The Swing Era has always been considered the golden age of the big band. Which is true. But the decade also saw the proliferation of the jazz piano. Before the trumpet and saxophone became all the rage in the wake of Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins, the piano was jazz's elegant superstar. To be taken seriously in the '30s, the jazz piano performer had to do it all—keep time, dazzle and entertain, all while treating the keyboard like the dynamic sections of a big band. The list of exceptional solo jazz pianists who performed solo or led bands in the late 1930s and early 1940s is extraordinary: Art Tatum, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Albert Ammons, Count Basie, Stan Kenton, Pete Johnson, Willie "the Lion" Smith, Nat King Cole, Erroll Garner, James P. Johnson, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Eubie Blake, Jelly Roll Morton, Teddy Wilson, Mary Lou Williams and about two dozen more I've left out to save space. Even the era's pianists who are less well known today were monsters.
One of the Swing Era's piano greats who isn't as well known today as those named above was Jess Stacy. Stacy was born in Missouri in 1904 and grew up in Cape Girardeau on the Mississippi River. At 14, Stacy was captivated by the music played on riverboats arriving from New Orleans and eventually played with Bix Beiderbecke in the 1920s and other artists and bands in the 1930s. He joined Benny Goodman in the mid-1930s, playing with the band at the famed Palomar Ballroom concert in 1935 and at Carnegie Hall in 1938. Stacy, who was influenced by Hines and Wilson, left Goodman in the early 1940s, rejoined in '42 before leaving for Tommy Dorsey. He moved to Los Angeles in the '50s but left the music business after being heckled by a drunk in a small club. For a time, he was married to singer Lee Wiley.
"Stacy managed to draw an individual tone from the piano and his unique tremolo at the end of each phrase and his habit of following an emphasized note with one which seemed almost to be tucked underneath the stressed one, resulted from his acute sense of dynamics. His Harlem-style rolling left hand harked back to the stride players of the Twenties but the strongest influence came from the pianists Earl Hines and Teddy Wilson."
I'll add that Stacy brought with him into the 1930s the melancholy and zeal of the '20s as well as a happy swing style as precise as a sewing machine. He could bounce his left hand in the stride tradition, let his right hand run with moderate bass notes added, and then bring them together like traffic merging from two different ramps onto a highway. In Stacy's hands, one assumed three pianists were playing at once with jaunty jubilation and seductive sass. His song introductions always sound to me like the preliminary chugging that goes on when you awaken a pinball machine with quarters. Stacy's intros pre-loaded songs with drama and set your feet going.
Ultimately, Stacy's piano was thinking music. Unlike Tatum, Waller and many others, Stacy's sound was less about daring speed, fireworks or wit but reflective and rueful. Whenever I hear Stacy, my left hand goes up to my chin and I start to wonder about what life was like in the '20s and '30s and how a pianist was able to do what he did—not only in the trio format but also for bands as a firm and flirty timekeeper.
JazzWax tracks: My favorite Jess Stacy collection is Jess Stacy: 1944-50 (French Classics), which you'll find at iTunes. While there, grab Jess Stacy 1935-39. Then you'll have to look around for Jess Stacy: 1951-56.
JazzWax clips: Here are three clips of Stacy at his finest (in each case, note the inventive and sparkling introductions)...