"When my oldest daughter came home from third grade with a note from teacher saying she had musical aptitude, my wife said, 'Let's buy a piano so she can learn to play,'" recalls Michael Schwimmer. "I said, 'Oh, no. She'll turn out just like me. She'll take lessons for a while, quit like I did, and we'll be stuck with a piano nobody can play.'"
Still, the idea of having a piano around the house intrigued Schwimmer, an avid jazz buff and collector of old records. "A neighbor was in the business of rebuilding old player pianos," Schwimmer says, "so we bought one. And soon I got to know a little bit about old piano rolls."
That "little bit" has turned into a full-time profession for Schwimmer, today nationally recognized as a specialist in the perforated reels of paper that, when unwound through a player piano, mechanically reprodue a live piano performance. At 58, Schwimmer makes a solid living through his Piano Roll Center in Lake Bluff, auctioning antique and contemporary piano rolls by mail. But besides conducting a business that appeals to only a select market of collectors, Schwimmer brings his music to the people regularly, lecturing and demonstrating piano rolls at fairs and festivals around the country. This weekend, Schwimmer will play classic piano rolls for listeners at the Antiques al Fresco show at Port Clinton Square in Highland Park. His program will focus on ragtime--not only the well-known works of Scott Joplin, but music by Joplin's peers that, because of the inconsistency with which African American music was published early in this century, is unfamiliar to many people.
In an era before radios and phonographs, people purchased sheet music of popular songs to entertain themselves at home. "But back in the nineteen-teens, you couldn't buy a lot of ragtime on sheet music to play," Schwimmer explains. "In the early years, rag was a serious musical style. It wasn't just honky-tonk, ricky-tick stuff. Scott Joplin maintained that this was the classical music of black people. Rag was very complex and very difficult to play. But the average young lady between 1900 and 1920 who took piano lessons could only play hymns or little ballads. So a lot of this music wasn't published."
It was, however, transcribed on paper rolls to be played on nickelodeons--or orchestrions, to use the proper name for the machines that produced music in bars in the days before juke boxes. "In the 1920s, there were lines of what were called race records for black music," Schwimmer says. "There were never race piano rolls, but there were race nickelodeon rolls. These machines were placed in taverns everywhere, including taverns in black neighborhoods--specifically in Chicago on the south side. But the people there didn't want to listen to the waltzes and fox trots that were popular in those days, like 'Margie' and 'No, No, Nora.' So a number of the companies that made these rolls, like the Capitol piano roll company, hired black jazz pianists in Chicago--guys like Clarence Johnson and Jimmy Blythe, who had played on some of the early race records. Capitol not only got them to play some songs, they gave them free rein. They said, 'We don't know the first thing about what you people wanna hear. So do whatever you wanna do.'"
Nickelodeon rolls had bigger holes than piano rolls, so they didn't fit on player pianos. Much of the music produced for nickelodeons, therefore, never made it out of the taverns. Only in the past decade, Schwimmer says, thanks to advances in computer technology, have the obsolete rolls been converted to player-piano size, making them accessible to a larger audience.
Schwimmer's fascination with early jazz dates back to his obsession as a boy in Winnetka: record collecting. "When other kids were buying Frank Sinatra and Frankie Laine, I was buying Dixieland," he says. "I graduated to that from, of all things, Spike Jones and his City Slickers." Jones's records were famous for their bizarre comic sound effects. "At first I was buying them for the jokes--the gunshots and the bells and the hiccups. But Ruth Ansell, who ran the L and A stationer's store where I bought them, turned me on to the early Spike Jones records, which were fairly straight novelty tunes with Dixieland backgrounds--things with names like 'Leave the Dishes in the Sink, Ma.' Then she turned me on to Eddie Condon records. They were expensive--$1.05 for a 78, rather than the usual 49 cents. I had to go mow a neighbor's lawn for a dollar and weasel a nickel out of my dad to get one. Today, although I can't stand listening to that crap any more, I still have the 78s. I worked hard for them."
As he grew older, Schwimmer says, he realized that "what I thought was real hot jazz was just a watered-down white man's version of the real thing. So I started listening to people like Louis Armstrong and King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton." On one record, he remembers, he heard a strange percussion sound in the background: a washboard. "I thought it was neat that you could take a silly thing like that and play jazz with it, and probably get paid for it." Today, washboard-playing is Schwimmer's other musical vocation. He performs weekly with a group called the Hot Band at the Village Tavern in Long Grove; this weekend at Port Clinton Square, he'll pick up the washboard for several afternoon sets with the Chicago Blue Blowers, a traditional band in the Armstrong-Morton style. The ensemble also features a whiskey jug emulating a tuba, as well as a clarinet, a trumpet, and a banjo.
If Schwimmer's musical passions seem antique, there's a place in them for modern technology as well. He spent last weekend at the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival in Sedalia, Missouri, where besides playing washboard with a rag quartet or attending symposia on music-archival practices, he observed a demonstration of a recent breakthrough in the computer industry.
"I don't understand it, I admit," he says. "But what happens is this. A guy plays music on an electronic keyboard, and what he plays is recorded on a floppy disk. The disk can be played back to operate the keyboard. But it also shows up on the computer screen--it looks like a piano roll sitting on its side. The notes appear as perforations on a roll. This way, you can edit out mistakes, clean things up. Then, thanks to some new software that's just been developed, the file can be converted to another disk which will punch out paper piano rolls five at a time!" He laughs. "I remember when the inventors of musical high technology were saying, 'Kiss your paper rolls goodbye. Floppy disks are the wave of the future.' But people are still buying piano rolls."
Michael Schwimmer's piano roll demonstrations will begin at 10 AM Saturday at the Antiques al Fresco show and music fest at Port Clinton Square, 600 Central, Highland Park. Schwimmer and the Blue Blowers will perform several sets in the afternoon, beginning at 2 PM, at the same location. The whole event is free. For information, call 708-433-5306. The number of Schwimmer's Piano Roll Center in Lake Bluff is, 708-295-1901.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Chicago Sun-Times--Tom Cruze.