Jazz Greats: Introducing Eubie Blake

Jazz Greats: Introducing Eubie Blake

Eubie Blake was an American ragtime pianist whose groundbreaking collaboration with singer and lyricist Noble Sissle ultimately yielded a number of hits, made vaudeville history, and resulted in the debut of the first all-black Broadway show to play for full Broadway prices.

Blake is best known for his songs “I’m Just Wild About Harry” and “Love Will Find a Way.” Many argue that Blake was part of the foundation of the Jazz Age of the 1920s.

Read on to learn more about Eubie Blake and why we love his work so much.

Early Life

Jazz legend has it that Eubie Blake, born James Hubert Blake around 1887, wandered into a music shop at the age of four, climbed onto the bench of an organ, and started to play. His mother, a former slave named Emily “Emma” Johnstone, found him and was informed by the store manager it “would be criminal” to deprive Blake of the chance to “make use of such sublime, God-given talent.” Blake’s parents purchased a pump organ through weekly payments of $0.25 a week, and Blake began taking lessons from an organist at the local Methodist church starting around age seven. By 15, he was playing in a Baltimore bordello, where he was eventually offered a spot at Gan’s Goldfield Hotel, owned by world champion boxer Joe Gans. Blake would play winters at the Goldfield and summers at clubs in Atlantic City.

Collaboration with Noble Sissle

Blake entered the ragtime scene during World War I and met Noble Sissle, already a vaudeville performer, shortly after the war. The two teamed up to form a vaudeville musical act called the Dixie Duo, which was unusual at the time because they did not wear blackface or use an exaggerated dialect. They began work on their Broadway Musical, Shuffle Along, and it opened at the end of May in 1921. The production closed after more than 500 performances and is considered to be a major contributor to the Harlem Renaissance because it opened the way for a number of other, similar shows. The two continued to compose and perform, writing scores for USO shows during World War II.

Later Life

Blake made a comeback in the 1960s after appearing on an NBC special titled “Those Ragtime Years.” He began touring the United States and Europe, appeared on major television variety programs like Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show, and was showcased in the hit Broadway show, Saturday Night Live, Eubie! He played and recorded up to his death on Feb. 12, 1982. He allegedly had just celebrated his 100thbirthday, since Blake began to claim later in life he had been born in 1882 instead of 1887.


Blake’s legacy is far-reaching thanks to his collaborations with Sissle and groundbreaking show Shuffle Along. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Ronald Reagan in 1981 and was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1995. Blake received honorary doctoral degrees (some posthumously) from Rutgers University, Dartmouth College, the University of Maryland, Morgan State University, and Howard University between 1974 and 1982. He also was awarded the Johns Hopkins University George Peabody Medal in 1980 and was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1969.

Jelly Roll Morton: Braggart or Not, Still a Pivotal Figure in Jazz

Jelly Roll Morton: Braggart or Not, Still a Pivotal Figure in Jazz

If you love jazz, then the odds are very slim that you do not already know the name “Jelly Roll Morton.” Jelly Roll, who was born Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe, was the self-proclaimed “inventor of jazz” and a known braggart as well as a great pianist in New Orleans during the Roaring 20s. Morton is widely recognized as a pivotal figure in jazz, but he is also often dismissed as an overly confident egomaniac. We argue that Morton was actually ahead of his time and he may even have invented his own style of piano, in part, to compensate for perceived lack of skills in the burgeoning jazz piano sector.

Read on to learn more about Jelly Roll Morton’s life and legacy.

Early Years

Morton was part of a Creole community in downtown New Orleans, and his parents could trace their Creole ancestry back to the 18thcentury. He did not have a birth certificate because this documentation was not required until some 25 years after his estimated birth in 1885 or 1890. His father was a bricklayer, and his mother was a domestic worker. The two were never married, and his father left when Morton was 3 years old. Later, his mother married William Mouton and Morton anglicized Mouton’s name to Morton before adopting it.

First Job

Morton’s first job was playing piano in a brothel, but he convinced his grandmother he was a night watchman in a barrel factory. When she discovered the truth, she disowned him. He later wrote, “[my grandmother] told me devil music would surely bring about my downfall, but I just couldn’t put it behind me.” It was while working at the brothel that Morton adopted his nickname, which was a common slang term associated with female genitalia. Around the same time, he wrote “Jelly Roll Blues” and he began traveling and recording music as well. He continued to do so for the next 25 years, recording “New Orleans Blues,” “Frog-I-More Rag,” “Animule Dance,” and King Porter Stomp.” Years later, “King Porter Stomp” would be arranged by Fletcher Henderson for Benny Goodman and become a swing standard, but Morton would not receive royalties for that recording.

Recording Contract

Morton landed a recording contract with the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1926 and, two years later, married showgirl Mabel Bertrand in Gary, Indiana. However, the Great Depression cut his recording career short. Victor did not renew his contract, possibly in part because few musicians wanted to play his style of piano. This meant that while his piano solos were well-regarded, he could not compete with the emerging big-band musicians of his day.

“The Inventor of Jazz”

Interestingly, part of the murkiness around Morton’s age stems from Morton himself, who claimed in his later life to have been born in 1890. Some historians say he made up this birthdate in order to stake a better claim to the “invention” of jazz, since he would have been slightly too old to have invented the musical style if he were born in 1885, as many suspect he was. Morton officially made this claim with folklorist Alan Lomax during a series of interviews that comprised the oral history of the origins of jazz.

While it is difficult to give Morton full credit for the entire musical genre’s invention, he did create his own piano style that was a combination of secondary ragtime and “shout,” which eventually evolved to be stride piano. He would play the melody of a tune with his right thumb and harmonize with the other fingers on his right hand. His tempo tended to be a little slower than other jazz pianists of the day, and Lomax would later cite a portion of an interview in which Morton said he “used a slower tempo to permit flexibility through the use of more notes” as an indication that Jelly Roll Morton might have invented his piano style to compensate for what he perceived to be a lack of dexterity “in manipulations” on the piano.

Stabbing, Chronic Illness, and Death

In 1938, Morton was stabbed at the club he managed and suffered for hours before receiving treatment. Doctors placed ice on his wounds for several hours before treating them, and after the stabbing he often became ill and short of breath. At one point, Morton spent three months in a New York hospital and died during a trip to Los Angeles while attempting to stage a comeback with new manuscripts and arrangements.

Morton’s Legacy

As if he feared to be forgotten, several of Morton’s compositions were, essentially, musical tributes to himself. He wrote “Winin’ Boy,” “The Jelly Roll Blues,” and “Mr. Jelly Lord” all about himself. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. Morton is also an elected, charter member of the Gennett Records Walk of Fame.