Paul E. Affeldt is an old friend I've never met in person, although he lives just up the road in Ventura. For more than 20 years, he's been running a small and very specialized record firm, operating out of his house and holding another full-time job to keep his Euphonic label afloat. Affeldt collects the old masters of jazz piano.
Some of the names are known. Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis, Art Hodes (who in his 80s is still playing around Chicago). Other names have survived only in the memories of those who heard them play, sometimes at rent parties and at the player-against-player battles that were part of life in Harlem many a year ago. Some never got to make recordings. A few made piano rolls; a few who lived into the 1940s and 1950s were caught on amateur-made tape recordings of dubious quality and on which the bar noise is occasionally louder than the piano.
Affeldt and I got acquainted through my large admiration for a West Coast ragtime pianist named Paul Lingle. Lingle was a legend on his own turf (mostly around Oakland) but was only persuaded to record one album, in the early '50s for the Good Time label here in Los Angeles. He ended up giving piano lessons in Honolulu and died there in the early '60s.
Lingle was a marvel, a melancholy ragtimer with a gaunt face that seemed haunted by too many memories. Instead of the strict, ricky-tick tempos of some ragtime, Lingle took his tunes slowly, thoughtfully. "Black Bottom Stomp," played lickety-split by Jelly Roll Morton, who wrote it, becomes almost a slow, pretty ballad as Lingle did it.
A few years ago, Affeldt came onto some tapes of Lingle, playing at a couple of saloons where he worked. The audio quality, by LP standards, is not so hot and the background chat is so present you can almost smell the cigarette smoke. But it was Lingle, and for an enthusiast it was like finding an unpublished manuscript by Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway or Agatha Christie, depending on your preference.
This week, for I guess the first time in five years, I heard from Affeldt again, enclosing a new album, "Kings of Harlem Stride," and revealing Affeldt the musical archeologist at his most persistent and inspired.
For years, he'd been reading about an elusive stride pianist named Stephen (The Beetle) Henderson, Affeldt says in his notes. He would be mentioned on equal terms with Fats Waller and James P. Johnson and one source said The Beetle had "a perfect left hand." The left hand is, of course, what defines the stride pianist: striding up and down the bass octaves (sometimes powerfully enough to set an upright piano rocking) to provide a rhythm for what ever melodies and embellishments the right hand was up to.
There were those of us who used to frequent the Valley Tail of the Cock to watch strider Johnny Guarnieri at work. The fingernails of his flying left hand had worn grooves in the varnish above the keys. The club, and Johnny, are now both gone.
Henderson, you have to guess, may have had troubles with strong drink. He'd been known to take advances for recording sessions and never show up. Affeldt could find no trace that he'd ever recorded anything. Then he came upon an acetate of a radio show Art Hodes did in about 1945, when he interviewed Henderson and had him play two James P. Johnson tunes, "Carolina Shout" and "Keep Off the Grass."
The fine Southern California ragtimer, Bill Mitchell, commenting on the music for Affeldt, found "a breathless eagerness" in Henderson's playing and some tricky variations in the regular "oom-pah" rhythm of the left hand.
Affeldt also includes some rare performances by James P. Johnson himself and another little-remembered strider, Donald (The Lamb) Lambert. Animal nicknames were frequent at one point in Harlem history. Willie (The Lion) Smith was the most famous of them, but Affeldt also mentions Jack (The Bear) Wilson and Willie (The Leopard) Gant.
Since it's his podium, so to say, Affeldt pulls no punches in his own liner notes. His favorite of all pianists is Fats Waller. "He was always able to take the most blatant (stuff) (RCA) Victor threw at him, stomp the pants off it and laugh all the way to the bank with the proceeds," Affeldt says. But it angers him that the clownish stances Waller had to adopt concealed the serious musician who once played the organ in Notre Dame.
For an homage to Waller in "Kings of Harlem Stride," Affeldt has found some home-recorded rarities, apparently done in 1943, the year Waller died. They include "The Ladies Who Sing With the Band," which he wrote for a Broadway show, "Early to Bed," that year, and, of all things, Edward MacDowell's "To a Wild Rose," played with an unearthly sweetness, and strideless.
The sound quality, ah, well. Noisy, sometimes of uncertain velocity. Affeldt and his engineer Jim Turner worked miracles to get it where it is, so you shudder to think what the tapes and acetates were like at first hearing. The thing is, it doesn't matter; the music has a presence, a vitality that jumps across the decades and evokes a different time, a different place, the touch of artists who found fame, and a few who sadly didn't.
But Affeldt's noble crusade may be ending. In a melancholy letter to me, Affeldt said, "This is the first release for me in over five years. I'm almost positive there'll be another Paul Lingle after this, then I'll probably fold the company. My releases, the ones I'll associate my name and reputation with, are of such limited appeal, both in audience and sales these days, I'd be silly to try going the CD/cassette route. . . . The quality of the historically related records I've produced wouldn't benefit appreciably even if I could afford trying all bases. Truth is, when LP's go, Euphonic will also go, along with the music thereon. 'Sic gloria transit,' or whatever."
Euphonic Sound Recording Co. is at 357 Leighton Drive, Ventura, Calif. 93001.