Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Free Improvisation Series: Robert Crum (part one)

Well, it's been a while since I've posted an update. I've been hard at work, finishing a master's degree, planning various recording projects, and a whole mess of other business. Here's a two-part attempt at a more complete picture of Robert Crum, the mysterious boogie woogie piano player.

Robert Crum (Nov. 29th, 1915 – May 1981) was born in Pittsburgh, PA. He studied classical piano there, as well as in Paris. In the 1930's lived in Chicago, IL where he took lessons from Meade Lux Lewis1 and began playing at small clubs, where he made about $35 a week.2 By January 1943 he was working as the afternoon pianist at Elmer's Cocktail Lounge, where Dorothy Donegan had also recently worked.3

Advertisement for the Hotel Sherman, ca. 1945
In July of that year he was hired to play at the Sherman Hotel's Panther Room for $300 per week.4 The Panther Room, along with the Malaya Room, formed the Hotel's College Inn restaurant, which served extravagant meals served on flaming swords by stereotyped waiters, and featured the day's top entertainment. The College Inn started booking swing music in March 1939; by that same time in 1942 they had booked major acts like Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman, Fats Waller, Harry James, Jimmy Dorsey, and Woody Herman, often for repeat stints.5 As a major focal point in the Chicago music scene, the Sherman Hotel's entertainment was watched closely by the entertainment press. Crum was booked as the Panther Room's afternoon entertainment, and was reviewed often by writers for The Billboard magazine. A typical example is a review which appeared in August 1944, which noted that Crum had “fine keyboard work. It is mostly straight pounding, with little visual showmanship. Crum keeps close to the keyboard, seldom lifting his head to see if anyone is paying attention. Goes over, tho.”6

His playing went over very well, apparently. In September, Crum was given a pay raise to $400 per week.7 In January 1944, the Billboard reported that Crum, perhaps to increase his visual showmanship, was employing a long mirror on several pieces so that members of the audience would be able to see his hands as he played. This prompted Billboard's Carl Cons to comment that although Crum's “finger dexterity is excellent and very commercial … his playing at times leaves music lovers in a fog.” He continued,

Neither a concert artist nor a good swing pianist, his semi-classical style of presenting numbers is often spoiled by corny tricks such as running his thumb across the keys and playing with the back of his hands. Has talent and could improve his performance by adding taste to his arrangements and eliminating some of the gingerbread that passes for showmanship.”8

In November 1943 Crum apparently had plans to move to New York in January 1944, following his stint at the Panther Room,9 but he decided to stay in Chicago for a few more months. In February 1944 he appeared in a variety show at the Chicago Theater, with singer Phil Regan as the headliner. Billed as “The Swing Piano Sensation of the Nation”, Crum was given a favorable review by Jack Baker, who wrote that,

[Crum] shows remarkable skill with his rapid piano keying, and swings out in a fast tempo on the classical and pop tunes. Distinctly different, and draws plenty of mitting with his fine arrangements of Massanet's Elegy, boogie-woogie medleys and Humoresque, which is interspersed with a smart concert arrangement of Rhapsody in Blue.”10

New York City skyline, ca. 1940
Perhaps encouraged by the positive press and high-profile work, Crum made the move to New York City in April 1944.11 In May he appeared on the Basin Street radio program alongside pianists Francis Carter, Arthur Bowie (who played as the duo Carter & Bowie) and Art Tatum.12 In June, Paul Ross mentioned Crum in a long list called The Top Names, “prize winners in the jazz joints of 52d Street”, which included Tatum, Mary Lou Williams, Earl Hines, Duke Ellington, the Nat King Cole Trio, Roy Eldridge, Billie Holiday, Oscar Pettiford, and a host of other major names.

The article, entitled “Disks a Must for 52d Street Click” and subtitled “Musicianship Essential But Waxing Required, Too”, reports that 25-50% of club clientele are tourists, and that “by far the largest part of this group of customers comprises young people who read the hip magazines and who, above all, listen to phonograph records. They are disk educated to a high degree.” Ross concludes that “when they hit New York and are entertainment bound, they are always ready to go and hear – in person – the man or woman who turned out this or that big disk.” He continues by mentioning that another 25% of club clientele are musicians themselves. And nobody is more critical of musicians than other musicians.” This significant sector of club clientele, Ross says, helps keep novelty artists, “the trickster [and] the corn-dispenser” from dominating the bandstands.
One would not be amiss to question Ross' figures (did he conduct a survey?), but his overall point is rather plausible. Therefore it's rather puzzling that Crum would be included as a “Top Name”. He had only lived in New York City for two months at the time, had no recordings to his name, and did not have any work as a sideman. And less than a year prior, Crum had been criticized in the same magazine for his “gingerbread” showmanship. Ross adds that “an act without even one big record behind it can work in the jazz bistros and do all right, providing it has musicianship. If the turn gets by the other musicians it can build in anywhere from six months to a year – build to the point where it begins making disks and thus enhances its [box office] value. But the old musicianship must be there or no dice.”13

Ross' article appeared shortly before RCA/Victor and Columbia had conceded to the demands of the American Federation of Musicians, which was still on strike.14 There was also a major shortage of domestic shellac, imposed by the War Production Board, causing a drop in disk production.15 It was a time of great upheaval and change in the recording business, and breaking into the recording medium was likely to prove difficult for a relative newcomer like Crum.

A typical logo for The Billboard magazine
As a side note, it's worth remembering that the entertainment press's goal (in 1944, but it's not much better today) was not to document the change of musical styles and the artistic growth of its individual practitioners. This is just a historical side-effect. As a trade periodical, the Billboard's goal was to keep booking agents, business owners, and advertisers apprised of the goings-on in the major entertainment centers. The artistic goals of musicians were of far lesser concern to critics than was the musicians' level of business acumen. But we should not make the mistake of thinking that the musicians written about in these magazines were as single-minded as the articles may portray them. We take for granted that Fats Waller, Gene Krupa, Woody Herman and all of the acts booked at the Sherman Hotel were not just major entertainers but also major artists. There is no inherent inconsistency here, but we must avoid the temptation to think that more marginal musicians simply lacked this vision, and are therefore not worthy of study or consideration. The activities that make Crum especially notable today are coming up in part 2 of this blog post.


1 Barnett, 2002, "Complete 1944 Rosenkrantz Apartment Transcription Duets", ABFable CD 004/005.
2 The Billboard, “Shelley Signs Bob Crum, Chi Pianist”. August 21st, 1943, p. 24
3 The Billboard, “Off the Cuff”. January 30th, 1943, p. 19
4 The Billboard, “Open Field For Graduates”. July 17th, 1943, p. 20
5 The Billboard, “Chi's Sherman Room Still Swings It”, March 28th, 1942, p. 6
6 The Billboard, “Follow-Up Night Club Review”. August 28th, 1943, p. 21
7 The Billboard, “Ivory Pounders in Chips”. October 2nd, 1943, p. 24
8 The Billboard, “Night Club Reviews”. January 22nd, 1944, p. 25
9 The Billboard, “Off the Cuff”. November 6th, 1943, p. 23
10 The Billboard, “Vaudeville Reviews”. February 26th, 1944, p. 22
11 The Billboard, “Chicago Air Execs Scouting Lounges for Talent 'Finds'”. April 15th, 1944, p. 20
12 The Billboard, “Top Radio Stanzas Finding Place for Small-Club Acts”. May 27th, 1944, p. 28
13 The Billboard, “Disks a Must for 52d Street Click”. June 24th, 1944, pp. 23 & 27
14 The AFM had been on a no-recording strike since August 1st, 1942 with the demand that recording labels pay a fee to license recordings for radio and jukebox play. This fee would be added to the AFM's Recording and Transcription Fund (RTF), which the AFM would use to offer work to underemployed musicians. Most smaller labels had capitulated by this time, but RCA/Victor and Columbia, the two largest, would not do so until November 1944.
15 See, for example, “Diskers Eye WPB Action”, (Billboard 6/27/42, p. 70) and “Financial Journal Features News Of Shellac Situation and Prices”, (Billboard, 10/31/42, p. 62)