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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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Armstrong, Lil (03 February 1898–27 August 1971), jazz pianist, composer, and singer, was born Lillian Hardin in Memphis, Tennessee. Nothing is known of her father, but her mother, Dempsey Hardin, was a strict, churchgoing woman who disapproved of blues music. At age six, Lil began playing organ at home, and at eight she started studying piano. In 1914 she enrolled in the music school of Fisk University in Nashville, taking academic courses and studying piano and music theory. After earning her diploma, around 1917 she joined her mother in Chicago, where she found work demonstrating songs in Jones’ Music Store. Prompted by her employer, in 1918 Hardin auditioned for clarinetist Lawrence Duhé’s band at Bill Bottoms’s Dreamland Ballroom, where she played with cornetist “Sugar Johnny” Smith, trombonist Roy Palmer, and other New Orleans musicians. When Smith became too ill to continue working, he was replaced by first ...

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Bacon, Ernst (26 May 1898–16 March 1990), composer and pianist, was born in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Charles S. Bacon, a physician, and Maria von Rosthorn. He was also active as a conductor, teacher, and writer. His music education included the study of music theory with P. C. Lutkin at Northwestern University (1915–1918) and with the composers ...

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Baermann, Carl (09 July 1839–17 January 1913), pianist and composer, was born in Munich, Germany, the son of Karl Bärmann (1811–1885), a noted clarinetist. His mother’s name is unknown. His grandfather, Heinrich Joseph Bärmann, also was a celebrated clarinetist, whose masterly playing inspired both Mendelssohn and Weber to compose works for him; his granduncle Karl Bärmann (1782–1842) was a famous bassoonist. Carl Baermann studied in Munich with Franz Lachner and Peter Cornelius, made his professional debut at age fifteen, playing Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto in G Minor, op. 25, and later studied with Liszt, with whom he formed a lasting friendship. Baermann and Beatrice von Dessauer, from an elite Bavarian family, married in Munich in 1865....

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Ball, Ernest R. (21 July 1878–03 May 1927), pianist and composer of popular songs, was born in Cleveland, Ohio, into a middle-class family. As a young teenager he was sent by his parents to study at the Cleveland Conservatory of Music. By age thirteen he was offering piano lessons in the neighborhood; by fifteen his first composition, a march for piano solo, was completed. As a young man he moved to New York City and for several years was employed as a pit pianist in various vaudeville productions. In 1903 he secured a position as staff pianist with the famous Witmark publishing house in Tin Pan Alley. His salary, $20 per week, was a respectable wage but far below what he eventually earned as a songwriter. Early in his stay at Witmark he began composing songs....

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Bartók, Béla (25 March 1881–26 September 1945), composer and pianist, was born in Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary (now Sînnicolau Mare, Romania), the son of Béla Bartók, the headmaster of an agricultural school, and Paula Voit, a schoolteacher. Bartók received his first piano lessons at age five from his mother, who, after the death of Bartók’s father in 1888, supported the family through a succession of teaching positions. At age nine, Bartók began composing short pieces for piano, and in 1892 he made his first public appearance as a pianist. His family settled in Pozsony (Bratislava) for five years between 1894 and 1899, and Bartók studied harmony and piano there with László Erkel and Anton Hyrtl....

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Count Basie, c. 1946-1948. © William P. Gottlieb; used by permission. William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress (LC-GLB23-0047 DLC).

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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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Beach, Amy (05 September 1867–27 December 1944), composer and pianist, was born Amy Marcy Cheney in West Henniker, New Hampshire, the daughter of Charles Abbott Cheney, a paper miller and, later, paper stock salesman, and Clara Imogene Marcy, an amateur pianist and singer, both from colonial New England families. In 1871 the family moved to Chelsea, Massachusetts, near Boston, and in 1875 to Boston proper. An only child, Beach was an infant prodigy with perfect pitch and total recall, an instinctive gift for the piano that showed itself at age four, and an untaught sense of harmony and form. Her general education began at home with her mother (1873–1879) and ended with three years (c. 1879–1882) at a Boston private school. Her piano studies also began in 1873 with her mother. She next studied with W. Ernst Perabo (1875–1882) and finally with ...

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Blake, Eubie (07 February 1883–12 February 1983), composer and pianist, was born James Hubert Blake in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of John Sumner Blake, a stevedore, and Emily Johnston, a launderer. His father was a Civil War veteran, and both parents were former slaves. While the young Blake was a mediocre student during several years of public schooling, he showed early signs of musical interest and talent, picking out tunes on an organ in a department store at about age six. As a result, his parents rented an organ for twenty-five cents a week, and he soon began basic keyboard lessons with Margaret Marshall, a neighbor and church organist. At about age twelve he learned cornet and buck dancing and was earning pocket change singing with friends on the street. When he was thirteen he received encouragement from ragtime pianist Jesse Pickett, whom he had watched through the window of a bawdy house in order to learn his fingering. By 1898 he had steady work as a piano player in Aggie Shelton’s sporting house, a job that necessitated the lad’s sneaking out of his home after his parents went to bed. The objections of his deeply religious mother when she learned of his new career were only overcome by the pragmatism of his sporadically employed father, once he discovered how much his son was making in tips....

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Blind Tom (25 May 1849–13 June 1908), pianist and composer, was born Thomas Grimes in Harris County, Georgia, the son of Mingo Wiggins and Charity, slaves on the Wiley Jones plantation. His first master’s teenage daughter named him “Grimes” for an admirer of hers. Blind from birth, he was included when James N. Bethune, a Columbus, Georgia, lawyer-journalist who was referred to as either “Colonel” or “General” Bethune because of his service in the Georgia militia in 1830, purchased Tom’s parents in 1850. According to most accounts, Tom demonstrated his aptitude for music at age four, when he slipped into the big house and picked out several tunes on the piano he had heard Bethune’s daughters playing. Thereafter he was allowed access to the piano and received informal instruction from Bethune’s wife and daughter. When professional performers gave concerts in Columbus, the Bethunes hired them to play for Tom, thus enabling him to increase his repertoire. By his sixth birthday Tom had become a “prized possession,” with Bethune’s children exhibiting him to their neighbors....

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Bonds, Margaret Jeannette Allison (03 March 1913–26 April 1972), composer, pianist, and teacher, was born in Chicago, Illinois, the daughter of Dr. Monroe Alpheus Majors, a pioneering black physician, medical researcher, and author, and Estelle C. Bonds, a music teacher and organist. Although legally born Majors, she used her mother’s maiden name (Bonds) in her youth and throughout her professional life. She grew up in intellectually stimulating surroundings; her mother held Sunday afternoon salons at which young black Chicago musicians, writers, and artists gathered and where visiting musicians and artists were always welcomed. Bonds first displayed musical talent in her piano composition “Marquette Street Blues,” written at the age of five. She then began studying piano with local teachers and by the time she was in high school was taking lessons in piano and composition with ...

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Buck, Dudley (10 March 1839–06 October 1909), organist and composer, was born in Hartford, Connecticut, the son of Dudley Buck and Martha Church Adams. He grew up in the nineteenth-century small-town culture he would serve and develop. Unlike many masters of keyboard instruments, Buck began piano study relatively late (at age sixteen), and indeed his playing, while always solid, was never considered spectacular. His contributions lay in composition and, even more, in the organizational and entrepreneurial aspects of music making....

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Buckner, Milt (10 July 1915–27 July 1977), jazz pianist, organist, and arranger, was born Milton Brent Buckner in St. Louis, Missouri. Details of his parentage are unknown. His brother Ted was a jazz saxophonist who became a member of Jimmie Lunceford’s big band (the brothers were not related to jazz trumpeter Teddy Buckner)....

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Carlisle, Una Mae (26 December 1915–07 November 1956), jazz pianist, singer, and composer of popular songs, was born in Zanesville, Ohio, the daughter of Edward E. Carlisle and Mellie (maiden name unknown), a schoolteacher. (The assertion that she was born in Xenia, Ohio, published in many references, does not conform to family records.) With piano training from her mother, she sang and played in public at age three in Chillicothe, Ohio. After participating in musical activities at church and school in Jamestown and Xenia, Ohio, she began performing regularly on radio station WHIO in Dayton while still a youngster. In 1932 she came to the notice of ...

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Carr, Benjamin (12 September 1768–24 May 1831), composer, organist, and music publisher, was born in Holborn, England, the son of Joseph Carr, the owner of a music store in London, and Mary Jordan. Born into a musical family, Carr studied music with Samuel Arnold, a well-known opera composer, and Charles Wesley, an organist and composer of Methodist hymns. In addition to singing in concerts, Carr was involved with the London musical stage and wrote an opera, ...

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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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Ray Charles. Gelatin silver print, c. 1961, by Michel Salou. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

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Confrey, Zez (03 April 1895–22 November 1971), composer and pianist, was born Edward Elzear Confrey in Peru, Illinois, the son of Thomas J. Confrey, railroad engineer, and Margaret Brown. At age four he began piano lessons after demonstrating the ability to pick out a tune played by an older brother. He conducted and performed with his own orchestra while still in high school; he later graduated from Chicago Musical College where he studied piano and composition. His exposure there to the impressionistic styles of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel would influence some of his later pieces. While studying at the college he worked as a drummer in a theater orchestra, and about 1915 he played piano in a touring orchestra he formed with his brother Jim....

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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 ...