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The Piano Rolls, Vol 2

Nonesuch 79370-2

Realized by Artis Wodehouse

The Selections

1. Havanola (Have Another)
(Hugo Frey)
Fox-Trot, played by George Gershwin, May 1917, Metro-Art 203098

The title probably refers to the popular turn-of-the-century Havana cigar. Adding the suffix –ola to any word was a common popular slanging/naming device of the era (as in piano/pianola), done for humorous, whimsical purpose. The off-hand, slangy titles that came into vogue in popular music during the early 20th century were deliberate attempts to undermine the moralistic, edifying tone of parlor music of the Victorian era.

2. Singin’ The Blues (Till My Daddy Comes Home) (4:32)
(Con Conrad and J. Russel Robinson / Lyrics: Sam Lewis and Joe Young)
Fox-Trot, played by George Gershwin, December 920, Mel-O-Dee 4133

A hit of 1920, the tune was written by Con Conrad (a.k.a. Conrad Dober of the Lower East Side) and James Russel Robinson, who worked with musician/composers Noble Sissle and W.C. Handy.

3. From Now On (3:08)
(George Gershwin/Lyrics: Arthur Jackson and B.G. DeSylva)
Fox-Trot, played by George Gershwin, October 1919, Universal Song Roll 3545

A fine song from Gershwin’s first successful musical, La, La, Lucille of 1919. The final choruses of Gershwin’s roll performance show how he was then using ornamental riffs taken from early jazz. At the time he made this roll, Gershwin met James P. Johnson, the great stride pianist, who was also making rolls for Mel-O-Dee at the time.

4. Jazz-O-Mine
(Harry Akst)
Fox-Trot, played by George Gershwin, October 1917, Metro-Art 203262 

Again, the title is a play on words. By 1917, jazz had come to the attention of the white middle class as an exciting, slightly risqué new music (about which little was actually known). In the meantime, innumerable salon pieces of the 19th century had flower titles (for instance, MacDowell’s To A Wild Rose). The title Jaz-o-mine came from combing “jazz” with “jasmine”. Akst’s piece is a quite humorous fox-trot, which Gershwin inventively embellishes well beyond the published sheet music.

5. Just Snap Your Fingers At Care
(Louis Silvers)
(from Greenwich Village Follies, 1920) Fox-Trot, played by George Gershwin, January 1921, Mel-O-Dee 4151

Gershwin’s sophisticated harmonization of Silver’s tune (significantly different from the simpler published sheet music) and the sharply contrasting Chinese/impressionist riffs and breaks in Gershwin’s roll rendition introduce an added dimension of tension and emotional ambivalence. Playing a seemingly simple melody off against a complex harmonic background was to become a hallmark of Gershwin’s mature style (as for instance, in his great The Man I Love).

6. Whip-Poor-Will (3:13)
(Jerome Kern / Lyrics: B.G. DeSylva)
(from Sally, 1920)
Fox-Trot, played by George Gershwin, March 1921, Duo-Art 1719.

Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin were the two towering giants of popular song directly proceeding Gershwin. The young composer made it is business to become acquainted with both, applying to Berlin to become his musical secretary (Berlin turned him down on the basis that Gershwin was too promising a songwriter in his own right to waste his time as a transcriber), and working as rehearsal pianist for several of Kern’s pre-1920 Broadway shows.

7. Rialto Ripples
(George Gershwin and Will Donaldson)
Fox-Trot, played by George Gershwin, September 1916, Universal Uni-Record 202935

It is little recognized how much Gershwin was influenced by the ragtime era, Rialto Ripples, written in collaboration with Will Donaldson, is Gershwin’s first published instrumental. Although written when he was only 19, this composition is a polished example of the ragtime genre.

8. Waitin’ For Me
(Maceo Pinkard / Lyrics: Bud Green and Jack McCoy)
Fox-Trot, played by George Gershwin, December 1920, Mel-O-Dee 413

Gershwin’s contacts with black performers, composers and arrangers were many and varied during his apprentice years. Maceo Pinkard, the excellent songwriter (Sweet Georgia Brown is also his), was one, Gershwin’s rendition of Pinkard’s Waitin’ For Me is one of his most appealing roll arrangements (note the witty interpolation of Stephen Foster’s Old Black Joe).

9.  Buzzin’ The Bee (2:12)
(Pete Wendling and Jack Wells)
Fox-Trot, played by George Gershwin, May 1917, Universal 203185.

Around 1910, a dance craze began to percolate throughout American culture. Continuing well into the 20’s, a host of new dances of black and Hispanic derivation linked to ragtime, jazz and the blues caught fire with the white middle classes. One such group of dances was the many popular animal dances (including the bunny-bug, the turkey-trot and the fox-trot), predating World War I. Buzzin’ The Bee, one of his genre, evidently originated in black culture. The dance contained movements imitating a bee in flight.

10. Darling (2:31)
(Chris Schonberg / Lyrics: Arthur Jackson)
Fox-Trot, played by George Gershwin and Cliff Hess, December 1920, Mel-O-Dee 4109

This was played by Gershwin as a duet with another well-known songwriter, Cliff Hess. Pop piano roll arrangements frequently stressed more note-filled textures than a single live pianist could play (additional notes could always be perforated into the rolls after the artist had recorded his number). Perhaps it was thought that piano rolls could substitute for a dance band. More likely, the arrangers realized that fascinatingly active textures (credited to piano duettists) could compensate for the mechanical sound of the player piano.

11. For Your Country and My Country
(Irving Berlin)
Jazz One-Step, played by George Gershwin and Rudy Erlebach, August 1917, Duo-At 1543

Irving Berlin’s popular patriotic anthem from World War I (dubbed the “Official Recruiting Song”) was frequently performed and recorded by both popular and classical singers of the era. The duet, “wall-of-sound” arranging style is quite suitable for this rousing match tune.

12. Kangaroo Hop
(Melville Morris)
Fox-Trot, played by George Gershwin, January 1916, Perfection 86595

Another excellent early Gershwin roll rendition of an animal dance, and one of the first two rolls he made.

13. Pastime Rag No. 3 (2:15)
(Artie Matthews)
A Slow Drag, played by Fred Murtha, June 1916, Perfection 86738

Artie Matthews’ strikingly original late ragtime, Pastime Rag No. 3 (brought out by Joplin’s publisher, Stark), was not exactly standard pop fare, even in 1916 when Gershwin recorded this roll. How or why the still teen-aged song-plugger came to learn and to record this composition, by a Black, little-know composer on Tin Pan Alley has not been established. In his early years of roll recording, Gershwin took various pseudonyms, and Pastime is credited to one of them, Fred Murtha. Pseudonyms were common in the roll industry; they disguised the fact that so many rolls were cut by the same artist. The roll companies believed that offering a variety of roll artists would be more attractive to prospective buyers.

14. Chinese Blue (2:08)
(Oscar Gardner / Lyrics: Fred Moore)
Fox-Trot, played by Bert Wynn, May 1916, Perfection 87617.

One of several “oriental” numbers that Gershwin recorded on piano roll, Chinese Blues is a typical example of Broadways notion of the “mysterious East”. Thi kind of “exotic” locale became a fad in settings of musicals an revues during the teen’s and early 20’s. For this roll, Gershwin is listed under another of his pseudonyms, Bert Wynn.

15. Whispering
(John Schonberger / Lyrics: Malvin Schonberger)
Fox-Trot, played by George Gershwin, September 1919, Mel-O-Dee 4007

Another hit of 1920, Whispering, was Paul Whiteman’s best-selling Victor recording (Whiteman was to commission Gershwin in 1924 to write Rhapsody in Blue for his orchestra). Gershwin’s use of complex, Spanish rhythms in this massive roll arrangement is a striking precursor of similar style Spanish-style rhythms heard in his Rhapsody.

16. Arrah Go On I’m Gonna Go Back To Oregon (1:51)
(Bert Grant / Lyrics: Sam Lewis and Joe Young)
One-Step Arrangement, played by George Gershwin, May 1916, Perfection 86736.

Tensions between the choice of rural versus urban living were rife in the first quarter of the century. They are humorously aired in the lyrics of this popular Irish rube version of the return-to-the-farm song.

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.

– Artis Wodehouse    
Produced and engineered by Max Wilcox November, 1992 and February, 1993 at The American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City

Yamaha Disclavier DCFIIIS
Art direction and design: John William Costa
Photography courtesy of The Bettmann Archive
George Gershwin’s performance contained in this recording is licensed by the Gershwin family.


Gershwin and the player piano 1900-1925

Before radio, before movies could talk, before the great improvement in phonograph sound in the mid-20’s, the piano was the center of most homes and places of gathering. An entertainment source and a status symbol (pianos were always costly), the instrument in the Victorian era also served a social function; playing the piano was a grace no self-respecting woman of the middle class could be without. Most piano music of the 19th century catered to the piano’s then-genteel role; sentimental ballads and waltzes ruled the day.

The decorative, gentrified and female-oriented function of home playing and piano music began to shift dramatically, particularly when the sheet music business, nick-named Tin Pan Alley, centered itself in New York City around 1900. This wildly successful boom-or-bust industry came into its own during the years 1900 to 1925 for the simple reason that the great songwriters of the era held up a mirror to the massive social changes occurring in the United States at that time. Listening to and plying popular music provided a non-threatening way for ordinary citizens to assimilate the seismic transformations then taking place. The music sang in the dialects and styles of new immigrants and introduced the socially less-than-acceptable but avidly purchased ragtime, jazz and the blues. Further, under the guise of “entertainment”, lyrics to popular songs often provided subtle ammunition in the war to end Victorian prudery.

By lucky coincidence, player pianos developed around 1900 to the point of mass marketing. A close economic partnership sprung-up between sheet music publishers and the player piano business, particularly since piano roll arrangements of published tunes didn’t require the skills of a trained pianist. As a result – and given the documented millions of sales of sheet music hits, supported by sales of millions of both straight and player pianos and piano rolls – the air in the United States was undoubtedly saturated during the first quarter of the century with the sound of the piano.

It was thus that Gershwin overcame his initial reluctance to take up so “feminine” an instrument as the piano – despite his deep and early attraction to it – when he saw the prestige and earning potential that success could bring in the booming pop music industry. Like so many musically gifted children of immigrant Jewish parents, Gershwin quickly grasped that the popular music business, centered in song-writing and piano-playing, would be one avenue of gainful employment from which he would not be barred. We are astonished to know that Gershwin quit high school at the age of 15 to work (at least initially) as a song-plugger for the publisher Remick. Less widely known is that his starting salary as a “lowly” song-plugger equaled the national average for all workers (not bad for a teenager!), and that song-plugging was but the first rung on an ascending ladder of increasing opportunity in a very healthy and growing industry. An omnivorous learner, a quick study, a dexterous, accommodating and enormously energetic young man, Gershwin’s first job as a song-plugger was to play through (as seductively as possible) the company’s tunes for vaudevillians who visited him in his little cubicle at Remick. The idea was to interest performers in placing Remick tunes in their acts. Gershwin’s song-plugging skills – and the ability to learn quickly, embellish, transpose and otherwise trick up tunes – naturally lead to roll-making, which he began when he was only 17.

Over the course of ten years, roughly from 1915 to 1925, Gershwin made approximately 130 piano rolls. Actually, roll-making was only a sideline; during this apprenticeship decade the young composer also graduated from Remick song-plugger to staff composer for Harms. Gershwin accompanied leading vaudeville singers, served as a rehearsal pianist for important Broadway shows, wrote full scores for the George White Scandals annual review (beginning in 1920), interpolated many of his songs into musicals and revues of others, scored his first successful musical, La, La, Lucille and wrote a million-seller tune, Swanee, in 1919 at age 20. Finally, the overwhelming success of Rhapsody in Blue and his musical Lady Be Good! in 1924 pushed Gershwin into the highest echelon of American musicians. From that time on he made no more piano rolls.
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