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More about Jesse Crawford

by Reginald Foort

"Cinema Organ Herald" May 1933, Vol 2, p.p.101-103

SINCE he arrived in England, I have had the pleasure of spending many happy moments with Jesse Crawford, and, like everyone else who has met him, I cannot help being immensely impressed by the truly delightful, unassuming personality of this superb organist. He is an absolute artist to his finger-tips.

For the first two weeks of his visit, unfortunately, his times of playing at the Empire, Leicester Square, practically coincided with mine at the Regal, Kingston, so I found it impossible to get along to hear him in person until yesterday. Then I managed to slip in for his first interlude at 1 o'clock, and it was certainly a real joy from every point of view.

A Splendid Reception

Announced by trailer as " The Internationally Famous Organist," he came up on the lift and played three items ; the first, which he described on the screen as a " Waltz Fantasy," was a medley of all the most popular waltzes from the period of " The Blue Danube " right up to the present day, in historical sequence ; then he gave us a cleverly constructed mosaic of some of the biggest English fox-trot hits of the past dozen years ; finally, he played " Ah ! Sweet Mystery of Life," reproducing exactly his superb record of this number.

His wonderfully neat, musicianly, rhythmic playing and his quiet, convincing showmanship entirely captivated the rather small but most enthusiastic audience (even the Empire, Leicester Square, is by no means packed out at 1 p.m. ! ), and the sincere and prolonged applause would most certainly have justified a fourth item, which, owing to the system of accurate time-keeping in cinemas which we all know so well, he was unable to give.

Holding His Audience

His style of playing, which is identical with that of his immensely popular records, is too well known to need description ; the way in which he has concentrated with striking originality and complete success on the interpretation of the popular tunes of the moment enables him to put these over with the most fascinating and varied treatment.

The Empire organ is a perfectly glorious instrument, and he used every tone-colour and every effect in it to the fullest possible advantage. The most striking points about Jesse Crawford's playing in the theatre are the contrasts of light and shade which he obtains, the constant and infinite variety of colour, including innumerable and amazingly beautiful combinations of tone, invariably pleasing to the ear, which he produces, and above all, his really exquisite phrasing, which was such that one could literally almost hear him making the organ speak the actual words which were thrown on the screen. One got an impression that he held his audience so easily and so completely that not one single member of it lost interest for one moment or missed the tiniest detail of his playing.

A Chat About Himself

After he had finished his interlude, he invited me up into his room, and we had a long and most interesting talk about himself and his experiences. He told me that he was born at Woodland, California, in 1895, and that the only musical training he ever had was that he played the mouth-organ from the time he was two years old ! About the age of nine, he began to play the cornet in a band, where he learned to read music, and at twelve, without any lessons from anybody, started to practise the piano and got a job in a dance band, which he held until he was fourteen.

Then for two years, he travelled with a small roadshow, playing cornet in the band and piano in the orchestra, and at the age of sixteen had his first experience of the cinema, playing the piano in conjunction with drums. " Of course," he said, " I only played the piano, not the drums. A reporter once gave it out that I played the piano with my hands and the drums with my feet, like a kind of one-man band ! "

His First Cinema Organ

After two years of that, he had his first taste of playing the organ in a cinema, again absolutely without instruction, at Spokane, Washington. The organ was a Kimball with seven stops, tubular-pneumatic action, and no tremulants at all ! After a couple of years, he moved first to San Francisco and then to Los Angeles, always playing on bigger and better organs, and began to develop the organ solo.

The double-feature programme has never been the fashion in America, and the standard cinema show, consisting of orchestral overture, news reel, cartoon or travel picture, stage presentation and feature film, clearly lent itself far better to the inclusion of an organ interlude than the type of programme which has always been the rule over here.

I asked Mr. Crawford whether he had ever played for silent pictures. " Oh, yes," he answered, " but I never fitted them up with printed music. I always used to improvise at least 99 per cent."

The coming of the talkies affected him not at all, except to enhance his value as an interlude organist by reason of the valuable contrast between " canned" music and the " personal touch."

He Likes London

His greatest successes were in the huge theatres in Chicago and New York, and now he makes his home permanently in New York ; he has a daughter aged 7| and, as everyone knows, his wife is also a superb organist and frequently joins with him in organ interludes and presentations on a second console.

There is no doubt that he is thoroughly enjoying his visit to England, and finds life over here a refreshing change. " London suits my temperament down to the ground," he said, " I have not the slightest wish to go back home for a long time ! I find existence in England generally considerably calmer and less of a hectic rush than in America, though you certainly seem to be able to get things done over here just the same. English audiences are simply wonderful to play to and are immensely more appreciative than those I have been accustomed to back in the States, and they listen far better. Indeed, last Sunday they forced the management to take off the big picture which had already started so that I could play to them again. When I first arrived, I went round and heard several of the leading English organists, including yourself at Kingston, and Quentin Maclean and Harold Ramsay, and I could not help being very much struck by two things : the extraordinary care you all take in preparing your organ solos and getting all the details of presentation and lighting absolutely right ; and the wonderful way in which your audiences listened to your interludes and applauded so enthusiastically at the end. There is no doubt that this is a genuinely organ-loving country, which is hardly to be wondered at when one considers what a number of very fine organists you have over here. You have a far greater proportion of first-rate players in England than we have in America, and I have no doubt whatever that the organ in this country will continue to grow in popularity more and more."

Fitting an Earthquake

Jesse Crawford's organ-playing has been exclusively confined to the cinema organ : he has never played concert or church organs or classical organ music, but I can assure you that the impression that he could not play Bach if he wanted to is utterly unfounded. He just does not want to !

He told me quite a number of incidents and anecdotes in connection with the various appointments which he has held, far and away the most extraordinary of which was that, on three separate occasions during his organ solo he has experienced earthquakes, and his account of his feelings when he had to go on playing while the entire building was rocking and shaking with terrific vibrations and rumblings, while the whole audience shrieked and screamed in a state of blind panic, is quite beyond my powers of descriptive ability.

What Would You Have Done ?

" The last time it happened was the worst," he said. " Ever}'one in California is far too well acquainted with the frightful dangers and results of earthquakes to be able to remain quietly seated when one occurs. The slides faded off the screen as the operators dashed out of the box for safety, all the women began to scream and hug and kiss each other, saying ' good-bye,' and the entire audience got into a terrible panic and made for the exits. I hardly new what was the best thing to do, but I tried to keep the interlude going. Glancing around I noticed the members of the orchestra sliding off out of the pit, so I put on full organ and broke into the most lively, snappy fox-trot that came into my head, and after a few moments, those members of the audience who were upstairs in the circle, finding that they were not actually dead, began to get their courage back, gradually became quite brave ; they stood up and started to shout to the people in the stalls ' Shut up and sit down,' and the situation was saved."

Hats Off to English Recorders !

It was most interesting to hear Mr. Crawford's comments about broadcasting and recording over here. He said that when he broadcast on the Empire organ, it was the very first time he had ever had to do so in a theatre with an audience present, and he found it quite a strange experience to have to stand up to acknowledge applause between the items. He has also had a recording session on the same organ, and that, too, was the first time he had ever recorded other than on a studio organ. He is absolutely delighted with the records he made and considers that, not only have our English H.M.V. recording experts nothing whatever to learn from those of the American Victor Company, but that the recording technique of our people is actually superior, especially with regard to the " top," the high notes, the 4-ft. Tibia, and, above all, those vital " upper harmonics" upon which entirely depends the quality of tone. He is convinced that the American recording in this respect is definitely inferior to ours.

Off to the Continent

With regard to future plans, Jesse is at present somewhat vague. He is far more interested in making his visit an enjoyable holiday rather than in looking for professional engagements, and is just off for an extended tour of Europe. In company with Walter Pearce (the European representative of the Wurlitzer Company), he intends to visit Paris, Berlin, Vienna, and many other interesting places, and may possibly play in one or two theatres which contain suitable organs. Lucky Walter! Is he looking forward to the prospect ? I'll say he is !

When Mr. Crawford returns to England, he hopes to play in several of our most important provincial cities.

When I asked him to give me a few details about some of his more ambitious interludes, he was only too delighted to do so, but I am afraid space will only permit me to describe one or two of them. He introduced both " Masquerade " and " Auf Wiedersehen, my dear " to America and, in both cases, he and his wife played on two four-manual consoles on the stage with the assistance of the entire resources of the theatre, complete ballet, large chorus, solo dancers, principal singers and the huge permanent orchestra.

Some Interludes

In his presentation of " Auf Wiedersehen, my dear," he worked on the contrast between the modern number and Romberg's 20-year-old valse-ballad of the same name, illustrating his ideas by having half the ballet dressed in old-fashioned costumes and the other half in modern dress, the interlude culminating in the playing of both the tunes together.

On another occasion, he put on Rubinstein's " Kamenai Ostrov " ; for this, he was provided with a specially painted drop-scene which alone cost over £40, depicting the mysterious island in the river with the monastery in the distance, and was assisted by a male-voice choir of twenty dressed as monks.

So pleased were the directors with these special productions that they had complete scores made and sent the shows all round their circuit for the local organists to put on. Cannot you see some of our English circuits spending even a fiver on an organ interlude, let alone £50 or £100 ?

Keep it an Organ Interlude

" And yet," Crawford was most insistent, " the organist must take care that his show is an organ interlude ; he must not put on these ambitious efforts too often, and when he does, must not let the actual organ playing be overshadowed by all that stage presentation. The week afterwards, he must get back to a perfectly straight, unadorned organ solo and then play it in such a way that it will ' get over ' equally well on its own merits."

Mr. Crawford considers that organists in this country are making a serious mistake in sticking permanently in one theatre. An audience soon gets used to any one organist, and it would be a splendid scheme of immense value in maintaining the pulling power of organs and organists if we could all frequently tour around or, at any rate, exchange jobs occasionally with other organists.

Long-felt Curiosity Satisfied

Just as I was about to leave, I put two questions to Jesse Crawford as to points about which I—and probably the majority of English cinema organists—had been curious for years. " When you are making those marvellously original arrangements of yours of popular dance numbers," I enquired, " do you copy the whole thing out in manuscript ? " " Never," I was surprised to hear him reply ; " I just get down on the organ and experiment and work all the details out and then memorise the number and afterwards I always play it exactly the same, note for note and stop for stop."

 

" One final question, Mr. Crawford," I continued; "is there any truth in all the stories we have heard about your having so many pupils at absolutely incredible fees that you have to spend practically the whole of every night teaching in half-hour spasms ? " He laughed so much that he nearly fell off his chair ! "I never teach at all! " he exclaimed, " It would take far more time and patience than I have to spare, and anyway I haven't the heart to take people's money. I can only remember giving one man two lessons in my life, and he was so insistent that he made my life a burden until I agreed to teach him. He was so well off that I had no hesitation in charging him 50 dollars a lesson of half an hour, but at the end of the second lesson I just could not stand it any longer and absolutely refused to continue. The point was that he had bought one of my records—' Diane,' I think it was—and played it over and over again until he had analysed it and managed more or less to puzzle out for himself the notes and the combinations and so on ; then he was so tickled to death with himself that he was longing to give himself the satisfaction of showing me how clever he was. If he had come along and let me play to him for half an hour at a time, he might have got some good out of his lessons, but he just would not : he insisted on playing to me, and the result was that he learnt precisely nothing."

When Jesse Crawford returns from his trip abroad, I hope to be able to manage to have rather more free time and then I am looking forward to seeing a good deal more of him. He has promised to pay me another visit at my own theatre at Kingston.

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