- Historic Sites
The 93 Years Of Eubie Blake
October 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 6
Yes, I wanted to be like Cohan. And Victor Herbert. I began to think about composing. I wanted to write shows—like Leslie Stuart, the Floradora man. He was my inspiration. I would never have been a composer if it hadn’t been for him. I never saw him in my life. He wrote beautiful music, you know, and I said, “I can do that.”
By the, way, who is your favorite all-time composer”?
Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky.
Were there any pianiste that you especially admired, orjrom whom you learned, after you came to New York”?
I didn’t learn from anybody. I was tops then. I was tops.
You came in to New York for good around 1915, didn’t you?
Yeah. Sissle got me to come up to New York to play for Jim Europe. I never went back. We were with Europe until he died. He was murdered in 1919.
When you say you played for Jim Europe, you mean as a member of the Clef Club, the booking agency for black musicians. What type of engagements did the Clef Club handle?
Parties for every millionaire in the country. We’d go as far as Chicago to play. Twelve, fifteen, sometimes twenty men.
Is it true you never used music on stage”?
Jim told us that. All the musicians were told never to let a white man think you can read music. That lessens the money he’s going to give you. Take the Astoria Hotel on Broadway—the music never stopped. White band at that end—the man had that white band died a millionaire—and we’d play at this end. They’d play [he hums a waltzlike tune]. Then we’d play [hums it now in a jazz version]. And the people’d come around [imitating them]: “Isn’t it mar velous? Those boys ”
Considering the size of the orchestras, you certainly couldn’t have been improvising, or faking. What did you do, memorize the orchestrations?
Sure. Jim told me how to do this. You rehearse the leads first, then take the music away from them. Then you go to the saxes, take the music away from them, and so on, till you got it down. Then you hear the darnedest “arrangement” you ever heard in your life. Head arrangements. But we never let the white people know we could read music.
James Reese Europe was best known, I think, as the composer-conductor for the famous dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle, until Vernon Castle died in a World War i training accident.
I begged him! I begged him not to fly. Listen, one Saturday night Mr. and Mrs. Castle are going down to Texas. He says, “Well, I’m going to Texas and teach some of the guys to fly.”
So I said to Mr. Castle, “Do me a favor, don’t fly any more. You’re too valuable a man to fly.” And he laughed at me and said, “I’d rather fly a plane than go down in that subway.”
And I don’t know what day it was, but a couple of days after that a guy was flying and he did something wrong and Castle ducked under him to catch him with his plane and Pow [claps his hands together]! Both of them.
A nd then Jim Europe was murdered.
Yeah, 1919. A drummer in his band. Crazy.
Ironically, it was Jim Europe’s death that led to the formation of Sissle and Blake as a performing team, wasn’t if?
Well, Sissle said, “You know what we could do? We could go into vaudeville.” Sissle was always more aggressive than I was. So Pat Casey—he’d booked Jim Europe’s band—Pat Casey’d heard Sissle, Sissle told him about me, and Casey said put an act together. And we did something no act has ever done, then or since. We opened, played four days in New Haven. Then three days in the Harlem Opera House—not the Apollo, the Apollo was a burlesque house then—then right to the Palace. We screamed them!
And you were then hooked into the Keith Circuit?
Let me tell you about that. Now, Pat Casey was the roughesttalking man I’ve ever seen in my life. How he kept a phone I’ll never know. He’s sitting there listening to them—the big shots in Keith. Pat, now, he ain’t opened his mouth. Anyway, the bookers say, “Tell you what we’d do with Sissle and Blake. Get grotesque clothes for them, an upright piano in a pine box.” Then they’d have Sissle say to me, “Hey, Sam! What is dat , ober dere ?”
I’d say, “I don’t know.” Listen how ridiculous this is! I’d go over and touch the piano and say, “Why, that’s a pie -an-nol” and then sit down and play the piano, and Sissle’d sing.
Pat Casey says, “Are you gentlemen finished?”
“When you saw Sissle and Blake at the Harlem Opera House, what did they have on?”
“Well, that’s what they’re going to wear when you buy them— if you buy them.”
So the bookers are grumbling, and Pat says, “You don’t want them, I’ll sell them to the Schuberts.”
“Oh, no. No !” And we went on in tuxedos.