Thursday, July 28, 2016

14th Street Swells--Some popular New York Rag pianists

A cartoon I did poking fun at Burt Green and Fred Hylands as being "swells" who both lived and worked on 14th street in the late-1890's. 

Back in 1897 and 1898, East 14th street in New York City was a hub for several theaters, and where many of the pianists who played there lived. Among these swells included Burt Green, Mike Bernard, Ben Harney, and Fred Hylands. Pretty much the entire New York "rag time" scene lived either on 14th street, or somewhere around it. Much of these old buildings where the pianists resided still stand to-day on 14th street, including Fred Hylands' old flat while he worked at Columbia in his early era there. 

It seemed inevitable for all of these pianists to know one another, as they all worked at the same theater, and Hylands was their manager at one hot point. First, in 1896, Ben Harney broke the old traditions of vaudeville music by performing his "ragged" interpretation of his own "Mister Johnson Turn Me Loose", which really started a craze for music that was ragged in "Ethiopian songs" as they were often called at that time(that was actually a very old minstrel music term, that had been around since the 1830's). From there, all of these younger performers began taking up Harney's act and creating their own spin on it, adding all sorts of new and interesting things to it. Burt Green was considered among one of the best Harney imitators around, which believe it or not, was stated in an obituary for Harney in 1938. What was special about Green was the fact that he not only took up the piano playing style, but he also did some of the dancing that Harney was so well-known for. 
His dances included things like these:
There were so many more things he did, these are only two of several more that were photographed in 1911. Green did these dances well, as he was known for it it seems, and he sometime parodied them as well. From what we can hear on those handful of records Green made from 1911 to 1915, it is certain that he was one of those early rag pianists, and took much of his style from those other famous early performers. 
There he is around 1908. 

From the few pictures I've seen of Burt Green, I can easily see him being one of Fred Hylands' publishing associates, and since he was one of Fred's income sources, he remained a valuable asset for him for many years, even after the publishing firm. They met probably not long after Fred first came to New York, as they worked at the same theater in 1897, and Fred was at one point the music director there, so it's inevitable that they became friends early on. Their friendship worked so well in many ways, as what they were missing in their lives were fulfilled with one another, and they were easily both just as strange and eccentric. As I've said before, Burt's looks made up for Fred's, and it helped that most of the stars they endorsed on their music covers would encounter Burt first rather than Fred. Fred came next. The first impressions Burt made must have been much better than if Fred were there during recording days. During the publishing firm, Burt still worked on 14th street, at Huber's museum, and occasionally filled in at Tony Pastor's theater for Mike Bernard. But as could be expected, Fred and Burt learned early on not to mess with Bernard, and Fred knew him best, since he was his director for a short but busy time. 
Bernard must have been one of the 14th street swells who was auditioned for Columbia in 1897, as they probably tried all of these famous theater accompanists. Knowing how much of a peach Bernard was, he must have hated the idea of being almost quite literally a slave to the singers and performers who entered the studio. Harney was not very versatile, and would probably done well on all of those coon songs, but everything else wouldn't work. Burt must have been one of their second decisions, but he probably turned the studio job down. Of all these theater pianists other than Hylands, Green would have been another great studio pianist, and since he was so much like Hylands, he  was probably considered something like "Freddy's double" if they needed another pianist for something. In reality, the one who took that place was Ed Issler, and Issler was not a show-biz insider like Hylands, which meant for an immediately different approach. 

While Burt worked at Huber's, he met many of the famous faces pictured on Hylands' music covers, including these two:
(Fun fact! Spencer probably wrote her name on this picture!)
(These both came from sheet music covers in my collection)

I'm sure you all recognise these faces, especially the first one. Green probably found them first, and soon went to Hylands and Spencer about his latest findings. Where Harlan came from in this case it is not certain, but Ada Jones was a regular at Huber's 14th Street museum, and it is almost certain that he met her there. Wherever of whomever introduced Harlan to Hylands, that friendship lasted a long time, and it was randomly revived in 1901 when Harlan began recording at Columbia. Other performers like Barney Fagan and Sallie Stembler must have been Hylands and Spencer findings. Burt working at Huber's not only got him an immense amount of money, but it earned Hylands and Spencer some very important friendships, such as the Ada Jones and Spencer duo that made hundreds of records from 1905 to 1913. 

No Billy Murray, you did not find her first. Damn lie...

Anyway, you understand what I'm getting at here, 14th street was a fantastic place to live and work in the late-1890's. There were more famous stage pianists who came from 14th street, but that comes later in the era, around the gaudy time of Tin Pan Alley, of which none of these early pianists were officially part of. These great pianists were too good to be part of that mess. 
Max Hoffmann was another one of these pianists I did not mention, as he was performing all over those theaters on 14th street in 1897-98, which logically works since he was such a famous "rag" pianist. Hoffmann remained pretty well-hidden considering that all of these other pianists were not really writing all of this music, but they were playing it in that same Hoffmann-like style. He remained hidden because he wasn't exactly a show-biz character out front, he was a sort of behind-the-scenes type, since he married a dancer who made up for this. His slim and pretty wife was scandalous enough to keep everyone's hands off of him, so they could scrutinize her. 
Something like this is what I mean. 
That's his wife in the center by the way. 
Funny to think that Hylands was director at the theater where this was taken. Hehe...
Hoffmann's marriage was brilliant, in so many ways, and it really is funny to think of it as a strategic show-biz marriage, far more than just the typical Hylands and Green marriages of pianist and singer. Chronologically, Hylands' marriage came first of all these famous pianist-singer ones, with the intention of an act being created from it. It wasn't as famous as the others that came after it, like Burt's marriage to Irene Franklin, but it was the same sort of thing. Fred married a singer who was not really well known, and she became a little more well-known after being married to Fred for ten years, since it took that long for him to finally put her in one of his Broadway shows. 
(that's her! on his music of course)
Took him long enough...
 It would be interesting if he dragged her in to Columbia to make some records. Probably didn't happen, but we can well assume that he considered it early on. We know that he was desperate for attention from the Columbia staff in 1898, and something like this was probably laughed upon by the long-time studio stars. It helps that he lived on 14th street in 1898, though he was not within walking distance of the studio. The bouts with cable cars were inevitable!

Anyhow, I'm just going to keep rambling on about all of this, so that's where I'll end it. 

Hope you enjoyed this! 

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