Player Pianos


  Jazz Development in Britain

My reference to the late Leslie Solly in my article of last November has brought response from two friends who knew him well, though in very different spheres of activity. One of these, Bill Towler, who is President of the South East Essex District Committee of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, mentioned in his report that he also plays the drums and that he had sat in with several Bulgarian bands during a recent trade union delegation tour of that country. At the end of the meeting Bill, whom I had not previously met, introduced himself to me.

He expressed his pleasure at my reference to Leslie Solly, for he recalled having, as a mere lad, distributed leaflets in support of Leslie's campaign in the 1945 General Election. The other response came in the form of a letter from my old friend and colleague, Victor Knight, for many years past the General Secretary of the Song Writers Guild of Great Britain, who also expressed pleasure at my reference to Leslie and reminded me that he had served for many years as a Council member of the Guild. It is indeed true, to quote Victor Knight, that today's writers as well as copyright in general owe a big debt of gratitude to Leslie Solly. Victor, incidentally, was himself an excellent saxophonist and activist in the Musicians' Union in the days leading up to World War II, playing in many well- known bands and orchestras of the day and serving, along with yours truly and other enthusiasts, on what was then known as the Union's London District Committee.

In those days the Union had only one branch in London, where there are now six, and the one and only branch committee had also to serve as the district committee or, as it is described today, District Council, for the whole of London. In my November article. I also referred to my visit to the West Cornwall Museum of Mechanical Music at Goldsithney, near Penzance, and described the gadget known as the "Violano Virtuoso". I should now like to refer to another which, I think, had far greater significance even though its future was equally limited. This was the Steck Duo- Art Reproducing Piano, a most sophisticated form of automatic instrument, not to be confused with` the earlier Player Piano which depended upon a pneumatic action and a certain amount of manual control. The Steck Piano is operated from an electric motor and is entirely independent of the kind of foot treadles used on earlier instruments.

At Goldsithney I heard and saw a Prelude of Rachmaninov played by the great Russian composer/ pianist himself— despite the fact that he departed from this troubled world as long ago as 1943 at the age of seventy. This, of course, sounds screwy, but the point I am making is that, unlike the disc or tape recording where you hear the piano upon which the soloist was playing at the time, at Goldsithney the piano roll, originally cut by Rachmanmov in the dim and distant past, was actually controlling the instrument to which we were listening. It was reproducing all the nuances and expressions of the great pianist, which could also be watched as the keys were pressed down by his seemingly ghostly fingers.

The museum's library contains many dozens of piano rolls, some cut by famous ragtime and syncopated pianists of the past, including a duet performance of "By The Waters Of Minnetonka" by Zez Confrey and an unknown partner. Moving to a different though perhaps related scene, I have to report that I have discovered the perfect mechanical maracca player . In fact, I discovered it some years ago but have kept it dark until now. I call it the Roasteracca and it is to be seen and heard in the window of the shop where my wife buys our ground coffee supply. You must have seen the kind of thing, as there are no doubt many other equally effective ones around. Mine consists of three cylinders, into which the coffee beans are fed, which rotate over gas flames, although the latter are not essential for our purpose.

In the course of time and much wear and tear, one of the cylinders, the middle one, has become bent and revolves slightly off centre. The result is that the roaster gives out an excellent maracca type samba rhythm, the bent cylinder throwing its beans just a fraction later than the other two and giving us a couple of additional appoggiatura in just the right place. If one of the ladies in charge removes a cylinder for emptying and refilling, the rhythm, though not the tempo, is, of course, altered and by shuffling the cylinders around one could no doubt produce a limited variety of rhythms. But I suppose the contraption would be a bit cumbersome for gigs and, rhythmically, pretty monotonous. But aren't they all?

Watching the Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium, I realised with some sense of shock that forty years had elapsed since I first saw and heard the Ellington Orchestra in the flesh. It was in the Summer of 1933 when I was working in the band at one of Margate's hotels. Ellington's first British tour included a couple of concerts at the town's Winter Gardens Pavilion. Along with other members of our band, I managed to catch the first half of the afternoon concert, before dashing along the promenade to our own matinee performance, and what a concert it was. The reed section consisted of Otto Hardwick, Harry Carney, Johnny Hodges and Barney Bigard, the trumpets were handled by Artie Whetsel, Cooty Williams and Freddy Jenkins, the trombones by Lawrence Brown, Juan Tizol and "Tricky" Sam Nanton, and the Duke's colleagues in the rhythm section were Sonny Greer on percussion, Wellman Braud on bass and Fred Guy on guitar and banjo.

All the great original arrangements were in the book, including "Echoes Of The Jungle", "Old Man Blues", "Creole Love Call", - "Ring Dem Bells", "Black And Tan Fantasy", "The Mooche", "Tiger Rag", "Double Check Stomp" and "Sophisticated Lady". In addition to the magnificent musical interpretation, all were put over with superb showmanship. How sad it is that so many of the giants who contributed so much to the Ellington repertoire are no longer around, but how good it was to see the apparently ageless Harry Carney still blowing away up there. So far as I can recall, he is the man with the unbroken membership of the orchestra, but if ever he was absent it could not have been for long. Surely a record— and one of which to be justly proud.