative and lavish industry. Happily, Gershwin’s roll-making years trace the rise of the player piano; of the approximately 130 rolls he made, the first was issued in 1916 and the last in 1927. Unfortunately, improvements to the sound of the much less expensive phonograph and radio undermined the popularity and perceived affordability of player pianos. During the late 20’s the once thriving roll industry declined, crashing decisively at the onset of the Depression in 1929. As with many other smart and successful musicians of the era, Gershwin went on to make disc recordings and to host his own radio program.

Making piano rolls that were spin-offs of his other keyboard work was a relatively easy way for Gershwin to make some quick extra money. Pop piano rolls had to be made and released very quickly because they capitalized on the popularity of tunes that had recently been released as sheet music. Intended either for singing or dancing, stereotyped formats and stock devices permeated the medium. Still, roll arrangers were always looking for new musical tricks to amaze and excite the prospective purchaser. One such trick was to overdub; many more notes could be encoded into a roll than a single pianist could lay down by hand. The result was a full, busy and exhilarating sound. Overdubbing can be heard in sections of That Certain Feeling, Sweet and Low-Down and Kicking The Clouds Away on this recording as well as in the Rhapsody in Blue and An American In Paris, where it is used to mimic the full orchestra.

Gershwin recorded two types of rolls. The first – his perfection, Mel-O-Dee and Universal rolls – was designed for playback on player pianos equipped with levers, knobs and/or buttons that the player pianolist foot-pumping the roll could interactively manipulate to creat an expressive performance. The pianolist could often see a dynamic line ranging from soft to loud printed on the roll and follow it to guide the interpretation. The second and more technologically sophisticated type of roll – Gershwin’s Duo-Art and Welte rolls – were called reproducing rolls. These were intended for playback on instruments called reproducing pianos that could automatically execute dynamics.

Gershwin’s piano roll performances have a different relationship to his live performance than do his recordings made via microphone and put on phonograph disc. Gershwin and his many roll editors over the years jointly assigned dynamics and determined if roll-arranging tricks were to be used. While some of Gershwin’s rolls (Swanee, When You Want ‘Em, You Can’t Get ‘Em, So Am I and On My Mind The Whole Night Long) were mostly the result of hand-playing, the others seem to be an amalgam of his hand playing, his own arranging ideas about scoring, and the arranging style of the editor with whom he was working at the time the roll was made. Nevertheless, the best pop music roll arranging reached the level of artistry. These arrangements could very effectively mimic the rhythmic vitality of live performance as well as introduce keyboard pyrotechnics the likes of which a single performer could not achieve. When we compare Gershwin’s disc recordings of That Certain Feeling and Sweet and Low-Down to those tunes on his rolls, we hear much shared material and a sense of family resemblance between the performances in the two mediums. This observation also holds for many sections of his roll recording of the Rhapsody as they compare to his truncated Columbia disc performance of 1924.


Gershwin’s apprentice work as song-plugger, accompanist and rehearsal pianist provided him with a wealth of music by others that comprises the majority of his piano roll arrangements. But in the meantime, the young musician was amassing his own portfolio of tunes. For instance, the rough and ready roll of When You Want ‘Em You Can’t Get ‘Em – a rarity dating from September, 1916 – was his own arrangement of his first published song. Later, after the smash hit of Swanee, Gershwin began to make more arrangements of his own music. These culminated in the ambitious Duo-Art rendition of Rhapsody In Blue.

Each of the selections chosen for this recording marks important points in Gershwin’s development as a composer and illustrates his pianistic mastery. Apart form the charming but juvenile When You Want ‘Em You Can’t Get ‘Em, there is Gershwin’s performance of Swanee that reveals much more about his forceful virtuosity as well as the deft harmonic touches which became a hallmark of his style. Another rare roll is his out-and-out blues treatment of On My Mind The Whole Night Long, an extraordinary and prescient performance that gives us a good idea of how the composer played circa 1920. Tow other previously unrecorded rolls are Idle Dreams and Scandal Walk, Gershwin’s arrangements of tunes he wrote for the Scandals of 1920. The Scandals featured elaborately staged dance numbers with the mostly-female performers in fanciful and provocative costumes. Just such exotic stage pageantry is conjured up by the orientalism of Idle Dreams, whereas Scandal Walk may have been a roll cut for a grand player piano the top of which served as a dance floor for lead singer-dancer Ann Pennington! On CD for the first time is his roll of his solo piano composition, Novelette in Fourths. How the then (1919) little-known composer convinced the Welte Company to issue a roll of this unpublished original piano solo is a mystery.

Finally, with the great success of Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and the musicals, Lady, Be Good!, Tip-Toes and Tell Me More, the roll industry giant, the Aeolian Company, accorded royal treatment to the composer. First, Aeolian issued a solo piano 2-roll set of the Rhapsody. Aeolian also put Gershwin in collaboration with their great pop roll editor, Frank Milne, and Gershwin recorded what proved to be four stunning Duo-Art roll arrangements of some of his most popular tunes at the time: That Certain Feeling, Sweet and Low-Down, So Am I and Kicking The Clouds Away.

The last selection on this CD is Frank Milne’s 2-roll arrangement of An American In Paris. Cut in 1933, it is one of the most impressive and powerful roll performances of the era. After the crash of the piano roll industry, the severely curtailed Aeolian Company kept Milne on as its lone roll editor and ceased using performing artists. According to Milne’s children, by that time and probably much earlier he was so skilled at arranging that he did not need to us a recording apparatus to generate the performance. Much as a composer notates a score, he prepared roll masters by drawing lines on a roll of special graph paper which served as a template for perforating the holes. The roll of An American In Paris is identified, however, as being played by Milne and “Leith.” We now know that “Leith” was one of Milne’s pseudonyms; to put an arrangement of this complexity forward to the public, it had to be represented as a 4-hand performance.

We have no evidence that Gershwin supervised Milne’s arrangement of An American In Paris but the arranger had previously worked with Gershwin on his late Duo-Art song rolls. Milne’s version of An American In Paris ingeniously evokes not only the full sonority of an orchestra but also the vitality of a live performance.

About The Disklavier and Technology

The piano used to play the rolls for this recording is a 9-foot Yamaha Disklavier grand piano. This instrument was chosen because its computer capability offered unprecedented opportunities to refine the performances. In addition, this particular Disklavier piano is a high-quality full-sized concert grand producing a richness of sound and dynamic range which until now has been unusual for piano rolls recorded for CD.

Yamaha Disklavier pianos are capable of recording any performance played on them note-for-note as well as reflecting the nuances of interpretation. To accomplish this task, Disklaviers are fitted with a computer and optic sensors that record a hand-played performance on floppy disk. On playback from the disk, the Disklavier’s keys move up and down like the old player piano.

A rare 1911 88-note Pianola was used for this project for those of Gershwin’s rolls requiring a pianolist’s interpretive intervention. During the heyday of the player piano this comparable piano-playing device was also available for roll playback. A heavy, bulky machine, the Pianola is equipped with expression levers and felt tipped fingers and can be rolled up to any piano. It’s fingers are positioned over the keys, and a roll is inserted. Foot-pumping activates the roll to move the fingers; the pianolist can play with expression by skillful foot-pumping and manipulating the expression levers. When the 1911 Pianola operated by Artis Wodehouse played the rolls on the Disklavier, the Disklavier in turn recorded in the same way it does any live pianist. The best takes of each roll captured on disk were then further edited to improve the interpretation. Finally, the 9-foot Disklavier was taken to the auditorium of The Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City where it played Gershwin’s rolls from a floppy disk for the microphone, as if Gershwin’s ghost were present at the session.

Gershwin’s reproducing rolls were prepared quite differently. Using a piano roll reader, Richard Tonnesen of Custom Music Rolls converted the paper rolls into computer files which specified the location and length of each hole on the roll. Computer programmer Richard Brandle wrote a computer simulation of the reproducing pianos which translated the computer files into MIDI representing the notes, their duration and position in time and relative loudness as executed by the old reproducing pianos. The resulting performances could be played on any Disklavier from floppy disk. Placed in front of the recording microphone, the Disklavier concert grand then played Gershwin’s reproducing rolls from floppy disks for the CD recording.

Both the Rhapsody In Blue and An American In Paris were edited beyond the Brandle-Tonnesen Duo-Art conversion to refine and enhance the interpretation. For the recording of An American In Paris, a second 7-foot Disklavier grand piano was used in tandem with the 9-foot instrument. Both pianos playing together made it possible to render an accurate and more expressive rendition of this mammoth arrangement.

– Artis Wodehouse     


Also Available

A selection of Gershwin’s rolls will be available on disk from Yamaha for playback on the Disklavier. Warner Publications will also be releasing a book of six of the rolls heard on this CD, transcribed and arranged for one or two pianos.


This recording only came to fruition with the generous assistance of many. They are: Yamaha Corporation of America for equipment and help in editing the rolls, Edmund Wodehouse, Nancy Hager and Brooklyn College, The National Endowment For The Humanities, Michael Montgomery, Janet Tonnesen, Randolph Herr, Joseph Patrych, Jeff Volkaerts of Yamaha for his editing assistance, Ezequiel Vinao for his assistance editing the Rhapsody In Blue and An American In Paris, Cathy MacBride of Yamaha, Eric Johnson of Yamaha Concert and Artists Services, Pro Piano, Judy Welsh, Jim Callahan, Burt Whelan, Richard Groman of Keystone Music Rolls Company, Ernest Ulmer, George Litterst, Jeffery Wood, Willard Burkhardt, Sal Mele, Steven Chapman, Michael Miccio and Richard Smith

Produced and Engineered by Max Wilcox

November 1992 and February and June 1993 at The American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City

Yamaha Disklavier DCFIIIS

Cover photograph courtesy of the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts

Design: John Williams Costa

George Gershwin’s performances contained in this recording is licensed by the Gershwin Family.

Original piano rolls courtesy of Keystone Music Roll Company

Tracks 1, 3, 4 © 1925 WB Music Corp for the United States. Chappell & Co., and New World Music Company (Ltd.) administered by WB Music Corp., for the British Reversionary Territories. New World Music Company (Ltd.) administered by WB Music Corp., for the rest of the world. All rights reserved.

Track 2 © 1993 George Gershwin Music. All rights administered by WB Music Corp. All rights reserved.

Tracks 5* and 12** © 1924* © 1929**  WB Music Corp for the United States. Chappell & Co. for the British Reversionary Territories. New World Music Company (Ltd.) administered by WB Music Corp., for the rest of the world. All rights reserved.

Track 6 © 1925 WB Music Corp. and Irving Caesar Music Corp., for the United States. Chappell & Co., and WB Music Corp., for the British Reversionary Territories. New World Music Company (Ltd.) and WB Music Corp., for the rest of the world. All rights reserved.

Track 7 © 1916 PolyGram International Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved. Track 8 © 1925 WB Music Corp., and Stephen Ballentine Music for the United States. Chappell & Co. and Warner Bros. Inc. for the British Reversionary Territories. New World Music Company (Ltd.) administered by WB Music Corp and Warner Bros. Inc. for the rest of the world. All rights reserved.

Tracks 9, 10, 11 © 1920 WB Music Corp for the United States. Chappell & Co. and WB Music Corp. for the British Reversionary Territories. New World Music Company (Ltd.) administered by WB Music Corp., and WB Music Corp. for the rest of the world. All rights reserved.

All selections ASCAP.

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