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Basie, Count (21 August 1904–26 April 1984), jazz pianist, composer, and bandleader, was born William Basie in Red Bank, New Jersey, the son of African-American parents Harvey Lee Basie, an estate groundskeeper, and Lillian Ann Chiles, a laundress. Basie was first exposed to music through his mother’s piano playing. He took piano lessons, played the drums, and acted in school skits. An indifferent student, he left school after junior high and began performing. He organized bands with friends and played various jobs in Red Bank, among them working as a movie theater pianist. In his late teens he pursued work in nearby Asbury Park, but he met with little success. Then, in the early 1920s, he moved to Harlem, where he learned from the leading pianists of the New York “stride” style, ...

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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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Brubeck, Dave (06 December 1920–05 December 2012), jazz pianist, bandleader, and composer, was born David Warren Brubeck in Concord, California, the youngest son of Howard Peter Brubeck, a rancher, and Elizabeth Ivey, a pianist and music teacher. In the mid-1890s his grandfather bought a ranch at the northern foot of Mount Diablo in Clayton, California. His parents' home was in the adjacent town, Concord, where young Dave attended elementary school. His brilliance would eventually be obvious, but as a child he was placed in a slow learning group because he had difficulty with spelling and reading. Dave was born cross-eyed and later in life speculated that he may also have had an unidentified learning disability....

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Carreño, Teresa (22 December 1853–12 June 1917), pianist, was born in Caracas, Venezuela, the daughter of Manuel Antonio Carreño, a Venezuelan minister of finance, and Corinda García de Sena y Toro. Although the young Carreño exhibited musical talent as a toddler, she did not begin studying the piano with her father, a talented amateur, until she was six. Manuel Antonio devised clever technical and musical exercises for his precocious daughter, which included improvisation, harmony, and variation techniques. His educational methods created a foundation of meticulous work habits from which Carreño would never stray....

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Charles, Ray (23 September 1930–10 June 2004), pop and jazz singer, pianist, and composer, was born Ray Charles Robinson in Albany, Georgia, the son of Bailey Robinson, a laborer, and Aretha Williams. Williams, a teenage orphan, lived in Greenville, Florida, with Robinson's mother and his wife, Mary Jane Robinson. The Robinson family had informally adopted her, and she became known as Aretha Robinson. Scandalously Aretha became pregnant by Bailey Robinson, and she briefly left Greenville late in the summer of 1930 to be with relatives in Albany for the baby's birth. Mother and child then returned to Greenville, and Aretha and Mary Jane shared Ray Charles's upbringing. He was deeply devoted to his mother and later recalled her perseverance, self-sufficiency, and pride as guiding lights in his life. His father abandoned the family and took another wife elsewhere....

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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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Cowell, Henry (11 March 1897–10 December 1965), composer, pianist, writer, and educator, was born Henry Dixon Cowell in Menlo Park, California, the son of Harry Cowell and Clarissa Dixon Cowell. Both parents were aspiring poets and writers; Harry, an Irish immigrant, worked as a linotypist. At the age of five Cowell began studying violin and showed signs of talent, but the lessons seemed to affect his health adversely and were discontinued. His parents divorced in 1903. Between 1907 and 1910 he and his mother lived in New York, penniless while she tried to earn a living by her writing, and stayed with relatives in Iowa and Kansas. In 1910 they returned to Menlo Park, where Cowell took jobs such as herding cows to support himself and his mother. Around this time Cowell came to the attention of the psychologist ...

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Ellington, Duke (29 April 1899–24 May 1974), jazz musician and composer, was born Edward Kennedy Ellington in Washington, D.C., the son of James Edward Ellington, a butler, waiter, and later printmaker, and Daisy Kennedy. The Ellingtons were middle-class people who struggled at times to make ends meet. Ellington grew up surrounded by a large, concerned family. His mother was particularly attached to him; in her eyes he could do no wrong. They belonged to Washington’s black elite, who put much stock in racial pride. Ellington developed a strong sense of his own worth and a belief in his destiny, which at times shaded over into egocentricity. Because of this attitude, and his almost royal bearing, his schoolmates early named him “Duke.”...

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Garner, Erroll (15 June 1921–02 January 1977), jazz pianist and composer, was born Earl (as “Erroll” was pronounced) Garner in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the son of Louis Ernest Garner, an electrical worker, cook, musician, and dance- and pool-hall entrepreneur, and Estella Darcus, a dressmaker. At around age two Garner began reproducing on the piano the tunes he heard on the family piano rolls and phonograph. He never learned to read music and could imitate nonmusical sounds on the piano. Fellow musician Eddie Calhoun insisted that Garner could hear sounds “up into an animal range.” At age ten Garner became a soloist with the Kan D Kids, an African-American children’s troupe performing on radio station KQV. He played for church socials and in neighborhood houses on Friday nights (admission was ten cents). He played tuba for his high school band and tried all the other instruments. Garner later said that he loved big bands so much that he wanted to make his piano sound like an orchestra. By the time he withdrew from Westinghouse High School in 1939, Garner was locally famous. Playing “for no money, hour after hour” at clubs such as the Crawford Grill, run by the owner of the Pittsburgh Crawfords, a leading baseball team in the black leagues, Garner made two local recordings at age sixteen; he joined LeRoy Brown’s small band and visited New York. By 1939 he had briefly led a sextet and was working for Brown’s big band....

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Gershwin, George (26 September 1898–11 July 1937), pianist and composer of popular and classical music, was born Jacob Gershvin in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Morris Gershovitz and Rose Bruskin, Russian Jewish immigrants. Gershwin’s father, who changed the family name to Gershvin and later Gershwin, worked in the leather industry and at various times owned or operated a restaurant, bakery, cigar store, bookmaking establishment, and Russian bath. During Gershwin’s boyhood, his family moved more than twenty-five times within the poor neighborhoods of lower Manhattan and Brooklyn....

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Godowsky, Leopold (13 February 1870–21 November 1938), pianist, teacher, and composer, was born in Soshly, a small town not far from Wilno (now Vilnius) in Lithuania, the son of Mathew Godowsky, a physician, and Anna Lewin, both Polish Jews. When his father died of cholera eighteen months after Godowsky was born, the boy and his mother moved to nearby Schirwinty. There Godowsky came under the influence of Louis and Minna Passinock, who were friends of his mother’s. Neither of Godowsky’s parents was musical; the childless Passinocks, however, were amateur musicians and enthusiastic music lovers, and they immediately recognized Godowsky’s nascent musical ability. Louis Passinock, a violinist who ran a secondhand piano shop, began teaching Godowsky to play the violin when he was seven years old. Passinock discouraged him from learning to play the piano, on the theory that there were too many pianists, but his wife recognized Godowsky’s affinity for the instrument and encouraged his keyboard explorations. Godowsky basically taught himself to play the piano; by the age of five he was so advanced that he could play the transcription of Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor. He later vividly described his early attraction to the piano. “With me,” he wrote in ...

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Goldkette, Jean (18 May 1893–24 March 1962), dance bandleader, businessman, and classical pianist, was born in Patras, Greece, the son of Angelina Goldkette, an actress. It is not known who Jean's father was. The Goldkette family was a troupe of entertainers that traveled throughout Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Angelina met and married John Poliakoff, a journalist, in Moscow in 1903. Raised in Greece and Russia, Jean studied classical piano from an early age, and he attended the Moscow Conservatory of Music. He moved to Chicago in 1910, when he was 17, to live with George Goldkette, an uncle. His mother and stepfather moved to the United States in 1919....

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Hines, Earl “Fatha” (28 December 1905–22 April 1983), jazz pianist and bandleader, was born Earl Kenneth Hines in Duquesne (later absorbed into Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania, the son of Joseph Hines, a foreman on the coal docks. His mother, whose name is unknown, died when he was an infant. From the age of three he was raised by his stepmother, Mary (maiden name unknown), an organist. His father played cornet and led the local Eureka Brass Band, an uncle was an accomplished brass player, and an aunt sang light opera. Thus immersed in musical influences, Hines commenced classical piano studies in 1914. He possessed an immense natural talent. While making rapid progress through the classics he also began playing organ in the Baptist church and covertly entertaining at parties, this last activity a consequence of his ability to learn popular songs by ear. His life, like his music, moved fluidly between middle-class proprieties and wild pleasures....

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Hodes, Art (14 November 1904?–04 March 1993), jazz pianist and writer, was born in Nikolaev, Russia, the son of William Hodes, a tinsmith, and Dorothy (maiden name unknown). “I’m not completely correct on when I was born. It was … somewhere between 1904 and 1906. We left hurriedly, and we had no papers,” he told writer Whitney Balliett. He moved with his family to New York City at the age of six months and then to Chicago at age six. Hodes took piano lessons at Hull-House from 1916 to 1920. He attended Crane High School, a vocational school, but dropped out to take on a variety of day jobs, none lasting very long. He then enrolled at Medill High School and graduated....

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Iturbi, José (28 November 1895–28 June 1980), pianist and conductor, was born in Valencia, Spain, the son of Ricardo Iturbi, a gas company employee who supplemented his income tuning pianos, and Teresa Baguena, an opera singer. His musical talent became apparent at an early age. Iturbi entered the Escuela de Musica de Maria Jordan when he was five and by age seven was earning money by giving lessons himself and performing in silent movie theaters, at balls, and at recitals. He entered the Conservatorio de Musica in Valencia and also studied privately under Joaquin Malats. Citizens of his hometown raised donations to send the young Iturbi to the Conservatoire de Musique in Paris to complete his studies, where he worked under the tutelage of Staub. After graduating with first honors, Iturbi moved to Zurich and earned money playing in a fashionable café. There he attracted the notice of the director of the Geneva Conservatory, who immediately hired Iturbi to be head of the conservatory’s piano department. In June 1916 Iturbi was married to Maria Giner, who died soon after the birth of their daughter, Maria....

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Johnson, James P. (01 February 1894–17 November 1955), jazz and popular pianist, composer, and songwriter, was born James Price Johnson in New Brunswick, New Jersey, the son of William H. Johnson, a store helper and mechanic, and Josephine Harrison, a maid. Johnson’s mother sang in the Methodist church choir and was a self-taught pianist. He later cited popular songs and African-American ring-shout dances at home and local brass bands in the streets as early influences. When his mother’s piano was sold to help pay for their move to Jersey City in 1902, Johnson turned to singing, dancing, and playing the guitar but played piano whenever possible. In 1908 the family moved to Manhattan, at which point he enrolled at P.S. 69, and in 1911 the family moved uptown....

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Johnson, Pete (24 March 1904–23 March 1967), blues and jazz pianist, was born in Kansas City, Missouri. His day of birth is given as 25 March in an interview with Johnny Simmen, but the date is corrected to 24 March in the reprint of Simmen’s article in Hans Mauerer’s book and repeated as 24 March in Mauerer’s reprint of a 1962 article by Johnson’s wife; the ...

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Kersey, Kenny (03 April 1916–01 April 1983), jazz pianist, was born Kenneth Lyons Kersey in Harrow, Ontario, Canada. His parents’ names are unknown, but Kersey’s father was a cellist and Kersey studied with his mother, who taught piano. During further studies at the Detroit Institute of Musical Art, he took up the trumpet....

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Landowska, Wanda (05 July 1879–16 August 1959), musician, was born Aleksandra Landowska in Warsaw, Poland, the daughter of Marjan Landowski, a lawyer, and Ewa Lautenberg, a linguist. The Landowskis were formerly Jews who had converted to Roman Catholicism.

Wanda Landowska was a precocious musician who began studying the piano when she was barely out of infancy. She gave her first public recital at the age of four, and from an early age she was especially captivated by the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. She studied privately in childhood and entered the Warsaw Conservatory at the age of fourteen. Her instructors there included Aleksander Michalowski, the noted Chopin interpreter. Following her graduation in 1896, Landowska made her concert debut in Warsaw. She then moved to Berlin, where she studied with Heinrich Urban, the teacher of Padarewski and other renowned performers. Landowska’s continued devotion to the music of Bach—which was then infrequently played—earned her the nickname “Bacchante.”...

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Leginska, Ethel (13 April 1886–26 February 1970), concert pianist, conductor, and composer, was born Ethel Liggins in Hull, Yorkshire, England, the daughter of Thomas Liggins and Annie Peck. A child prodigy, Leginska gave her first public piano recital at the age of seven. In 1900 she won a scholarship to study the piano at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt under James Kwast and theory under Bernhard Sekles and Ivan Knorr. In 1904 she began a three-year period of study with Theodor Leschetizky in Vienna and in Berlin. In 1907, the year of her London debut, she married Roy Emerson Whittern, an American who was studying composition; he later changed his name to Emerson Whithorne....