The ragtime composer is this week's featured Marylander.
Anyone with a passing knowledge of ragtime is sure to recognize Eubie Blake. A prominent figure in the early jazz era, his compositions have been featured in film and television. But did you know the famous musician was born and raised in Maryland?
Eubie Blake was born James Hubert Blake on February 7, 1887, on 319 Forrest Street in Baltimore. His parents, John Sumner Blake and Emily "Emma" Johnstone, were former slaves and had eight children total, of which Eubie was the only one to survive past infancy.
Blake developed an interest in music at a young age, beginning with a pump organ when he was around 4-5 years old. Though his mother encouraged church music, his sights were set on the popular music genre, ragtime. Through frequent touring, he quickly asserted himself as a skilled musician. He played piano at the Goldfield Hotel in Baltimore, one of the first integrated clubs in America, as well as vaudeville in James Reese Europe's Society Orchestra.
Eubie Blake Cultural Center, courtesy of venue's website
Blake met the lyricist Noble Sissle in 1915, and from there, an artistic partnership was born. The pair first began in vaudeville, performing as the Dixie Duo in clubs around the country before heading onto the Broadway circuit. Their 1921 musical Shuffle Along was a sensation upon its release and was the first musical written by African-Americans and to feature African-American characters. It introduced the hit songs "Love Will Find a Way" and "I'm Just Wild About Harry," which have become standards of the genre.
Despite retiring from performing in 1946, he continued to compose and transcribe music. He was accepted to New York University and learned the Schillinger method for music composition, which he applied to songs he'd written but never transcribed. He received many honors for his contributions to the performing arts during his lifetime, including honorary doctorates from the University of Maryland, Howard University, and the George Peabody Medal from Johns Hopkins University. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1981. He died on February 12, 1983, in Brooklyn, New York, at the age of 96.
One can still find tributes to Eubie Blake today. The musical Eubie!, which used music from Blake's oeuvre, was a hit upon its premiere in 1978, garnering three Tony Award nominations. In Baltimore, you can visit the Eubie Blake Cultural Center located on 847 N. Howard Street. The institution supports education in the arts and hosts cultural events at its adjoining concert venue.
Were you familiar with Eubie Blake's origins in Maryland? Who are some other Marylanders you would like to read about? Let us know in the comments below.