Yanceys – Atlantic

yancey.jpegAtlantic SD 7229 – Jimmy & Mama Yancey, “Chicago Piano, Vol. 1”  [Blues Originals, Vol. 6]

Boogie-woogie piano became a pigeonhole term used by many people as a result of a brief rush of commercial popularity during the forties. This has caused a facet of blues piano to become artificially separated from the main streams of blues tradition and ensconced in isolation. It is generally the result of the early white aficionado of jazz music grabbing ahold of only a piece of the whole and well nigh beating it to death!

That which is referred to as boogie-woogie piano is merely a prominent approach to a fast blues number on the bass keys. As “Little Brother” Montgomery [see Atlantic SD 7227] said, “We were playing all those kind of basses down there, way before it ever came out on records.”[1] The first apparent record of this type of fast blues was The Rocks done in 1921 by one Clay Custer for OKeh, while the term first appeared on Clarwence “Pinetop” Smith’s release for Vocalion during 1928, Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie. The term itself was taken by Smith from a then-popular shimmy dance, and it was then mis-applied to the piano accompaniment later on. Often connected with the city of Chicago, it is now known that the approach was found anywhere there were blues pianists to be found. “Boogie Woogie is an aspect of the blues. It can be generally defined as piano solo music based on twelve, or occasionally eight, bar patterns, the most immediate characteristic of which is the use of the repeated, or ostinato, bass figures.”[2]

The origins are totally obscured to us today, though piano of this nature was heard at the turn of the century – during the ragtime era – but which influenced what (if there was any connection at all) is a matter of conjecture. One theory has stressed the unschooled, self-taught nature of the pianists; “A neophyte (blues) pianist… will invariably have a tendency toward a repetitious bass pattern.”[3] The use of a few repeated bass notes is ascribed to an inability to coordinate well between familiar treble chords and the left hand needs, “and it offers a fairly convincing argument that the limitations brought on by rank amateurism are what gave us this new and powerful music…”[4] An addition to the theories states that ‘it appears to have derived from two kinds of music that were widely distributed…, the vocal blues and the guitar music that accompanied Negro dancing.”[5] The areas of origin are obscure as well; in the Southwest it was known as “fast Western”, while those on the Mississippi/Louisiana Delta area referred to it as “Dudlow Joe” playing. “Boogie is essentially the creation of men who were never taught how to play and who ignored the conventions because they did not know there were any.”[6]

A few names stand out as being talented and well-known – Jimmy Yancey, Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, and “Cripple” Clarence Lofton. The first and last named were among the most influential figures, while the others were greatly popularized. Other lesser lights abounded – Henry Brown, Wesley Wallace, Jabbo Williams, “Cow Cow” Davenport, Hersal Thomas, Charlie Spand, Blind Leroy Garnett – but only a few had more than a recording session or two, or any great exposure. It was after the 1938 “Spirituals to Swing” concert that John Hammond put on at Carnegie Hall that boogie woogie was first noticed by whites. Lewis, Ammons, and Pete Johnson (from Kansas City) who performed there and were feted along with their music in clubs and concerts, but Tin Pan Alley soon reared its ugly head. There were a host of copies – from Freddie Slack to “Sugar Chile” Robinson – of the music so that boogie woogie was the latest fad into the mid-forties. The commercial exploitation of this aspect of blues piano created a type of artistic sterility on the part of those caught in the wave and most of the records at this period were emasculated. It was the artists not swept along – Yancey, Lofton, et al – that maintained these approaches in a vital form.

Much has been changed since then – the idea of a house-rent party is one only of historical interest and musical tastes have altered greatly. Boogie woogie has had its effects in jazz and popular music, and some of the two-handed blues pianists still exist, but all in all, little remains. There are still the phonograph records, and one of the best, unpopularized pianists was the late Jimmy Yancey whose best work is on this album.


Jimmy Yancey was one of the most proficient and imaginative of the blues/boogie pianists whose repertoire was especially rich in the variety of bass figures utilized. Born in Chicago in 1898 [actually 20 Feb, 1894/5, or 1901!], Jimmy Yancey grew up with the exciting new sounds which reached that city just before and during The First World War, yet he began on the stage in vaudeville as a singer and dancer at the age of six! He first appeared at Chicago’s Pekin Theatre, then the top black showcase for talent – he left four years later to join The Bert Earl Company, touring from coast to coast (but not further South than Louisville). Just before The First World War he joined the Orpheum circuit in Europe for two years, even appearing before King George V at an appearance at Buckingham Palace. In June 1913 he left the entertainment business as a whole, to settle down in Chicago again.

His brother Alonzo taught him to play the piano and when Jimmy retired from vaudeville, he began to play evenings in the Chicago gin-mills while playing baseball for the Chicago All-Americans during the day! He grew up in the climate of the Chicago house “rent-party” tradition, popular even before Prohibition and was in great demand. Sometimes he worked permanently in clubs such as the Moonlight Café and the Beartrap Inn, but these engagements never lasted long enough and the rather reticent Yancey decided to settle in a more secure and stable occupation, working from 1925 as a groundskeeper for the Chicago White Sox at Comisky Park. Recording passed him by in the late 1920s and 1930s, while many friends such as “Cripple” Clarence Lofton, Cow Cow Davenport, Charlie Spand, and “Pinetop” Smith were recording and bringing the sound of the boogie woogie piano to a larger audience. Yet Yancey, from whom these men drew inspiration, remained in the shadows. Meade Lux Lewis recorded Yancey Special in 1936 for John Hammond at Decca in tribute to his tutor and in 1938 Bob Crosby made a further cover of the number, carrying it to a wider public, and people began to ask who Yancey was. William Russell, collecting material for his book Jazzmen, visited Yancey in 1938, but typical of the latter’s casual relationship with his music, he did not have a piano and had to visit his sister once a week to practice!

It was odd that he never recorded [back in the day], but the music was essentially for himself – never more than an avocation. It took until 1939 to get Jimmy into a studio and it was Dan Qualey, a New York bartender, who persuaded Yancey to record for Qualey’s own Solo Art label. This was followed within 15 months by sessions for Victor and one of Columbia’s subsidiary, Vocalion. Wartime and the Petrillo ban on recording enabled Yancey to drop out of sight again, apart from a small private recording session by John D. Reid, in 1940, until 1943, when a Chicago record shop operator, Phil Featheringill, persuaded Yancey to record for the Session label that he ran. He recorded six titles for John Steiner and [latter-day] Paramount in 1950 and was extensively recorded by Atlantic with his wife Estelle “Mama” Yancey in what was to be his last recording session.

Eight weeks after the Atlantic recording session, “Papa” Jimmy Yancey was dead from diabetes. His passing was greatly mourned by all those that knew him and many jazz men offered to play at his funeral; those invited to do so included trumpeter Lee Collins and veteran trombonist Miff Mole. Yancey was to be driven to the funeral with the jazz quartet in accompaniment. On the way, and at the grave, they played such New Orleans funeral standards as High Society, lowering him into his grave with this number, but they finished up with Nearer My God to Thee, in hymn tempo. That was what Mama wanted.


Estella “Mama” Yancey was born 1 January, 1896 in Cairo, Illinois and still lives in Chicago today. She married Jimmy in 1917, the relationship lasting until his death – during that time she handled his business affairs. Her singing was something that grew out of the house-rent parties – she was not a professional singer at all, but loved to sing to her husband’s piano. She has done little singing since then – a poor session in 1952 for Windin’ Ball (with Don Ewell), and two after that. One was some numbers in 1961 with a “Little Brother” Montgomery band for Riverside, while a final album was done in 1965 for Verve with Art Hodes on piano.[[7]]

She seems to have slipped back into the Chicago ghette since 1951 – but for the two sessions – and had reappeared seldom since then. A Ward Captain for the Democrats since the mid-forties, it seems that this has been her main activity of late. As a performer, she was at her best with her husband – and her best is on her part of this album.


The danger of an appreciation many years after Jimmy Yancey’s death lies in the fact that one tends to evaluate him solely from the few recordings he made, forgetting that his recorded career came well after he had given up entertaining as a likelihood. The danger remains further in that without realizing, one might think of Yancey as one of many, who in the years immediately preceding and during The Second World War leapt or found themselves upon the boogie woogie bandwagon. While Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson were household names, multitudes of lesser [known] men made boogie-woogie records and most recording companies, major and minor, issued boogie 78s in the immediate post-war period, Yancey’s shy, rather self-effacing manner meant that he was passed by, with two minor exceptions. Not until July of 1951 did a major company show any interest since the Victor/Bluebird sessions of 1940, when Atlantic recorded some of the most poignant blues of all time. The session is issued here in toto, fourteen numbers, as Yancey’s final musical testimony – please note that this has been done for the sake of completeness; the version of Blues For Albert was taken from an old 10” album since the master could not be located. In spite of the difference in sound, it was felt that his musical memorial to Albert Ammons should be included.

Although made only a few weeks before his death, these recordings are in themselves ageless – a tribute to his sensitivity and blues ability. There is no loss of grip, no sign of senility; only a moving sense of premonition which the listener inexplicably feels on How Long Blues and Monkey Woman Blues. Yancey’s gentle, at times almost introspective piano, links with Mama’s poignant vocals,

“Don’t you little girls wish you had a man like mine?                                                                        I kiss and love him, I tell it to him all the time.”

as if she feared she was soon to lose him. What we have on this album, then, is a collection of exceptional examples of blues piano and some very moving vocals as well. In some ways, this is the penultimate session for both the Yanceys… and for us as well.



author: CRYIN’ FOR THE CAROLINES                                                                                           album research and compilation: Pete Lowry (Peter B. Lowry)                                                  “Blues Originals” series concept – Peter B. Lowry

Chicago Piano Insert

NOTE: Yancey’s effect on contemporary rhythm and blues is incalculable. His bass lines, six- and eight-beat boogies, in shuffle as well as rhumba time, have been used on countless records (Ruth Brown, Daddy Daddy; Guitar Slim, The Things I Used to Do; Pee Wee Crayton, After Hours) and have become incorporated into R&B patterns to the point where they are taken for granted. Ahmet Ertegun gave some Yancey sides to Ray Charles in 1953; one result was Ray’s instrumental Rock House, recorded in 1956.      

JERRY WEXLER                                                                                                                                    Vice President – Atlantic Records


Jimmy Yancey – pno                                                                                                                       Israel Crosby – bs                                                                                                                        Estelle “Mama” Yancey – vo where present

Chicago, IL – 18 July, 1951.                                                                                                          Original production by: Ahmet Ertegun

[1] DEEP SOUTH PIANO, Karl Gert zur Heide, Studio Vista, 1970 (UK)

[2] “Boogie Woogie”, Max Harrison, JAZZ, ed. Hentoff/McCarthy, 1959.

[3] “Eight to the Bar”, John Bentley, JAZZ REPORT, Feb. 1962.

[4] As above.

[5] see #2 above.

[6] see #2 above.

[[7] Since this was written, there have been two more albums: 1983 w. Erwin Helfer (Red Beans Records); 1982/3 with Axel Zwingenberger (Vagabond Records).]

Chicago Piano back

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