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Armstrong, Harry (22 July 1879–28 February 1951), vaudeville performer, pianist, and popular composer, was born Henry Worthington Armstrong in Somerville, Massachusetts, the son of Henry Armstrong, a piano salesman, and Elizabeth Stuart. Armstrong competed as a professional boxer before joining a street corner vocal quartet in Boston in 1896. He moved to New York in 1898 and played piano in a restaurant in Coney Island and later at the Sans Souci Music Hall in Manhattan. He composed and performed his own songs, many of which were published by the firm of M. Witmark, where Armstrong worked as a rehearsal pianist....

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Victor Borge. Charcoal, conte... on paper, c.1954-1959, by René Robert Bouché. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

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Borge, Victor (03 January 1909–23 December 2000), entertainer, was born Borge (pronounced BOR-guh) Rosenbaum in Copenhagen, Denmark, to Bernhard Rosenbaum, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, and Frederikke Lichtinger. His father was a violinist long associated with the Royal Danish Symphony, which also performed with the local opera company; his mother was a classical pianist. Borge grew up in a secular household surrounded by music. He was especially drawn to opera, and early on he aspired to become an opera conductor. He began piano lessons with his mother at the age of three and was quickly proclaimed a prodigy. After making his concert debut in Copenhagen five years later, he continued his studies on a scholarship at the Copenhagen Music Conservatory....

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Nat King Cole © William P. Gottlieb; used by permission. William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress (LC-GLB23-0151 DLC).

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Cole, Nat King (17 March 1919–15 February 1965), pianist and singer, was born Nathaniel Adams Coles in Montgomery, Alabama, the son of the Reverend Edward James Coles, Sr., and Perlina Adams, a musician. Cole’s family moved to Chicago when he was four. He first studied piano with his mother, then with bassist Milt Hinton’s mother, and at the age of twelve, classical piano with a Professor Thomas. The family home was located near the Grand Terrace Ballroom, where Cole often heard his first and most important influence, pianist ...

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Levant, Oscar (27 December 1906–14 August 1972), pianist, actor, and composer, was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the son of Max Levant, a jeweler, and Annie Radin, both Russian Jewish immigrants. Levant left high school after the early death of his father in 1921. A brilliant but rebellious student, he was a child prodigy on the piano. At the age of fifteen he was sent to New York City to study with Sigismond Stojowski. He played in dance bands and roadhouses to pay for his lessons. Levant’s father had opposed a concert career, but his strong-willed mother encouraged her youngest of four sons. Later in life, when asked what he had wanted to be when he grew up, quick-witted Levant answered, “An orphan.”...

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Liberace (16 May 1919–04 February 1987), entertainer, was born Wladziu Valentino Liberace in West Allis, Wisconsin, the son of Salvatore (Sam) Liberace, an often unemployed french horn player, and Frances Zuchowski, a coproprietor of a mom-and-pop grocery store. Liberace, called Walter at home, was a sole-surviving twin and the third of four children. By the age of four he could play by ear and at seven performed Paderewski’s Minuet in G for the composer, who advised the family to take the boy’s talent seriously. A scholarship to the Wisconsin College of Music in Milwaukee was awarded him in 1926....

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McPartland, Marian (20 March 1918–20 August 2013), jazz pianist and broadcaster, was born Margaret Marian Turner in Windsor, England, the older of two daughters of Frank Turner, a civil engineer, and Janet Payne. In the first decades of her career McPartland gave her birth date as 1920. Later she became proud of her age and gave out the true year. She persistently gave her birthplace as Slough, England, but her Eton registration district birth certificate gives Windsor, adjacent to Slough (her first home). Although she would live much of her life in America, McPartland never relinquished English citizenship....

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Reinagle, Alexander (1756?–21 September 1809), composer, theater manager, and pianist, was born in Portsmouth, England, the son of Joseph Reinagle, an Austrian trumpeter listed as a musician in the British royal house. His mother’s name is unknown. Reinagle grew up in a musical environment; two of his brothers were professional cellists, and his sister married the cellist Johann Georg Schetky. It is believed that Alexander studied with organist and composer ...