Jimmy Yancey

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Biography

James Edwards "Jimmy" Yancey (February 20, 1894 – September 17, 1951) was an African American boogie-woogie pianist, composer, and lyricist. One reviewer noted him as "one of the pioneers of this raucous, rapid-fire, eight-to-the-bar piano style".

Yancey was born in Chicago in (depending on the source) 1894 or 1898. His older brother, Alonzo Yancey (1894–1944) was also a pianist, while their father was a vaudeville guitarist and singer. By age ten, Yancey had toured across the United States as a tap dancer and singer, and by twenty he had toured throughout Europe. He began teaching himself piano at 15, and by 1915 had become a noted pianist and was already influencing younger musicians, including Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons.

While he played in a boogie-woogie style, with a strong-repeated figure in the left hand and melodic decoration in the right, his playing was delicate and subtle, rather than hard driving. He popularized the left-hand figure that became known as the "Yancey bass", later used in Pee Wee Crayton's "Blues After Hours", Guitar Slim's "The Things That I Used to Know", and many other songs. Yancey favored keys—such as E flat and A flat—that were atypical for barrelhouse blues. Distinctively, he ended may pieces in the key of E-flat, even if he had played in a different key right up to the ending.

Although influential from a young age, Yancey did not record at all through his early career, performing only at house parties and clubs. His first recordings in 1939 created a considerable stir in blues and jazz circles.

While most of his recordings were solo, later in his career he and his wife Estelle Yancey recorded together (she as a vocalist) under the name 'Jimmy and Mama Yancey'. They appeared in concert at Carnegie Hall in 1948, and recorded their first album in 1951—released by Atlantic Records the following year.

During World War I, Yancey played baseball for the Chicago All-Americans, a Negro league baseball team. Throughout his life, he held on to his job as a groundskeeper for the Chicago White Sox.

Yancey died of a stroke secondary to diabetes in Chicago on September 17, 1951. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.


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