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The Quiet Piano Man

Sizing Up the Understated Grace of Baltimore Jazz Great Ellis Larkins

By James D. Dilts | Posted 10/9/2002

Ellis Larkins, the Baltimore-born pianist and premier accompanist who died here Sept. 29 at age 79, spoke no more than necessary and seldom raised his voice. He didn't have to; he let his fingers do the talking.

One of Larkins' large, square hands could span 11 notes on the keyboard, and while he necessarily conducted his eloquent conversations with other musicians, singers, and audiences seated at the piano, he was also a master of nonverbal communication when he was away from it. To fill out his muffled, elliptical speech, he relied on a full repertoire of dramatic and often humorous hand signals.

"How well I know," says Marian McPartland, one of four pianists who went on a 1974 George Wein-sponsored tour of South America with Larkins, Earl Hines, and Teddy Wilson. She also had him on one of her early radio shows. McPartland has probably come to know more jazz pianists than anyone alive through her program Piano Jazz, which started in 1978 and is still carried on National Public Radio.

"Ellis liked to drink a bit," she says from her home in Port Washington, N.Y. "He said he would be glad to do the show if we could stop after every tune so he could have a drink and smoke a cigarette. And that's what we did. I brought a bottle of brandy and Crystal [Larkins' wife] had a bottle, and afterwards we all had a drink. We talked about a lot of things, the people who influenced him.

"He was an extremely fine musician with a great sense of humor. Stylistically, he was one of a kind," she says. "He wasn't a guy like Oscar Peterson who is all over the place with technique. The opposite was true of Ellis. He was deliberate and smooth with a wonderful sense of rhythm, an inner feeling of perfect time. He was elegant and very melodic.

"In the 1950s I was playing at the Hickory House [in Manhattan]," McPartland says. "I thought I had a pretty nice touch. Ellis came in and I invited him to play. He got a wonderful sound out of the piano, the best I ever heard. He had the most velvety touch.

"I had been thinking that it would be nice to fly Ellis up here and do Piano Jazz again. It's tough to lose touch with a friend. You don't really because the music is always there. I wish he wasn't dead, but he is somebody who will never be forgotten." McPartland plans to rebroadcast her original show with Larkins next year.

Jazz divas, a demanding group, similarly rank Larkins at the top. He accompanied some of the leading jazz vocalists and blues singers, from Mildred Bailey through Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, to Joe Williams and Chris Connor. Connor, the essence of cool, whose husky, limpid tone and controlled intensity can still send chills up your spine, is now 74, a working singer and recording artist who will appear at New York's Birdland in January and is planning a Japanese tour.

"Ellis was my absolute favorite pianist in the world--he just lifted you up into the clouds," she says, speaking from her home in Toms River, N.J. "He made an indelible impression on me. We did the first Bethlehem album together [Lullabies of Birdland, 1954], and it put Bethlehem and me on the map. I didn't know he had just finished playing with Ella. He was so easy and inspiring to work with. He just wrote out a few chord changes, and we took care of business. We were on a deadline--you know, the producer kept saying, 'Three hours, three hours, three hours.'

"Some people are great pianists but not great accompanists. Ellis had his own unique style, soft and sensitive," Connor says. "He never got in the way, he just enhanced you. He sounded like a full symphony. It's funny, I've had him on my mind for some reason. I wanted to work with him again. I found his address and I was going to ask him to if he wanted to get together and re-create that album."

Ellis Lane Larkins, the eldest of six children, was born in Baltimore on May 15, 1923. The family home at 1523 W. Lanvale St. is now the site of Harlem Park Elementary School. His father, John Wesley Larkins, was a janitor and caterer who played violin in the Baltimore City Colored Orchestra; his mother, Clara Emily Larkins, was a pianist. At the instigation of his parents, Ellis first took up the violin, then the piano. A prodigy, he made his piano debut with the Baltimore City Colored Orchestra at age 10. In 1935, he played before a large audience at Frederick Douglass High School that included Eleanor Roosevelt, who called him back to the stage and shook his hand.

Larkins later attended Douglass High; the required curriculum then included Latin and a modern foreign language (he took French). Among its distinguished graduates are Thurgood Marshall, Cab Calloway, and song-and-dance man Avon Long. (The building, at Calhoun and Baker streets, has since been converted to apartments.)

Between 1936 and '38, while in high school, Larkins studied classical music with a series of piano instructors and also attended the Peabody Preparatory School--not as a formal student, because the school did not accept blacks at that time, but by studying privately with some of its teachers. (In 1984, Peabody awarded the pianist an honorary bachelor of music degree.) Larkins also served as the assistant organist at the St. James Episcopal Church in Harlem Park.

At the same time, he was listening to jazz pianists on the radio and to the big bands at the Royal Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue: the Jimmy Lunceford Orchestra and Chick Webb's band with Ella Fitzgerald. After graduating from Douglass in 1940 at age 17, with a three-year, $200 scholarship to New York's Juilliard School of Music, Larkins took a train at Penn Station and didn't come back to Baltimore for almost 50 years.

In New York, he quickly found work as a pianist in clubs and restaurants while attending Juilliard, from which he graduated in 1943. He joined guitarist Billy Moore's trio, which played at the Café Society Uptown on East 58th Street, and took over the band when Moore became ill. The other band at the club was led by pianist Teddy Wilson, famed for his work with the Benny Goodman Quartet. He and Larkins alternated playing for dancers between the floor shows. Wilson, who had a light, fluid style, was a major influence on Larkins, and soon Ellis began to gain a reputation as a singer's accompanist.

In 1950, he made a classic series of Decca recordings with Ella Fitzgerald, since reissued as Pure Ella. The Penguin Guide to Jazz calls the album "a masterpiece, all of it with Larkins' gentle, perfect accompaniments." His Vanguard duet recordings with cornetist Ruby Braff have also become jazz classics and have been reissued.

When the British Invasion avalanche of the 1960s darkened many of the New York cabarets, Larkins did studio work, became a vocal coach and teacher, and spent the years from 1968 to 1972 in California as Joe Williams' accompanist. He returned to a somewhat revived Manhattan club scene, playing Gregory's on the Upper East Side and the Cookery in Greenwich Village before settling in at the Carnegie Tavern below Carnegie Hall at 56th Street and Seventh Avenue. There, six nights a week for seven years, he was an institution, known for playing short sets with long intermissions.

In 1988, weary of the nightclub business, Larkins and his wife (the former Crystal Ernestine Brown, also a native) returned to Baltimore in semi-retirement. He worked sporadically in the city's hotels and clubs and played an occasional concert at the Peabody or Coppin State College.

Jazz singers who did not work with Larkins seem to wish they had. Providence, R.I.'s Carol Sloane and Baltimore's Ethel Ennis both remark on his ability to stay out of the way. "Ellis really showed the world how to be an accompanist," Sloane says. "Jimmy Rowles [another formidable jazz pianist, accompanist, and toper], with whom I lived at the time, went to the Carnegie Tavern to hear him play. He would play a couple of tunes and take a long intermission. Jimmy loved it--he thought it was great."

But it was more than just staying out of the way. "He knew how to phrase with the singer," Ennis says. Musically breathing in and breathing out, falling behind and catching up, knowing when to lead and when to follow: These things Larkins did superbly in his understated way. His own ideas he delivered authoritatively but quietly. He made people listen. One of a long line of Baltimore pianists stretching back to Eubie Blake and up to Cyrus Chestnut that includes Don Abney and Albert Dailey (both excellent accompanists), he was as unique a player and an individual as Thelonious Monk.

"He walked off an airplane," recalls Marian McPartland, "like an ambassador." He was that, too, from another age in Baltimore and in jazz. Ellis Larkins was a class act. His music will live on, but we are unlikely to hear or see anyone quite like him again.

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The Closet Tapes (10/4/2000)
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