Thursday, March 9, 2017

Novelty Piano

Original sheet music (1915)
Novelty Piano is a genre of piano music that was popular during the 1920s. A successor to ragtime and an outgrowth of the piano roll music of the 1910s, novelty piano can be considered a pianistic cousin of jazz, which appeared around the same time. Nola,  a 1915 composition by New York pianist Felix Arndt, is generally considered the first novelty piano hit.

Sheet music (1921)
Novelty piano came most powerfully to the attention of the public in 1921, with the appearance of Zez Confrey's Kitten on the Keys. The popularity of this piece quickly led to other Confrey works and inspired other artists to issue novelty pieces. The style remained popular through the end of the decade, at which time big bands were on the rise, player pianos were in decline, and the popularity of jazz continued unabated. Novelty piano slowly succumbed to, or was absorbed into, the new orchestral styles as the piano moved off center stage and took on more of a "support" role.

Although novelty piano has structural and stylistic similarities to the earlier ragtime form, there are also distinct differences. Ragtime was generally sold in the form of sheet music, so it was important to keep it simple enough to be played by the competent amateur. By the mid-teens, though, two new technologies had appeared which allowed the general public to hear music as performed by skilled musicians: the "hand-played" piano roll and the phonograph record. Novelty piano was developed as a vehicle to showcase the talents of these professionals, and was thus more often sold in the form of recordings and piano rolls than as sheet music. It was a new "turbo-charged" piano form, infused with chromatic piano roll flourishes, and influenced by the "modernistic" sounds of the art-deco twenties (which were themselves largely adopted from the French "Impressionist" pianists such as Debussy and Satie; "novelty" pianists tended to be highly classically trained, they were fully familiar with such "modern" pianists, and their fondness for complex chordal intricacies). (info extracted from Wikipedia, here
Zez Confrey (1895 - 1971)
As mentioned, Zez Confrey had a huge hit with his novelty ragtime composition Kitten on the Keys. Below I'll insert a few more examples of his most popular compositions. Here's first the 1923 Dizzy Fingers 

Original sheet music (1922)
Confrey had another hit with his Stumbling, here from the hand played piano roll by the artist

Another sheet issue of Stumbling
Confrey's novelty rags were also recorded by larger ensembles, for some time he had a contract with Victor to make recordings for the growing market of dance records. Here we'll end this small intro to the novelty piano tradition by inserting Paul Whiteman and his orchestra's version of Stumbling - a hit for the orchestra and with the dancing public


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