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James Edwards "Jimmy" Yancey (February 20, 1898 - September 17, 1951) was an African American pianist, composer, and lyricist, most noted for his piano work in the boogie-woogie style.
Yancey was born in Chicago in (depending on the source) 1895, or 1898. His older brother Alonzo Yancey (born in 1894, in Chicago died in 1944, in Chicago) was a pianist as well; their father was a guitarist. Yancey started performing as a singer in traveling shows during his childhood. He was a noted pianist by 1915, and influenced younger musicians, such as Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons.
While he played in a boogie-woogie style, with a strong-repeated figure in the left hand and melodic decoration in the right hand, his playing was delicate and subtle, rather than hard driving. He popularized a left hand figure which became known as the 'Yancey bass', and was later used in Pee Wee Crayton's "Blues After Hours", Guitar Slim's "The Things That I Used to Know" and many other songs. Part of Yancey's distinctive style was that he played in a variety of keys but always ended every song in E flat.
Most of his recordings were of solo piano, but late in his career he also recorded with vocals by his wife, Estelle Yancey, under the billing 'Jimmy and Mama Yancey'. They recorded the first album ever made by Atlantic Records.
Throughout his life, Yancey kept a job as groundskeeper for the Chicago White Sox.
Yancey died of a stroke secondary to diabetes in Chicago on September 17, 1951. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
By Dave Lewis
In 1936, Meade "Lux" Lewis first recorded his piece Yancey Special, a boogie-woogie solo in part based on Yancey's economic style of playing. Not long after, record producers and critics began to inquire just who Yancey was. In April of 1939, Jimmy Yancey finally, at age 41, was able to enter the studio for his maiden voyage on record for a short-lived label named Solo Art. Swiftly making up for the time he had lost, Yancey recorded 17 pieces in 18 sides at this first session. Only the first two made it to 78s, and the rest did not appear until after Yancey's death. However, this got things rolling for Yancey, and later that year he recorded the first of two sessions for Bluebird. The following year Yancey recorded for both Bluebird and Vocalion. While critics, who cited the purity and originality of Yancey's approach to boogie woogie, acclaimed his discs, they did not sell well and this chapter of Yancey's recorded work ended after just 15 titles. Yancey returned to the studio just three times more in the decade left to him. The tiny Sessions label of Chicago recorded another 16 titles with Yancey in 1943, and these featured for the first time, Jimmy's wife, Estella "Mama" Yancey on vocals. They had been married in 1917 and often made music together at home, Mama having a beautifully soulful blues voice that matched perfectly with Jimmy's pianism. Only three sides in Yancey's recorded output bear Jimmy's own vocals, and these confirm that the task of vocalizing on Jimmy's records was best left to Mama Yancey. There was nothing more from Yancey until December 1950 when John Steiner recorded him in six sides for the resuscitated Paramount label. Jimmy Yancey's final session was made for fledgling indie Atlantic Records and spread over two days in July 1951, producing, as in his first session, 17 masters. He was joined by Mama Yancey on five of these. Two months later Jimmy Yancey died of a diabetic stroke, only 53 years of age. Mama Yancey continued to record for Atlantic, and other labels, long after Jimmy Yancey died.
Much has been written about Yancey's influence on younger boogie pianists from south side, but little of this writing has much to say about how different he was from the players who claimed his influence. Yancey almost never uses walking bass patterns or octaves. He preferred a falling triad figure in fast pieces, and a slowly wandering variant of that same figure in slower ones. His right hand was endlessly exploratory, always going to new and unexpected places. Yancey's chops are obviously somewhat limited and he never shows off in the way that Lux or Pete Johnson could. Nevertheless, the ingeniousness of Yancey's playing is in its unpredictability and the way he makes his sometimes-eccentric ideas make sense. Yancey had a famous stylistic quirk-- at the end of every piece he would always turn back to the same tag in E-flat, without regard for what he was doing before leading up to that. The theoretical and formal implications of Yancey's work are so interesting that it motivated Dutch minimalist composer Louis Andriessen to compose a piece for wind ensemble entitled "On Jimmy Yancey" (1973). Yancey seldom repeated pieces, apart from vocal numbers, and is not known to have gone beyond two takes in making any of his studio recordings.
On January 23, 1986, Jimmy Yancey was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame, largely based on his contributions to the development of Boogie Woogie as a style. Mama Yancey was present at this ceremony, although she would die mere months later. Fortunately, in terms of being to experience Jimmy Yancey we are not just limited to his studio recordings. While there are no radio broadcasts of his playing extant, home recordings of Yancey family music making exist in two batches, one consisting of instantaneous-cut lacquers made in 1943, the other being wire recordings made in 1951. The sound quality of these recordings is extremely variable, but they offer a casual, candid glimpse into the inner world of Jimmy Yancey's music making. Despite the influence he may have had on boogie-woogie, which dominated the popular music scene in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Jimmy Yancey's own music was made for fun, enjoyment and relaxation-the commercial music world is damned.