Jazz, Blues and Ragtime Piano Rolls – An Introduction
Many collectors of jazz, blues and ragtime are familiar with this material via 78rpm or LP recordings and sheet music. While a number of websites have in the past offered downloads of piano rolls, both hand-played and arranged, the effort which Paolo and I are now undertaking on Chicagosouthsidepiano.com is unprecedented in terms of scope and volume.
I have collected piano rolls for some 50 years now, and in that time have had the great personal good fortune to have known many of the pioneer collectors, most as dear friends. Unfortunately, most of them have now passed. Their names, such as Mike Montgomery, Trebor Tichenor, Ed Sprankle, Ed Freyer and many others, are well known within the collecting community. As I said, these gentlemen were my friends, and they always shared their music freely with me as I did with them in return.
Since 1999 I have worked on preserving piano rolls for future generations to enjoy. This was done using optical scanning technology, which is essence captures a photograph of the roll perforations that with subsequent processing results in a midi file that is a true and everlasting record of the music contained on the original rolls. My collection of individual midi recordings amounts to almost 77,000 titles as of this writing. I believe this may be the largest archive of such material in existence.
As jazz, ragtime, blues and all forms of hot piano music has been my lifelong passion, naturally this represents a large portion of the collection. In 2005 I acquired Mike Montgomery’s piano roll collection. Mike was well known as a roll authority, and for having built the largest and most complete collection of jazz and blues rolls in existence at the time. I have optically scanned every roll of the Montgomery collection, as well as my own collection which numbers approx. 35,000 now. In addition, with the generosity of major collectors of coin-operated instruments, including Don Neilson, Bob Gilson and a number of others, I obtained access and permission to scan for posterity virtually all existing original rolls for these instruments. The highlight among the coin-operated machine rolls are those issued by the Columbia/Capitol Music Roll Co. of Chicago, for on these exists improvised playing by Jimmy Blythe, Clarence Johnson, Alex Hill and so many artists whose true talents are only barely realized by the 78rpm recordings they left us.
Paolo and I have agreed to present all the presently known piano roll recordings of many hundreds of pianists, on an “artist-by-artist” basis. We will start with James “Jimmy” Blythe, which is most befitting since he left us the largest legacy of roll recordings in the Chicago South Side style of playing.
And so, with thanks and gratitude to my great friend Paolo, I invite you to enjoy this music. You may wish to reflect on what “might have been” had some of the artists lived longer. You will likely marvel at the endless source of complex and completely novel pianistic ideas that these artists created. But in the end run, accept their legacy for all the wonderment that it is, and enjoy what they left us.