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River Shows, Blues, Ragtime, Jazz and Country Music - Jazz Piano

From the upcoming book, July 2023 release: River Shows, Blues, Ragtime, Jazz and Country Music, by Matt Chaney, Four Walls Publishing.

Matt's books are on Amazon.

Jess Stacy on piano, practicing his fingering for hours, in 1940. Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Kent Library, Southeast Missouri State University

Jess Stacy was a ready dance pianist in his teens at Cape Girardeau, Mo. “Jess was always a serious and fundamentally sound musician,” attested R.F. "Peg" Meyer, bandleader. “His great interest in life was always the piano, and he pursued it in a quiet and hard-working manner. He was born with a natural talent and fingers that could span thirteen piano keys (five notes over an octave) and developed a determination that he would not just play the piano, he would excel at it. After school when the rest of us would play pool or seek other amusement, he would hurry home, climb on the piano stool, and practice arpeggios by the hour.”

Stacy’s fingers on piano were “trained down to steel… bringing out both ends of an octave at once through any din,” reviewed Otis Ferguson in 1937. The jazz critic heard Stacy’s piano “as both an orchestra in miniature and a linking force among its separate parts, tying the chorded beat of the rhythm section into the melodic line, providing a sort of common base as between brass and reeds, filling out the chords of each.”

Stacy told Ferguson: “What I try to do—look, I try to melt with the band.” The pianist was a devotee of the late Bix Beiderbecke.

Leon Bix Beiderbecke, cornet great of Davenport, Ia., 1924. Courtesy

In 1924 Stacy was with Tony Catalano’s Iowans on Steamer Capitol, working the Upper Mississippi, when Bix showed up in his hometown Davenport. The scene was likely mid-July, between gigs for Beiderbecke in Indianapolis, based on Stacy’s recollection and newspaper evidence.

Beiderbecke was cornet soloist for the Wolverines Orchestra of Chicago, jazz gods of Midwest colleges, featured on radio and records. At Davenport wharf, Bix was greeted from the Capitol stage by musicians who sang his chorus on the new song “Riverboat Shuffle.” Bix smiled, pulling a mouthpiece from his pocket; he borrowed Catalano’s horn and sat in with the band.

The episode was profound for Stacy, who would recount it for 70 years in interviews and writings. Beiderbecke played “Eccentric” and “Skeleton Jangle” with the Iowans and “knocked everybody stiff,” Stacy said. “When he took up his cornet, there was no effort; his cheeks never even puffed out.” Stacy then moved aside at the piano for Bix, who rendered “Baby Blue Eyes,” “Clarinet Marmalade” and “In A Mist” on the keys.

“That stopped me cold, because I’d never heard anybody play like that before,” Stacy said. “I was astounded by the way he played—unorthodox fingers, you know. He hit those chords, he had a terrific ear, perfect pitch, but he couldn’t read music very well. He was just good. I just liked his tone alone.”
Beiderbecke later recorded In A Mist on piano, his classic of “impressionistic harmony,” as Stacy characterized. “He played what I’d been hearing in my head, but couldn’t do yet,” Stacy said. “He was a shy person, and I genuinely believe he didn’t know how good he was. I was jitterbug over Bix. Later, in Chicago, I’d see him walk into the Sunset Café when [Armstrong] was playing there, and Louis would turn almost white. But I think they were scared of each other.”

Beiderbecke died at age 28 in New York, 1931, beset with alcoholism. A modern reviewer paid ultimate compliment to Stacy, describing his piano style as “dreamy, Bix-like.”

Steamer Capitol docked at Louisiana, Mo., on the Mississippi River, circa 1930. Courtesy of Missouri State Archives