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JOE TURNER

Date Posted: 2006-04-28

Subj: joe turner
Joe Turner: The Pianists in My Life
as told to Johnny Simmen

(Ed Note: Our Solo Art release this time is a session recorded by the late Joe Turner for the 77 label. No, we`ve not lost out minds and issued a blues shouter on a label devoted to piano jazz- this Joe Turner was one of the legends of Harlem stride piano but he never became a household word because he spent much of his career in Europe. Swiss piano jazz authority Johnny Simmen cornered him in 1952 and he gave a graphic recap of his career and the great pianists he met)

I was born November 3, 1907 in Baltimore, MD. At the age of five my mother taught me piano (ear training) and then, after awhile, I improved alone. When I was twelve I took music lessons for six months. My very first teacher, a women, was a "clock-watcher" which I didn`t like. I paid her 75 cents an hour. The week after I took lessons from a new teacher, a Mrs. Alma J. Thomas, wife of A. Jack Thomas, a well-known musical director in Baltimore. What I liked about Mrs. Thomas is that she was not a "clock-watcher," but really interested in my playing, even cracking my fingers with a ruler when I made mistakes. So, not too long after that I used to stand by the piano and say to my Aunt Katie, "I sure wish I could play like that," and then I started playing "shout piano,"
copying her, but without the benefit of the left hand. Gradually I made such progress in that style that people started considering me a good pianist. I entered into a piano contest one night (my first one, in fact; my latest one having taken place last August when the marvelous Ralph Sutton and I were taking turns at the piano in one unforgettable session.) While we were waiting at the theatre to be called on stage, a tall, smooth-talking fellow by the name of Frank Johnson came up to me and said, :Kid, I want you and the rest of the fellows to do your best tonight because I`ll win the contest anyway. I know I can
win, not even playing my best.‚ I stomped with my "shout piano" through "Oh
Baby, Don`t Say No, Say Maybe" and came in second.Frank Johnson won, as he had said, and I became very interested in him and asked him to teach me a few piano tricks. He agreed on the condition that I`d buy the music to the latest tunes and teach them to him because he couldn`t read. His style of playing was so similar to a goodpiano roll that you could not tell the difference. Frank was the first one, too, who mentioned the name of James P. Johnson to me, making clear that James P. was known, in fact, as the greatest jazz pianist in the world. That was in 1923.
I learned so rapidly from Frank`s teaching that the entire city of Baltimore was comparing me to him. That`s when he decided not to teach me any further because he did not wish to have that much competition. I take off my hat to him for being honest and plain-spoken.
My interest in my left hand began when I heard Eddie Gibson of Baltimore, who had one of the greatest left hands I ever heard in my life. I would frequently visit his home and he`d play for hours with his left hand along and he was always complaining that his left hand must be brushed up!! This became boring to me AT THAT TIME but I found ut later that it was NECESSARY TO HAVE A
POWERFUL LEFT HAND TO PLAY PIANO PROPERLY.
I copied numbers from James P. Johnson`s piano rolls such as "Harlem Strut"
and the "Carolina Shout" and copied them so well that I was considered a sort of child wonder. After being encouraged to go to New York I considered it, and went. I arrived in New York City with only one dollar and twenty-five cents in my pocket, and a suitcase made of a carton. (I had told my Mother I had a job in NY, which explained my reason for not taking more money but in reality I had no job; I was just trying to make my luck in the big city.) I asked the first person I met where I could find the colored section. I was told to take the el train to 130th Street in Harlem. There I asked where the musicians were hanging out. They told me that it was a placed called "The Comedy Club." Going there I had a drink, set my bag down and noticed that anyone who wished could play the piano. Realizing that none of the pianists who had performed before me had done anything special I walked over and started in. After a warm-up number I went into the "Harlem Strut" and then I went to the climax with ‚
úCarolina Shout.‚ When I had finished people swarmed around me and wanted to know
where I came from. After I‚ ôd told them, someone in the crowd told me that the composer of the last two numbers I had just played was in the room: James P.
Johnson! Of course, you can imagine how I felt! I must have impressed him however, since he left his table, came up to the piano and played the same two numbers as nobody in the world could! After it was over someone asked me if I
wanted a job and of course I said ‚ úYES‚ then asked ‚ úWhen do I start?‚
at which point he replied ‚ úRight away, just come with me.‚ I went with him
to Baron Wilkins‚ ô Club(most famous piano club in Harlem, all the best pianists having played there one time or another) where I met, for the first time, and played with, Hilton Jefferson, the great alto man. When the boss told me he could only pay thirty dollars a week I almost fainted because I had never made more than twelve dollars. I worked thee for a few months then joined the red hot band of trumpeter June Clark, who was a carbon copy of Louis Armstrong.
June and Jimmy Harrison were known as the greatest brass team of that
wonderful period. ‚ úJazz‚ Carson, a fine drummer, completed our quartet.
During those first few months in NY I visited Clarence Williams‚ ô office where I met one who I considered a truly great pianist, Eddie Blind Steele. This was also the time when we had the world`s most exciting piano contests night after night with the following pianists regularly present: James P, Willie ‚ úThe Lion‚ : Smith, Fats Waller and Joe Turner. Very rarely did other pianists
dare to play. Of course, there were times when Stephen ‚ úThe Beetle‚
Henderson was getting into the contest and he was demanding the greatest respect for his perfect left hand. Two others who would try their luck occasionally were Corky Williams and Willie Gant.
Shortly after, I had a tour of the west with Adelaide Hall (as accompanist, together with the late Alex Hill, my good friend- in fact it was a piano duo), but before we left we had trouble with Alex, and Francis Carter, also a good pianist, joined us. Benny Carter told me that when I reached Toledo Ohio I should not play any piano because there was a blind boy there called Art Tatum and I would not be able to touch him. When the Adelaide Hall troupe finally reached Toledo, I asked where I could find Art and I was given the address of a buffet flat where he would appear every night at two o‚ ôclock, after his work. After finishing at the theatre at midnight I went there and waited for Art to arrive. In the meantime, I played some good stuff on the piano there and two girls sitting near the piano started an argument over my playing compared with Art‚ ôs. One girl said ‚ úHe‚ ôll wash Art away.‚ While the other was insisting ‚ úJust wait until Art gets here and you‚ ôll see how he‚ ôll cut this
boy!‚ Art Tatum arrived at two o‚ ôclock. He asked me if I was the Joe
Turner who had made a reputation with a fine arrangement of ‚ úLiza.‚ I said that
it was me and begged him to play piano for me. After he had refused to play before hearing me (and of course with Art I lost the argument) I played first ‚
úDinah‚ for warming up and then my ‚ úLiza.‚ When I had finished Art
said ‚ úPretty good,‚ and I was offended, because everywhere else that I played
‚ úLiza‚ it was considered sensational and there was Art Tatum saying ‚
úpretty good.‚ After that, Art sat down and played ‚ úThree Little Words.‚
Three thousand words would have been an understatement!!! We became the greatest of friends after that. Art came to my home the next morning and even before
I had left my bed I heard him in the parlor play my arrangement of ‚ úLiza‚
note for note. After hearing it only once the night before! By the way, he liked it so much that some time later he recorded it exactly as I played it.
When I left Toledo I took his name and address with intentions of bringing him to New York, to team with me, especially since we were having troubles with Francis Carter. But when we returned to New York the troubles switched over to me and left the act, although they wanted to get rid of Francis. Since he was the only one left who knew the act, they kept him. Being honest with everyone, I gave Adelaide Hall Art Tatum‚ ôs address and that‚ ôs how he came to New York. Many people believed until now that I played together with Art-- unfortunately I did not. Although I was supposed to have done, because of so much explaining, I decided not to deny anyone‚ ôs belief that I had. (that‚ ôs something putting all the discographies upside-down!) So I declare: Francis Carter
made I‚ I‚ ôm in the Mood For Love‚ with me, not Art Tatum, and Francis
Carter played in my place with Art Tatum.

Now to mention some more pianists who really gave me solid kicks in my life:
Lucky Roberts, Fats Waller, who was the best friend I ever had, Willie ‚ úThe
Lion‚ Smith ‚ " the most unpredictable pianist of all time because if Tatum
played, if Fats played, if James P. played, if anyone in Harlem played, we could pretty well guess what their feature number would be ‚ " but, when The Lion roared you never knew what was coming. By the way, The Lion and I are always in correspondence, reminiscing about the old times and discussing events in the present day jazz world. We are still having fun together, in spite of The Lion roaring in New York while I‚ ôm beating it out all over Switzerland.
There is one other pianist whose genius I would like to have heard beside that of Art Tatum; Seminole (Abalabba). He was the greatest trick pianist I have ever heard. I have jammed together with him many times and I know quite well that he was one of the wonders of our time. It would have been wonderful to have heard two geniuses in a contest, but Tatum came to New York after Seminole had already died.
Many times I heard Jelly Roll Morton brag about the things he‚ ôd done for jazz and much to my amazement he would always prove every statement. This leaves us to the one fact about Jelly Roll. This is that the mere mention of the history of jazz without his name in capitals, is bunk. Teddy Wilson came to New York and played with Benny Carter‚ ôs orchestra at Connie‚ ôs Inn. He gave me no peace until I had taught him some of those smashing minor thirds that I had learned from James P. Johnson and Fats Waller. There is no doubt that Teddy Wilson is one of the cleanest technicians of our time.
Another name I cannot leave out is that of Donald Lambert who came often to New York from New Jersey, always looking for cutting contests. Believe me, when he finished throwing that left hand very few people had even a desire to walk past the piano, let alone play it!
Another old friend of mine who would stutter in his speech but never in his playing, and whose left hand is comparable to that of the Lion, James P., The Beetle and Kirby Walker, is Willie Gaunt. Willie would always get Kirby Walker and hunt for me because it seems that my left had worried him a bit so he decided between him and Kirby Walker they could give me all the troubles I needed because they both had (and have) dynamite lefts.
There was a place in Harlem called ‚ úRobinson`s Restaurant‚ on 131 St.
There, during a long period, every morning between 5 and 6 o‚ ôclock I had the damnedest piano contests that I ever cared to have with anyone, with none other than Duke Ellington. The number I used to wash him away with sometimes was his own composition ‚ úJig Walk‚ . Count Basie and I are the greatest of friends but one trouble I find with him is that every time we meet he wants to have a piano contest to prove he can always cut me. But by the time we have finished searching for a piano in every bar in town (where there are absolutely no pianos) we‚ ôve come to the conclusion that this contest for which we‚ ôve waited for the last 20-odd years will never come about unless someone closes down all the bars and lets us reach a piano!
Roger ‚ úRam‚ Ramirez has the same fault in his playing as I have, that is,
not being able to record well, but if you hear him in person you must consider him one of the very greatest piano players of our time. I‚ ôd like to mention that he is also the composer of ‚ úLover Man‚ , Billie Holiday‚ ôs greatest hit.
Herman Chittison has practically as fast a right hand as Tatum but not with the benefit of Tatum‚ ôs inspiration. A very good pianist and I recommend him highly.
Speaking about the years 1935-37, there was one of the most talented youngsters who ever sat down at a piano: Garnet Clark. He had ‚ " among many other things ‚ " a terrific arrangement of Tiger Rag and it is one of jazz music‚ ôs great losses that he died so soon (1928, in Paris, at the age of 20 or 21). His
recordings of ‚ úRosetta‚ , ‚ úObject of My Affection‚ and ‚ úI Got
Rhythm‚ (French HMV) show him in fine form.
I‚ ôd like to mention the name of a pianist who, in my estimation, knew more chords on the piano than even our genius Tatum: Clarence Profit. Unfortunately this exceptional artist had that fault known to many musicians, not being able to record well. He, too, died young.
Next we have Cliff Jackson, whose reputation as N.Y.‚ ôs greatest band pianist was unquestioned. It was not until I heard his record on the Black and White label in Johnny Simmen‚ ôs home, however, that I discovered that he was also a terrific soloist in shout style, the music we know best. Whenever I hear of Earl Hines I remember that he impressed me so much with his playing in such
masterpieces as ‚ úDeep Forest‚ and ‚ úWest End Blues‚ . I consider him an
ideal of all ages. Inasmuch as his style was so different from our Harlem stride manner, the fact that he played (and even still does, to this day) in his own inimitable way makes him an honorary member of jazz in big bright lights!
Now we are coming to a jazz mystery. This mystery is Thelonious Monk. It has been said he created bop. I jammed with him for years and I have the records.
Any resemblance between Monk‚ ôs playing and bop is to me purely a coincidence. He lays a very interesting piano that impresses any musician including the Tate (Art Tatum), but his style is so mysterious that I must admit I have no name for it. But it‚ ôs wonderful.
That day in 1930 I recorded with Louis Armstrong (Coconut Grove Orch), Buck
Washington was on the session. He played ‚ úDear Ol‚ ô Southland‚ with
Louis, but aside from that fact Buck would come to Harlem from his engagements downtown with Bubbles, his dancing partner and give all of us more trouble than we had the desire for. In other words, Buck Washington is a terrific pianist.
The first time in my life I heard a piano played completely beautifully was when I heard Ellis Larkins. I tried many times to imitate Ellis on sweet tunes and then I realized it is a special art.
When I was in the army I met a pianist of whom I had heard before but had never met. His name is Kenneth Kersey, one of the most unassuming persons you could ever meet and who plays a really dynamic swing piano. What surprised me as much about him was his equally terrific playing of the
trumpet. when you hear ‚ úLittle Jazz‚ Eldridge you have heard Kenneth Kersey on
the trumpet and vice-versa! As for Kenny‚ ôs piano work, his ‚ úSweet Lorraine‚
on Mercury gives you a good idea of his great talent.
Although I have had Marlowe Morris tell me to my face that I have never taught him anything, I can prove by musicians such as Art Tatum, Ram Ramirez, Ch ittison, etc. that I taught Marlowe Morris for 3 years how to use his left hand.
He always had a terrific right, but his left hand is ‚ úJoe Turner‚ .
Of Nat Jaffe, who died prematurely, I can`t truthfully say that I can remember anyone who could interpret Art Tatum better. Furthermore, he was a true friend of mine and we would hang out together nightly, as well as another friend of his ‚ " also a very fine pianist ‚ " Johnny Guarnieri. You only needed to mention the name of a good jazz pianist and Johnny would imitate him!
Now, I would like to make mention of something that happened to me in Utica,
N.Y.: I walked into an all-night club and saw and heard at the piano an old and great friend of mine who is also one of the really important pianists: Gene Rodgers (who had played in England before the war), but this is not half the story. It ended with one of the darndest piano contests I ever had because Gene played his head off and I did my darndest but a third man, who happened to be none other than Erroll Garner, wrapped it up! There is no joke about it: Erroll Garner is just about as great as they come!
Joe Turner:
The Pianists in My Life, as told to Johnny Simmen in 1952.


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