Ellis Lane Larkins

Ellis Larkins was a celebrated jazz pianist who was an accompanist for Ella Fitzgerald and other jazz greats.
Ellis Larkins was a celebrated jazz pianist who was an accompanist for Ella Fitzgerald and other jazz greats. (Sun file photo by Andre F. Chung)
Ellis Lane Larkins

Born and raised in West Baltimore, he grew up in a musical home. Both his parents were musicians. His father, John Wesley Larkins, played violin in the City Colored Orchestra, while his mother, Clara Emily Larkins, played piano. His two sisters and three brothers all sang or played instruments. He began his piano studies at age 4, and by his teens was being hailed throughout Baltimore as "the Negro Prodigy."

"There were musicians in and out of the house all the time," said his sister, Clara Larkins Bailey of Baltimore.

When Eleanor Roosevelt came to town Dec. 12, 1935, to help the city celebrate the National Urban League's 25th anniversary, Mr. Larkins, then 12, was called upon to perform.

"You might say I was nervous until I sat down at the keyboard," he told The Sun in a 1999 interview.

After playing Moszkowski's Waltz in E-Major and an encore, Mrs. Roosevelt called him back to the stage.

"She told me I'd be a great musician and then she took my hand," Mr. Larkins said. "It meant a lot to me. After all, she was the first lady of the land."

Mr. Larkins grew up in the city's Harlem Park neighborhood during a time when the air was filled with the sound of live music. "You had singers for days. Piano players. Those that couldn't read the notes could still play," he told The Sun. "There was always music around."

Early on, he studied Mozart, Rachmaninoff and Beethoven. While other boys played catch, he spent hours inside his home in the 1500 block of W. Lanvale St. practicing Czerny piano exercises. He also studied at the Peabody Conservatory when blacks were officially barred from the music school.

"It wasn't under the radar. It was fairly open and done with the director's blessings," Elizabeth Schaaf, Peabody archivist and a friend of Mr. Larkins, said of his studies at the conservatory. "His talent was so considerable that all considerations just went on hold for him."

As much as he loved classical music, Mr. Larkins also was intrigued by jazz pianists like Fats Waller, James P. Johnson and Willie "The Lion" Smith. Still, he said he knew he'd better not let the elders at home or the teachers at Douglass High School catch him trying his hand on "Carolina Shout" or "Ain't Misbehavin.'"

"They all thought jazz was banging," he told The Sun. "I wasn't allowed to play jazz in the house until I'd got to be a certain age, say 17. I'd sneak in the house with the boys."

After graduating from Douglass, Mr. Larkins continued his studies at the Juilliard School in New York City, where he received a scholarship. By his third year, he became a session player and accompanist, making $5 to $10, to pay his bills. Always humble and self-effacing, he had the perfect temperament to be an accompanist.

He quickly made a name for himself as he worked his way through Manhattan's cabaret scene, playing the Cafe Society Uptown, the Blue Angel, Bon Soir and the Carnegie Tavern.

"When he was in New York, he broke down a lot of those clubs on the East Side that only hired white people," said his wife, Crystal Larkins. "He broke it down so the black people could play in New York."

He honed his craft backing singers such as Mildred Bailey, Anita Ellis, Sylvia Syms and Helen Humes. In September 1950, he joined Ella Fitzgerald at the Decca studios in New York City for a set of Gershwin tunes. That recording and a subsequent one four years later are considered classics.

In the liner notes of a CD reissue of those recordings, James Gavin wrote that Mr. Larkins gave his singers "a one-man rhythm section: his left hand maintained a beat as solid as any drummer's; his right swung with delicacy and control."

In 1971, while in Las Vegas to back Joe Williams at the Tropicana, Mr. Larkins married Crystal Brown, who was from Baltimore. Mrs. Larkins said they had performed together years earlier in a citywide elementary school presentation of The Pied Piper of Hamlin. The couple spent many years in Los Angeles before returning to Baltimore in 1988 and settling in the 2300 block of Ashburton St. The couple later moved to the Memorial Apartments in Bolton Hill.

Mr. Larkins spent his later years in semiretirement, playing in public on rare occasions.

"Whenever we heard he was playing, we would all go running over to Coppin or wherever he was playing because we knew it would be something magical," said Mrs. Schaaf. "He was very quiet, almost shy, a very sweet, sweet man."

One of his last performances was at Union Baptist Church in 1999. That evening he ended by playing favorite hymns, Mrs. Larkins said.

"He enjoyed the music. He enjoyed playing for the people," she said. "He enjoyed what he did."

Edward Goldstein, music director for the Peabody Ragtime Ensemble and Baltimore Jazz Orchestra, often played with Mr. Larkins and described him as "an impressionistic player."

"He took music far beyond where music was," said Mr. Goldstein, "If Debussy and Ravel and all of those French composers could play chamber cocktail jazz music, that would be kind of where Ellis was coming from in his later years." Ellis Lane Larkins, the Baltimore prodigy whose wonderfully elegant touch at the piano made him one of the jazz world's finest accompanists died at the age of 79 .

--M. Dion Thompson
Originally published October 1, 2002

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