The posthumously celebrated boogie-woogie pianist Buck Hammer was legendary, and the reason he was legendary is that he had four hands. When his debut and swan song, The Discovery of Buck Hammer, came out in 1959, critics heard something vital in these technically impossible performances: the authentic sound of the blues.
Like Mary Anne Jackson, Hammer was an invention of the comedian, composer, pianist, writer, and original host of the Tonight Show, Steve Allen. His Make ‘Em Laugh confesses:
Since my youth I have enjoyed playing occasional practical jokes and have even staged some outrageous hoaxes. Two of the wildest involved albums of jazz piano music I recorded under fictitious names: Buck Hammer was supposedly a shy, black boogie-woogie pioneer whose album was released posthumously, and Mary Anne Jackson was, according ot the liner notes, a black pianist and composer who performed with “bold authority,” mainly in Europe. The picture of Buck Hammer shown on the record cover was an artist’s sketch, and the photo of Mary Anne Jackson was actually a photograph of one of our former housekeepers, named Mary Sears. I not only did the piano playing on both albums but wrote the liner notes, in the deliberately stuffy, overly analytical style of some critics.
I fooled some real critics with those, who gave Hammer and Jackson splendid reviews. Downbeat magazine awarded Hammer three-and-a-half stars, and the New York Herald Tribune said the pianist’s death was a terrible loss to the world of jazz.
Allen talks about the hoax records at some length in Living the Jazz Life, where he credits Ralph Gleason as the first critic to notice that Buck Hammer was a fake:
“Just for the hell of it I got an idea to do an album and I got a good rhythm section together and then I wrote some very stuffy scholarly notes, purposely dry notes, of a sort that do exist in one branch of criticism, and I drew up this imaginary character called Buck Hammer. I had an artist sketch a black gentleman who looked a little like Fats Waller or one of those heavy-set piano players, cigar in his mouth and big stubby fingers. The story line was that he had made only this one album and was a little strange personally, a little inhibited emotionally. Some jazz players had met him over the years as they would move through Mississippi and Alabama, and they would encourage him to join their groups, but he was too shy. He avoided the big time, he wanted no glory, he lived a very simple life, and after making this album he had in fact passed away.
“It’s a very touching story,” Steve said, laughing. “I was recording a lot with Bob Thiele at the time and we put the album out. And Down Beat gave it three and a half stars and the New York Herald Tribune gave it a real rave and said, ‘Hammer’s death was a tragic loss to the world of jazz.’ And it got a couple of other nice write-ups around the country.
“And then, finally, [jazz critic] Ralph Gleason listened to it carefully and realized that on some of the tracks what he was hearing was not physically possible, because I had double-tracked and so had two hands going in the bass and two going in the upper register. So he smelled a rat and called Bob Thiele, who confessed the truth right away. And then Time wrote something about it and it was finally exposed.”
As he explained to the band during the session for The Wild Piano of Mary Anne Jackson, which featured Allen and Jayne Meadows’ housekeeper, Mary Sears, on its cover, he intended the hoax records to expose the ignorance and gullibility of music critics:
“‘What we’ll do is establish a tempo and you guys play and we’ll agree on a starting key. And then after that it’s every man for himself. Follow me as best you can, but I’m going to deliberately make some meaningless changes, I won’t modulate; I’ll just jump from, like, C to A flat or whatever—any two keys. And I won’t make it sensible; I will deliberately make it non-sensical as a jump and there’ll be rhythm changes in a tune.’ They immediately saw what I was doing. I said, ‘I’m not putting on some of the guys who play ultra-modern, but some of the critics who claim to understand what these guys are playing.’ In both cases, Buck and Mary Ann, it was really aimed at critics, not at anybody else.”
More after the jump…