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Abshire, Nathan (27 June 1913–13 May 1981), Cajun musician, was born near Gueydan, Louisiana, the son of Lennis Abshire. His mother’s name is unknown. From a family of accordion players, Abshire made his public dance hall debut on the accordion at the age of eight. Like many other rural French-speaking people of Louisiana during his youth, he had little schooling and never became literate in his preferred French or in English. He married Olia Boudreaux, and he and his wife adopted one son....

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Albany, Joe (24 January 1924–12 January 1988), jazz pianist, was born Joseph Albani in Atlantic City, New Jersey. His parents’ names are unknown. His father was a carpenter. Raised in the Los Angeles area, Joe played accordion as a child and took up piano in high school. The family returned to Atlantic City by the summer of 1942, when he first played professionally at the Paddock, a striptease club. Immediately back in Los Angeles, Albany joined scat singer Leo Watson’s group, and he also married, but details of the marriage are unknown....

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Ammons, Albert C. (23 September 1907–02 December 1949), jazz pianist, was born in Chicago. His parents’ names are unknown; both were pianists. Ammons was a teenage friend of Meade Lux Lewis. The two learned to play by following the key action of player pianos and by imitating more experienced musicians, including Hersal Thomas and Jimmy Yancey. Ammons, having access to his parents’ instrument, developed his skills faster than Lewis. Both men were particularly influenced by a tune called “The Fives,” a blues involving strong, repetitive, percussive patterns in the left hand, set against equally strong and percussive but less rigorously repetitive counterrhythmic patterns in the right; this piano blues style came to be known as boogie-woogie....

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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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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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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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Bill McCulloch and Barry Lee Pearson

Brown, Roy James (10 September 1925–25 May 1981), blues singer and piano player, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, the son of Yancy Brown, a brick mason and plasterer, and Tru-Love Warren, a schoolteacher. At the age of five, Roy began learning piano from his mother, a professional music teacher who also directed a church choir. After the family moved to a farming community in Eunice, Louisiana, Roy attended elementary school, sang in the local church, and later formed a gospel quartet. By his own account, he once earned a whipping by “jazzing up” a spiritual in a church performance....

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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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Dave Brubeck. Portrait of Dave Brubeck, with sheet music as backdrop. Portrait by Carl Van Vechten, 1954. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-103725).

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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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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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Clark, Sonny (21 July 1931–13 January 1963), jazz pianist, was born Conrad Yeatis (or Yetis) Clark in Herminie, Pennsylvania. His parents’ names are unknown. Clark began to play the piano at age four. In 1943 his family moved to Pittsburgh, where, while continuing to study piano, he also played the vibraphone and bass in a high school band....

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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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Dailey, Albert Preston (16 June 1938–26 June 1984), jazz pianist and composer, was born in Baltimore, Maryland. Little is known of his parents or early years except that he studied piano from an early age. At age fifteen Dailey became the house pianist at the Royal Theater in Baltimore, where he performed for four years. He studied piano and composition at Morgan State University from 1955 to 1956 and the Peabody Conservatory from 1956 to 1959....

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Davis, Blind John (07 December 1913–12 October 1985), blues pianist, was born John Henry Davis in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, the son of a speakeasy owner. Davis was blinded from a tetanus infection at the age of nine. As a boy he moved with his family to Chicago, where he began playing the piano professionally as a teenager for his father, who owned several speakeasies in the city. While his playing was based in the blues, Davis incorporated various American musical forms, including ragtime, New Orleans jazz, swing, and boogie-woogie. In the Chicago blues scene he became known for his versatility and for his clear, relaxed style....

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Duke Ellington. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-115052).

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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.”...