Before radio, before the phonograph and before the jukebox, there was the piano roll. An ingenious invention dating back to the 1890s, the piano roll was the first way in which the public could hear recorded music. Many of the major piano roll companies were in Chicago, and by the early 1920s, some of these companies were recording black musicians who had relocated to the city from the South to play in speakeasies. One of these musicians was Clarence "Jelly" Johnson, whose piano rolls from the mid-to-late 1920s appear on a new release from Delmark Records.
First, a word about the piano roll. A piano roll was and is a roll of paper with holes punched in it for use on a player piano. To create a roll, a pianist sits at a specially outfitted piano that operates like a musical typewriter. As the musician plays, a mechanism turns the roll while another punches tiny holes in the paper. Later, when the roll is loaded into a special player piano, the roll turns, and when little holes on the roll pass over a special track bar, corresponding keys of the piano are depressed, as though the original musician were sitting there playing them.
Piano rolls were manufactured for home use and for use in restaurants, road houses, bars and other public places. In commercial establishments, player pianos were coin-operated, and those who recorded the rolls had to play clearly and distinctly so the reproduction would be equally pristine.
Of course, when radio came along in the 1920s, with the phonograph and record discs, these formats became much more widely distributed and popular. Radio was a single purchase that allowed for all the free music you could hear. The same was true for records, which were much more durable than piano rolls and easier to change. Besides, records didn't require a tricked-out hulking piano sitting in the living room.
One of the most prolific piano-roll recording artists was Jimmie Blythe. The Capitol Roll Company released about 200 of his piano roll recordings on its various subsidiary labels. Lesser known was Clarence Johnson. Born in Kentucky, he migrated to Chicago just before World War I.
During the war Johnson served in the Army and was wounded in Europe. Back in Chicago, he composed songs and recorded piano rolls starting in 1919. Unlike Blythe [pictured], who did not like to travel, Johnson went to New York in 1923 and recorded 78-rpms. Though his 78-rpm records are few, his piano-roll output rivaled Blythe's. Many were fox trots and waltzes, but he also was captured on rolls playing blues and stomps for Capitol's nickelodeon rolls, which were similar to piano rolls except they held multiple songs for play in public places.
At the end of the 1920s, Johnson moved to Detroit, where he died in 1933.
Clarence "Jelly" Johnson: Low Down Papa (Delmark) provides you with an inexpensive time machine. First, the 14 tracks on this album are as clear as a bell. Unlike scratchy, hissy records from the period, these rolls by Johnson merely needed to be placed on a player piano and recorded. So they sound as though Johnson and the piano are in your room. The sound really is remarkable. [Pictured: Chicago in the 1920s]
What you hear is another age, a haunting recording in its clarity. Before disco, rock, soul, r&b, hardbop, cool, bebop and swing, there are these recordings. The result is syncopated Chicago of the early 1920s.
On this album are Johnson playing gems such as the floral It's All Over Now, the foot-tapping Dyin' with the Blues and sparkly I'm Going Away to Wear You Off My Mind.
Johnson's style was precise and robust, and these recordings transport you to a place of rolling kegs, snorting horses, rubber car horns and women laughing. A remarkable recording by any measure.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Clarence "Jelly" Johnson: Low Down Papa here.
JazzWax tracks: Here's a piano roll of Clarence Johnson playing Low Down Papa, released in October 1923...
Curious about the piano roll? Here's all you need to know...