In the 1920s and '30s, American art, architecture and design were dominated by the striking version of modernism called Art Decoâ€”also sometimes known as "style moderne" or "streamline" style, a functional, sleek fashion which borrowed from industrial technology to create a playful, futuristic, glamorous visual language. At the same time, American music was shaped by the striking new forms of ragtime and jazz in parallel ways. The great Harlem stride pianistsâ€”James P. Johnson, Willie "The Lion" Smith, Eubie Blake, Fats Waller, Lucky Robertsâ€”fascinated and influenced composers like George Gershwin and Aaron Copland. A streamlined keyboard style as svelte as the Twentieth Century Limitedâ€”novelty ragtime or novelty jazz, it was often calledâ€”bridged classical and popular piano vocabularies. Novelty composers like Zez Confrey, Lee Sims, and Roy Bargy were wildly popular, and everyone's piano bench contained a few examples of the genre. This developed into a characteristic musical language as unmistakable as Art Deco's undulant chromium-and-Lucite cocktail lounges or Mondrian-like grids of glass-block windowsâ€”a style which could be dubbed Piano Deco.
One pioneering American piano composer shaped by American vernacular and dance was Sidney Eastwood Lane (1879-1951), who wrote piano suites and miniatures that united a wistful, meditative vision akin to Edward MacDowell's native American impressionism with an exuberant, rollicking imagination that supplied extroverted ballet music for the great Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn during their heyday. Lane composed with the help of 1920s state-of-the-art technologyâ€”the Ampico player piano, which accurately reproduced highly sophisticated music of the era and which allowed Lane to study a keyboard piece as it was played, the keys depressing as if by magic, the ghost in the machine present in the performance. Later, some of Lane's own pieces were recorded on Ampico rolls.
Lane was a fringe member of the Algonquin Round Table coterie, and a companion of other Manhattan literati. Having grown up in upstate New York and studied music at Syracuse University, he moved to Manhattan and spent most of his life in Greenwich Village, uniting rustic and urban themes in his compositions. He wrote pieces reflecting and imitating popular music: Five American Dances (1919) contains The Crap-Shooters (A Negro Dance), Around the Hall (A Dance-Hall Ditty), A Gringo Tango, North of Boston (A Barn Dance) and Powwow (An Indian Reminiscence), covering the gamut from Indian dances through hoedowns through urban dance-hall fads, all skillfully parodied. The dance idioms are wide-ranging and the keyboard style original, idiosyncratic and highly personal.
Perhaps Lane's best-known work is Adirondack Sketches (which title bows to MacDowell's famous and glossy Woodland Sketches), a 1922 composition with an explicit program, depicting a landscape that Lane knew well, having spent summers there since his youth: The Old Guide's Story, The Legend of Lonesome Lake, Down Stream, The Land of the Loon (A Camp-Fire Story), A Dirge for Jo Indian and Lumber-Jack Dance. The poetic mood is spiced by bursts of ebullient jazzy dance music.
In the 1920s, Lane assisted composer Alexander Russell in producing a well-known concert series at Wanamaker Auditorium. Three of his works were orchestrated by Ferde Grofe for Paul Whiteman's big, ambitious dance orchestra, among them a brooding tone-poem, Sea Burial (1925), and an unbuttoned jazzy shout, Persimmon Pucker (1926), and Minuet for Betty Schuyler (1925). Lane's work was shaped by both programmatic and dramatic impulses. He wrote ballet music with definite dramatic schemes, like the long 1928 descriptive suite, Sold Down the River, based on Uncle Tom's Cabin. Another piece (from 1933) is Girl on Tiptoe, from a longer work titled Pantomimes. Lane evidently conceived much of his music in vividly theatrical terms.
He was also attracted to exotic themes, writing mystery-tinged works like The Blue-Robed Mandarins (1922) and Caravan from China, also from Pantomimes (1933). Countering this preoccupation with the foreign and outrÃ© was a deep interest in American history, lore and culture, especially native literary themes. In that vein, he composed works with explicit literary contexts or programsâ€”In Sleepy Hollow of 1913, described as "four tone pictures" and based on Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," and Fourth of July (1935), which in ways reminiscent of Charles Ives recalls activities of the great traditional American holiday.
Lane's publishing career spanned the years from just before WW I to the end of WW IIâ€”his last published work (1944) was a suite called Here Are Ladies!, which saluted a wide range of archetypal heroines, including (characteristically) one as exotic as Madame Chiang Kai-shek and one as homespun American as Ann Rutledge. He traveled in literary circles, close friends with poet Edgar Lee Masters and composer-promoter-musicologist Deems Taylor. But in his own compositional career, Lane was something of an autodidact and eccentric loner, following an idiosyncratic musical direction, indifferent to fame and fortune. However, his music spoke immediately and directly to a young midwestern (Davenport, Iowa) jazz hero of the 1920s, Leon Bix Beiderbecke (1903-31), who in the last phase of his career would play hot solo cornet with the Whiteman group. In 1928, the enterprising Paul Whiteman made the only commercial recording of Lane's work (Sea Burial) to have appeared before the present CD.
Anyone seeking further information about Eastwood Lane should see the thorough and insightful essay, Eastwood Lane, by Norman P. Gentieu, Journal of Jazz Studies, Spring 1976, Vol. 3 No. 2, pp. 58-84.