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Pianist Lil Hardin worked with many bands, including King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. Here she met Louis Armstrong, who was playing second trumpet in the same band. They married in 1924 but after a few years the marriage turned sour, and they were divorced in 1938. During their years together they had composed many tunes and Lil sued Louis for royalties on tunes they had co-composed – she won the case. In later years, she recalled that when she was playing piano in Oliver’s band, she would often play runs with the right hand. The ‘King’ would cut her off saying “Stop that – we already have a clarinet player in the band”.
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At one of my recent ‘History of the Jazz Piano’ concerts, a man approached me in the bar and asked if I could play ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’ for his father, who was in the audience. ‘It’s one of his favourites’ he said. I explained it wasn’t in the programme, but I would try and fit it in. As my ‘history’ progressed into the boogie woogie section, I announced the famous ‘Honky Tonk Train Blues’, and followed this with a pseudo boogie woogie version of ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’. I explained to the audience that it wasn’t a jazz piano classic, but hey, a request is a request. After the concert, the man approached me. ‘Thanks for playing ‘Honky Tonk Train Blues’, it was great’ he said. ‘But I thought your father requested ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’’ I replied. ‘Yes, I’m afraid he got it wrong – he knew there was a train in the title’.
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In 1921, vocalist Ethel Waters was earning $35 a week as a cabaret artist. That year she recorded two titles for the Black Swan label – “Oh! Daddy” / “Down Home Blues”. It was her recording debut, for which she was paid $100. The record was a major hit, selling one hundred thousand copies. The Black Swan record company was struggling financially at the time, and the ‘78’ recording got them out of debt. In the 1930s, Ethel Waters recorded with Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, and in later years became a well-respected film actress. Her autobiography recalls many of the problems she encountered as a black singer. She died in 1977 aged eighty.
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Vincent Youmans, composer of ‘Tea for two’, ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘More than you know’ didn’t approve of his songs being given the jazz treatment. He said it was an insult to his composing abilities, and thought it blasphemous for any musician to do such a thing.
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In the late 1970s I started a residency at London’s Playboy Club. This was gambling – big time! In the VIP room, fortunes were made and lost – mostly the latter. £5,000 on the turn of a card was common-place, as I witnessed on many occasions. During the time of my residency, I heard that the wonderful American pianist Don Ewell was appearing at the Pizza on the Park in London’s Knightsbridge, for one night only. He was over here to raise money for his daughter who had a serious illness. I was given leave from the Playboy to pop across to the Pizza (which was only a ten minute walk). The place was heaving with bodies and it was like a whose-who of jazz pianists.. It was quite noisy, but suddenly a hush came over the room when it was announced that pianist Joe Bushkin was in the house. Joe had worked with all the top bands including Benny Goodman and Muggsy Spanier but was in semi-retirement – spending most of his time breeding horses in Hawaii. The proverbial pin could be heard to drop as Joe sat down and performed the most wonderful interpretation of ‘I Can’t Get Started’ (he had worked with Bunny Berigan in the 1930s). As much as he found breeding horses entirely satisfying, the temptation of returning to the music scene was too much, and he made a triumphant return – backing Bing Crosby on a world tour and appearing in many TV spectaculars. Joe Bushkin was born in New York, and once remarked ‘I was brought up in a very rough neighborhood in East Harlem. In growing up you had a choice – you either had a machine gun or a musical instrument’.