The swing era is widely considered to be the golden age of big bands. Which is true, but the decade also was a period of widespread jazz piano genius. Before the trumpet and saxophone became all the rage on the heels of Louis Armstrong, followed by the electric guitar, the piano was jazz's elegant superstar. The list of exceptional solo jazz pianists who performed solo or led bands in the late 1930s and early 1940s is extraordinary: Art Tatum, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Stan Kenton, Willie the Lion" Smith, Nat King Cole, Erroll Garner, James P. Johnson, Earl Fatha" Hines, Eubie Blake, Jelly Roll Morton, Teddy Wilson, Mary Lou Williams and about two dozen more I've left out. Even the pianists you've probably never heard of were monsters.
One of the piano greats of the era who isn't as well known today as those named above was Jess Stacy. Stacy was born in Missouri in 1904 and grew up in Cape Girardeau on the Mississippi River. At 14, Stacy was captivated by the music played on riverboats arriving from New Orleans, eventually playing with Bix Beiderbecke in the 1920s and joining Benny Goodman in the mid-1930s. Stacy remained with Goodman for years, playing with him at the Palomar Ballroom in 1935 and at Carnegie Hall in 1938. He left Goodman in the early 1940s, rejoined in '42 before leaving for Tommy Dorsey. He moved to Los Angeles in the '50s but left the music business disgusted after being heckled by a drunk in a small club. He also was married to singer Lee Wiley.
Quoting Britain's Independent when Stacy died in 1995:
Stacy managed to draw an individual tone from the piano and his unique tremolo at the end of each phrase and his habit of following an emphasized note with one which seemed almost to be tucked underneath the stressed one, resulted from his acute sense of dynamics. His Harlem-style rolling left hand harked back to the stride players of the Twenties but the strongest influence came from the pianists Earl Hines and Teddy Wilson."
I'll add that Stacy brought with him into the 1930s the melancholy and zest of the '20s as well as a swing style as precise as a happy sewing machine. He could bounce his left hand in the stride tradition, let his right hand run with moderate bass notes added, and then bring them together like traffic merging on two highway ramps. In Stacy's hands, one heard three pianists playing at once, with jaunty jubilation and seductive sass. His song introductions always sound to me like the preliminary chugging that goes on when you awaken a pinball machine with quarters. Stacy's intros pre-loaded songs with drama and set your feet going.
Ultimately, Stacy's piano was thinking music. Unlike Tatum, Waller and many others, Stacy's sound was less about daring speed, fireworks or wit but more reflective and rueful. Whenever I hear Stacy, my left hand goes up to my chin automatically and I star to wonder about what life was like in the '20s and '30s and how a pianist was able to do what he did—not only in a trio format but for bands as a timekeeper who was as on the money as a locomotive piston.
JazzWax tracks: My favorite Jess Stacy collection is Jess Stacy: 1944-50 (French Classics), which you'll find at iTunes. While there, grab Jess Stacy 1935-39. Then you'll have to look around for Jess Stacy: 1951-56.