Maturing rapidly, Confrey was already leading his own dance band in high school. Post-graduation, Confrey undertook a course of study in serious music at the Chicago Musical College and there became enamored of the French Impressionists, whose "modernistic" sense of harmony would play a key role in his work as a composer and pianist. In Confrey joined the U. Navy, but got no closer to the front lines than playing in a Navy-sponsored revue called Leave It to the Sailors.
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He was born to railroad clerk Thomas J. He displayed his propensity for music at the age of four. Just after his talented older brother Jim had completed a piece during a piano lesson, the youngest Confrey stood at the piano and picked out the melody of the same piece he had been listening to Jim play. So lessons for Elzear started quite early. In the census the family was shown living in La Salle, Illinois near Peru with Thomas still working for the railroad, joined by his son Frank.
Oldest son Jim was working as an orchestra musician that year, which was around the time Edward was in high school, and already conducting his own orchestra. It was the influence of the French impressionist composers that showed up in his later compositions.
In an effort to support himself during college, Zez logically chose performance, and his older brother Jim stepped in to help him out. They formed an orchestra, then even opened their own venue, The Kaskasia Hotel, to feature it, as well as engaging in occasional short performance tours.
His draft card lists him as a music teacher living in La Salle. Zez ultimately joined the Navy, where he ended up entertaining the sailors more than serving with them. One of his performing partners during his stint in the show Leave It To Sailors was a talented violinist from Waukegan, Illinois named Benjamin Kubelsky. He later started telling jokes between tunes and soon changed his stage name to Jack Benny. When Zez was fresh out of the Navy he sought to expand his exposure by successfully auditioning for the QRS Piano Roll Company , making it clear that he felt his arranging skills would help their rolls sell better.
During his six-plus years there he proved that contention to be accurate. In all he made at least one hundred twenty five rolls for QRS, and perhaps several more that have not been positively identified as they were released under pseudonyms.
Zez secured a job as a manager with publisher G. Schirmer in Chicago in , a branch dealing mostly with vaudeville singers. From there, it was a natural progression that his next step would be composition. After a few interesting pieces, Zez pulled My Pet out of his hat in possibly a couple of years earlier.
It was followed almost immediately by his wildly popular mega-hit Kitten on the Keys, and both were quickly packaged on a Brunswick record, as well as arranged for piano roll.
In the midst of a barrage of interesting solos that would follow, he penned Stumbling, an instrumental that became his most popular vocal song.
It came about when Zez watched a postman doing his duty amidst snowdrifts during a winter storm. The piece was used gratuitously throughout the movie Thoroughly Modern Millie in Some of the sides he did for Brunswick were repeated in and for the Emerson label, and he performed Kitten on the Keys on a celebrated Edison Diamond Disc as well on the last day of Publisher Jack Mills was thrilled to have Confrey as one of his prime composers.
Confrey had experienced rejection by many publishers who thought his pieces were outlandishly difficult for the average pianist, and was reluctant to even present them to the adventurous entrepreneur. However, Mills saw the sales potential by promoting their musicality as well as making sure they were available on phonograph records.
This created a successful paradox where even hack amateurs were so sure they could play what they heard on those recordings that they bought Confrey tunes by the thousands, only to discover their own limitations as represented by the apparent complexity. In truth, Zez Confrey novelties mostly consisted of simple patterns, and had they taken the time to master those patterns the learning curve would have been greatly lowered.
A ringing endorsement of this was the adoption of this book by the dominant Christensen School of Music with branches throughout the country. Still, in the end, it was the complexity of novelty piano that soured sheet music sales for Mills and other companies in the genre, but money was still to be made in the record business. It is difficult to get a full estimate of the number of rolls he recorded for QRS, Aeolian and other concerns the number has been suggested , but each of them clearly has his stamp on them.
Confrey could take a semi-popular song, as he did with Titina in , and turn it into a novelty masterpiece, sometimes by adding an original section or altering the format of the song. They were also carefully edited after he made the mark-up copies for a very refined performance. His acoustic recordings were more throwaways in some regards, even though some of them indicated as many as 12 takes for a piece, sometimes across two sessions.
In on instance, fellow pianist Phil Ohman sat in for Confrey both playing and leading his orchestra. After two years of constant recording with Victor his output appears to have simply dropped off in , perhaps so he could focus on other concerns like composition and traveling with the orchestra. As he became more popular, Confrey became a spokesperson in some ways for the advancement of music forms, which is natural since he was part of the transition of ragtime into jazz and novelty tunes.
Standing by his piano, after playing some of his compositions, Mr. Confrey said: "Radio is largely responsible for the change brought about in American dance music. Since the introduction of radio several years ago, I have watched this evolution of the small dance orchestra to the present day concert dance orchestra, playing symphonic jazz with its intricate harmonies and pulsating rhythms.
The radio has also served to instruct the small town orchestra, and as a result this type of orchestra is better than its prototype of several years ago. However, as the s approached, Zez turned more to composition than to performance.
An announcement in the October 6, edition of The Music Trade Review noted the following: Zez Confrey, pianist-composer and for many years leader of his own dance orchestra, has just signed an exclusive contract with the Irving Berlin Standard Music Corp.
Confrey will concentrate on novelty orchestra numbers similar to his famous "Kitten on the Keys," which proved one of the biggest novelty hits ever published. The number will be exploited by the organization in a country-wide campaign. Confrey is also working on modern piano instruction books, both for beginners and advanced students. This news should be of real interest to music dealers throughout the country, who have enjoyed a substantial sale of Mr.
His novelties all bear the individuality of his style of playing, and he belongs in a class by himself among modern American composers. Zez at the piano with composer Byron Gay L and slugger Babe Ruth R The onset of the Great Depression may have hit Confrey hard as it did much of the music business not directly involved with radio, as the census shows him living once again with his parents and his brothers Jim and Frank back in La Salle, although this may have also simply coincided with a visit there.
Still, he did fall on some hard times over the next few years. In the mid s Zez participated in a few short subject films in New York. One of those, Home Run on the Keys from , featured his Kitten on the Keys played live, and included fellow composer Byron Gay who had recently returned from a trip to the South Pole. The star of the film was the one who garnered the most attention at that time, New York Yankees slugger Babe Ruth.
Beyond incidentals like these, occasional radio appearances were largely his mid to late s exposure to the general public. In the Federal census, Edward was shown living in Queens with Wilhelmina and their two sons, Paul and Thomas He listed his occupation as a hotel musician.
He was now perhaps well enough off from his royalties in addition to any playing appearances he might have made during this time that things had been looking up. Zez sought out ways to expand genres within his repertoire of pieces. While this did not inhibit his compositional abilities, it made performance difficult, and he retired from public appearances.
He composed a small suite of tunes at the end of the decade, but many of his efforts remained in manuscript form until after his death. Jim Confrey died in November It was right at the beginning of the big ragtime revival that would culminate in a book of his [nearly] complete works published in His son Paul cooperated with the project, and ultimately survived his father through August Wilhelmina survived her husband until September Zez Confrey left behind a staggering variety of memorable pieces that are still continually rediscovered by a new generation and are actively performed in the 21st century.
Research notes and sources available on request at ragpiano.
Kitten on the Keys
Kitten on the Keys (Confrey, Zez)