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KICKIN’ THE CLOUDS AWAY: GERSHWIN AT THE PIANO

Klavier Records K 77031

Liner Notes

George Gershwin and the player piano 1915-1927

Over the course of about ten years, George Gershwin made one hundred forty player piano rolls for the Standard Music Roll Company (under its Perfection label), the Aeolian Company (under its Duo-Art, Mel O-Dee, Universal and other labels), and the Welte-Mignon Company (under its Red T-100 label). Gershwin’s earliest rolls were made in late 1915 at the ripe old age of 17. In 1916 alone, he “recorded” forty rolls for Standard and Aeolian. It’s not surprising then that with a such remarkable talent at his disposal he decided to drop out of high school in May 1914 at age 15 to pursue a non-classical musical career. His first job was as a “song plugger” (a piano accompanist) at Jerome H. Remick & Co., a publisher of popular music in New York’s “Tin Pan Alley,” the block of West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in Manhattan. The street got its nickname from the noise of piano pounding coming from the open windows of music publishers located on that street. Gershwin was paid fifteen dollars a week to sit in a cubicle and play recently-published Remick songs for vaudeville performers who would come in looking for new material. Of course the talented young Gershwin couldn’t resist “improving” the arrangements of the simple songs he was asked to hawk, much to the consternation of his employer (and probably the singers too). While at Remick’s he began composing songs which were, as one might expect, rejected by the publisher. This two-year-long accompanying job inspired and expanded Gershwin’s abilities as an improviser and composer. He was completely immersed in the center of New York musical life and learned all the stylistic tricks of the trade—from ragtime piano, to popular ditties, to Broadway and vaudeville show tunes. Quite soon however he became bored with his limited accompanying duties. He just wasn’t allowed enough creative freedom as an ordinary piano player. He wanted to compose his own songs and have them published and performed. This kid had ambition!

To augment his income and give his talent freer rein, Gershwin happily accepted offers in 1915 and 1916 from the Standard Music Roll Company and the Aeolian Company to make player piano rolls. He was paid at the rate of $35 for six rolls in a Saturday afternoon session, or five dollars each if he made fewer than six. (The average salary of Americans at the time was $15 per week, thus it’s not surprising that Gershwin’s immigrant parents didn’t protest his decision to leave school.) Naturally, his first rolls were improvisations of Remick’s and other Tin Pan Alley publishers’ tunes. The titles of these songs were sometimes quite ridiculous and reflected the carefree, Gatsby-era sentiment of the time: Arrah Go On I’m Gonna Go Back to Oregon, When Verdi Plays the Hurdy-Gurdy, and You’re a Dog-Gone Dangerous Girl are three of the stranger titles among the early Gershwin rolls. The producers at Aeolian must have been impressed with Gershwin’s abilities, for after just ten months’ work, Gershwin made rolls of his own first published song, When You Want ’Em, You Can’t Get ’Em, When You’ve Got ’Em, You Don’t Want ’Em (what a title!) and his first solo piano instrumental work, Rialto Ripples Rag (both released in September 1916 by Aeolian). Piano rolls were usually made and released very quickly after songs were published in sheet music form in order to capitalize on their current public popularity. Gershwin scholar Michael Montgomery has produced a comprehensive Gershwin rollography containing information that with his gracious permission has been included here in the individual track listings.

By fortunate coincidence, Gershwin came of age when player piano design was improving dramatically. Essentially, there were two types of vacuum-powered player pianos. A standard player mechanism allowed the pianolist (the name of the person operating the player mechanism) to move levers or push buttons that could change the expression of the songs (soft/loud, slow/fast, sustaining pedal). Gershwin made rolls for this primitive system on the Perfection, Mel-O-Dee, and Universal labels. The second type of player, a reproducing player piano was more technologically sophisticated (and costly) and supposedly automatically reproduced the recording artist’s personal interpretation via expression holes cuts into the margins of the paper roll. These holes operated the pedals, controlled dynamics (soft/loud) and attempted to balance registers and notes within chords (voicing). All of this was achieved without the pianolist’s participation and was a remarkable engineering achievement considering the primitive materials used (rubber tubing, leather valves and bellows, felt bushings) and lack of electronic technology. Electric motors were used to create the vacuum needed to drive high-end model player pianos however.

The three main manufacturers, Aeolian, Ampico, and Welte-Mignon developed unique reproducing systems which employed specially-made rolls that worked only on their respective systems. These pianos and rolls were significantly more expensive than standard non-expressive player systems. Aeolian came out with its signature Duo-Art reproducer in 1913 and retrofitted them exclusviely into pianos made by Steinway, Weber, and Steck, among others, both in New York and in London. The performances we hear on this CD are all Duo-Art rolls played on a 1929 Hamburg Steinway grand piano (model B) equipped with an English Aeolian Duo-Art mechanism. (According to Aeolian publicity, the trademarked name “Duo-Art” represented “two arts—the art of the performer and the art of the interpreting pianist.”) Upright player pianos with standard mechanisms numbered in the millions thanks to their relatively modest cost (in 1924 they retailed for about $600). Reproducing grand pianos however were well out-of-reach for many middle class households, costing from $1,850 for an Aeolian baby grand to $4,675 for a Steinway 7-foot model in 1924. Nevertheless, there was significant demand in urban areas such as New York and Boston where wealthy consumers were willing to spend money to buy status symbols such as these. By late 1927 (the peak of player piano sales), a walnut-cased Steinway XR Duo-Art (6-foot model) retailed in New York for $7,000! Standard system rolls cost between 40 to 80 cents each. By contrast Aeolian Duo-Art reproducing-style rolls retailed for $1.25-1.75. The combined effect of the stock market crash of 1929, the invention of the electric microphone, and the consequent improved fidelity of phonograph recordings killed the market for player pianos by 1932.

Roll producers quickly realized that three- and four-hand arrangements of songs made a “bigger and better” impression than normal two-handed versions. Trademark stock devices included marimba-style broken chord tremolos and a plethora of repeated notes in the treble, and doubled octaves in the bass to give an enriched textural impression of a mini orchestra, a style that was so pervasive that it eventually became clichéd. Consequently, many roll labels show two artists’ participation. George Gershwin worked with several other pianists for these duet-arranged rolls, twenty-three in all. On this CD we hear Gershwin in five duets with Rudolph O. Erlebach, an Aeolian staff pianist like Gershwin, and Muriel Pollock, perhaps a possible pseudonym for Gershwin’s childhood composer-pianist friend Nathaniel Shilkret who wrote Make Believe. Nevertheless, most of the piano rolls Gershwin made are duet arrangements he played himself. In cutting the initial master roll it was possible to “overdub” a second run of playing in order to add more notes. Thus, Gershwin was also able to play three- and four-hand arrangements by himself without need of an additional pianist (especially in the famous 1925 roll version of Rhapsody in Blue included here). In keeping with the roll companies’ desire to promote a large number of artists, Gershwin also sometimes recorded under three different pseudonyms. Presumably having such a healthy roster was attractive to a roll-buying public.

Needless to say, these manipulations of material raise questions about the authenticity of Gershwin roll “performances.” Rolls were frequently marketed as “hand-played,” especially by headliner classical artists such as Horowitz, Paderewski, and Hoffman, and by popular artists such as Zez Confrey and Gershwin. However, standard and reproducing piano roll “recordings” are not necessarily faithful reproductions of a pianist’s performance. Besides the artificially manufactured duet arrangements, the two-handed piano solos were also heavily edited by roll producers and artists to correct mistakes and to add in “extra” notes. More importantly, rolls were “quantized” to insure a uniform pulse. Quantization is a term used to describe the equal parsing of beats within a song to insure an even, metronomic beat. Popular player piano music (as opposed to classical piano music on rolls) was frequently used for dancing and singing, thus it was imperative that rhythmic liberties (rubato) be kept to a minimum. The pianolist could vary the tempo by moving a hand-controlled lever, but the pulse would always remain steady, no matter the chosen speed.

Fortunately, Gershwin’s arrangements (improvisations?) on piano roll are so inventive that they help cover the noticeably altered and mechanical aspect of the quantized pulse. Gershwin adds unique introductions and codas, jazzes up harmonies, adds inner voice melodies and obbligato counterpoint to bring simple sheet music song publications to a level where they become wholly new compositions. Although we have no written manuscripts of his arrangements and little documentation about editorial procedure, it is very likely that Gershwin himself aided in the manipulation of roll recordings to include desired “extra” notes. As he became more experienced as a pianist and composer, and as he became well-known publicly and garnered respect within the music industry, roll producers most certainly would have granted Gershwin a great deal of creative input into his roll arrangements, especially after the phenomenal success of his song Swanee in 1920. Regardless of the fact that many of these roll performances are not as aesthetically pleasing as a performance by a live pianist, Gershwin deserves credit for elevating the typically mechanical sound of player piano duets to a higher artistic level than other contemporary roll pianists. Kickin’ the Clouds Away, Drifting Along with the Tide, Sweet and Low-Down, and That Certain Feeling are all fine examples of his command of improvisation and duet arranging. Few popular roll pianists during the 1910s-30s regarded their rolls as representative examples of their playing, much less as historical documents to be preserved. They simply churned them out quickly and were paid accordingly. Good ability in sight-reading and improvisation were the criteria for employment as a roll pianist. Rolls were only made to earn money, for both the performer and the company, not for posterity, and were practically considered disposable. Once a tune’s popularity had run its course or was upstaged by a newer hit, its piano roll version would become neglected. As today in pop music, the public’s desire was always for new material, thus it was necessary to prepare rolls as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Frank Milne, Robert Armbruster, and W. Creary Woods were the chief roll editors at Aeolian in the 1920s. They knew the process and product intimately and were primarily responsible for punching the expression holes found in the margins on Duo-Art rolls, and for making many arrangements. Unfortunately, the master roll making device on which a pianist “recorded” was not sophisticated enough to track a pianist’s dynamics and expressive inflections during the session. Consequently, while the pianist played, editors listened carefully and made notes about where to add in dynamic shadings and accents after the “recording” was done. In order to mimic a live pianist’s voicing within individual chord clusters, editors would frequently realign the attack point of certain notes to trick the listener’s ear into hearing a particular note “brought out” more strongly. These manipulations of the pianist’s performance resulted in the oft-noted jerky or ragged performance style of reproducing player piano rolls. These problems are especially evident in the Rhapsody in Blue rolls and have been a subject of controversy for over sixty years. Did Gershwin really play like that?

Rhapsody in Blue was premiered in February 1924 at Aeolian Hall in New York and repeated soon afterward at Carnegie Hall in April 1924 due to the stunning impact it had at its debut. A nationwide concert tour of the work immediately followed, as did a disc recording with the Whiteman Orchestra at the Victor Talking Machine Company’s (RCA) studio in New Jersey in June 1924. After a four-year hiatus in roll-making, Gershwin returned to the Aeolian Company in early 1925 to make a piano roll of the Rhapsody. Because of the length of the work (and perhaps its marketing value?), editors decided to issue the roll in two parts. Part 2 was issued first in May 1925 and begins with the famous Andantino moderato theme (occurring about two-thirds of the way through the piece) and runs to the end. It is very likely that Gershwin “recorded” both parts at the same time during his early 1925 visit. Part 1 however was not released until January 1927. (On this CD we hear the two parts linked in sequence without a break.) The problems of length forced the editors to slow down the roll speed of Part 1 to avoid having too large a roll of paper. Unfortunately, this shortening also reduced the amount of paper space available for coded expression holes and contributed to a rather unmusical portrayal of Gershwin’s performance. Part 2 represented a smaller portion of music and was able to run at a faster paper speed which allowed more coded expression information. Consequently, that section is more representative of his playing. Fortunately, we have two unedited 1924 and 1927 disc recordings of Gershwin playing the Rhapsody with the Whiteman Orchestra (the technology did not yet permit the luxury of editing) that form an interesting basis for comparison with the piano roll version. Unfortunately, the low fidelity of the recordings also makes it difficult to judge Gershwin’s playing. We do know that Aeolian editors consulted with Gershwin after master rolls were made and that Gershwin had an opportunity to express his opinions about the final editing. Thus, the questions of authenticity remain unanswered to this day.

After quitting his song-plugging job at Remick’s in March 1917, Gershwin began looking for jobs as rehearsal pianist for Broadway shows. Although he was still technically an accompanist, he had moved up the ladder professionally and moved out of the little practice cubicle he had felt trapped in at Remick’s. He landed his first position as rehearsal pianist for Jerome Kern’s Miss 1917 in September 1917. Gershwin had finally made it to Broadway, if not yet as a composer, at least as a performer. He was heavily influenced by Kern and learned a great deal from his compositional craftsmanship. Gershwin made rolls of two songs from Miss 1917 of which The Land Where the Good Songs Go is included here. Many of the Gershwin performed selections on this CD are roll arrangements of songs by Broadway composers of the day: Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Richard Whiting, Walter Donaldson, Joe Gold, and Nathaniel Shilkret. Many of these were hits from Broadway shows where Gershwin was employed as a rehearsal pianist. It would have been only natural for him to want to make rolls of showtunes he was currently performing on Broadway. In February 1918 Gershwin managed to land a post as a staff composer for T. B. Harms Publisher. No longer an accompanist, Gershwin was now actually paid to compose. One of his first songs was I Was So Young, You Were So Beautiful, written for a February 1919 show called Good Morning, Judge and one of the finest songs he ever wrote. Gershwin made rolls of it for both Aeolian and Welte-Mignon later that year. Yet Gershwin’s first big Broadway success (in his own estimation) was his being engaged as the composer for a 1919 show called La, La, Lucille! During a radio broadcast years later Gershwin said, “Every career needs a lucky break to start it on its way and my lucky break came in 1919 when I was brought to Alex Aarons...[the son of a major Broadway producer who] decided to engage me as composer for his first show.” Naturally, Gershwin made rolls of several of his new songs from this show, of which Tee-Oodle-Um-Bum-Bo is included here.

Of particular interest on this CD are the Gershwin performances that have the least number of editorial enhancements. These “authentic” rolls include So Am I, Swanee, and the obvious two handed sections of Rhapsody in Blue. Being two-handed roll arrangements with few “extra” notes added in by editors (or by Gershwin), these rolls come closest to giving us an idea of Gershwin’s true live improvisational style. Gershwin was renowned in New York social circles for being the life of a party. He would arrive and within a short time take his seat at the piano where he would hold court entertaining guests for hours with improvisations of his songs (and of other popular tunes) much in the style of the roll versions of So Am I and Swanee. (Happily, there are also several disc recordings of his piano solo song improvisations that he made in 1926 and 1928 for Columbia Records. I have recorded some of these transcribed improvisations and piano roll arrangements on the Klavier CD entitled Sweet and Low-Down—Richard Dowling Plays George Gershwin.)

So Am I was premiered by stars Adele and Fred Astaire in George and Ira Gershwin’s first hit show Lady, Be Good! which opened shortly after the 1924 Carnegie Hall performance of Rhapsody in Blue. Gershwin’s own piano roll version of the song is unique. Instead of the usual up-tempo rendering, he played this song as a freely improvised slow ballad with plenty of rubato, ritardandos, accelerandos, and fermatas. It is quite effective musically and shows him in a rare contemplative mood. Swanee was Gershwin’s first big hit in 1920 thanks to vaudevillian Al Jolson’s decision to include it as part of his performances on tour. Jolson’s unique interpretation propelled sheet music and disc recording sales of the work into the millions. Gershwin was paid $10,000 in royalties in the first year alone—an enormous sum at the time, especially for an “uneducated” 21-year-old composer. Jolson always ended his rendition of Swanee by whistling a short quotation from another pop tune of the day, Listen to the Mockingbird. Gershwin quotes the same melody at the end of his Swanee piano roll (and also in Whip-Poor-Will) in obvious tribute to the man who helped make him a success. The considerable financial reward of Swanee in 1920 made it possible for Gershwin to give up roll making for several years and turn his creative attention to full-time composition of his own Broadway shows and serious instrumental works. Once his reputation was established as a successful composer, he chose to make piano rolls only of his own compositions from then on.               

(c) 2001 RICHARD DOWLING