Sifting through fact and fiction for true story of Ky native and boogie-woogie pioneer

·3 min read

A fable lives on the internet about jazz, blues, and boogie-woogie pioneer pianist Jimmy Blythe. There are some facts, though, sprinkled throughout the haphazard biographies. True: James Louis Blythe was born on May 20, 1901 in South Keene, Ky. (in the shadow of the Macedonia Baptist Church). True: Blythe moved to Chicago circa 1918 to pursue a career in music that resulted in modest success and influence. True: His 1924 piano solo “Chicago Stomp(s)” is regarded as the first complete boogie-woogie on record. The song reverberated throughout the Chicago music scene and inspired the likes of “Pine Top” Smith and Albert Ammons. True: Blythe died tragically young — at the age of 30 from epidemic meningitis.

What the internet myths, and jazz history books, get wrong about Blythe is the insinuation that his developmental years in Kentucky were trivial. False: He learned piano from observing itinerant ragtime players and imitating their style. False: “Not being found in the census… suggests living conditions that probably precluded regular schooling.” Also misleading is the fact that some fail to even mention his move to Lexington at age 11, settling just blocks from downtown. The truth is that the Patterson Street neighborhood in Lexington, where Blythe spent his teenage years, was a tight-knit, vibrant African-American community. The Pleasant Green Baptist Church was half a block from the Blythe household and the Patterson Street School was a block further. Education and culture were abundant right outside Jimmy’s front door. Living in the shadow of the church and school gave him ample opportunity to learn piano from a proper teacher. His teacher would have been either the church organist, M.L. Crittenden, one of his school teachers, or perhaps one of the two African-American women listed in the City Directory as piano teachers- Lizzie Steele or Willie B. Stephenson. The bottom line is that Jimmy Blythe, for all intents and purposes, learned piano from a woman. This would also have been the case for his childhood neighbor, Edgar Junius Hayes. Edgar grew up just two blocks from Jimmy, was three years younger, and also eventually became an exceptional and influential jazz musician.

No historian has ever made a connection between the lives of these two highly regarded pianists. Maybe that’s because some sources mistakenly cite Blythe’s birthplace as Louisville. Nevertheless, there’s an eerie, almost transcendent, fact that has eluded the most expert of music archaeologists that could have clued them into this connection. A song called “Fat Meat and Greens” is the clue, and it ties these two together almost better than any census data ever could. Blythe was the first to record this tune in Chicago in 1925 as a piano solo. It is an ebullient, sparkling blues. Jelly Roll Morton decided nine months later to ‘one-up’ Jimmy and recorded a nice though circuitous and rambling version (Morton typically recorded his own compositions). After Morton’s musical statement, the song title went dormant. Not another version was recorded. Fast forward to Los Angeles, CA, 1948. Hayes formed an R&B quartet after many years leading jazz bands in Ohio and NYC. Edgar Hayes and His Stardusters then recorded “Fat Meat ’N Greens.”

The 23-year difference in musical style between Blythe’s and Hayes’s versions might as well have been a hundred. What remained consistent, though, was the soul. Jimmy’s clear bass chord blues riff in the original becomes Edgar’s much slower, funkier phrasing of that same riff. As the latter version progresses, Hayes takes a piano solo that echoes the right-handed dexterity and flair that Blythe was known for. It is a tribute sent from years away- from one pal to another. Hayes’ song choice was not a mere coincidence. It endures as a profound expression of the language of music. “Fat Meat and Greens” is a song that places Edgar back next to Jimmy on a piano bench somewhere in Lexington, Kentucky long ago.

Sean McElroy is currently researching jazz history in the Bluegrass Region. Most of the research for this article was done at the Kentucky Room of the Lexington Public Library.