Sylvia Marlowe, born Sylvia Sapira in New York in 1908, was a one-woman whirlwind. From her earliest days she was noted for her excess energy as well as for her deep, passionate love of music. She began her career as a pianist, going to Paris to study piano and organ at the Ecole Normale and composition with Nadia Boulanger (as, it seems, did roughly 3/4 of American musicians and composers over the years). While studying with Boulanger, she heard Wanda Landowska for the first time and was completely bowled over, switching to the harpsichord (and later, studying with Landowska herself). But upon returning to America and starting to get involved in the musical scene, she also became smitten with boogie-woogie piano—so much so that she made it her mission to include it in her concerts and recordings. Indeed, she even played boogie at the then-well-known Coffee and Cake Concerts for blue-haired little old ladies in New York City. There’s a good chance she gave some of them cardiac arrest.
Let’s take a moment to consider why a rising, gifted harpsichordist, whose métier was the music of the 17th and 18th centuries, threw her lot in with a popular music form—and why boogie instead of, say, stride piano, which might have made more sense? I think one can find a clue to her choice in the fact that Marlowe loved modern music as much as she did early music, and in fact later commissioned works for the harpsichord by Elliott Carter, Vittorio Rieti, Henri Saguet and Alan Hovhaness, but the other reason may simply be that she personally dug that eight-to-the-bar beat. And there is no question that she played it very well. I’ve only been able to locate four recordings of her playing boogie woogie: two selections by Meade Lux Lewis, Honky Tonk Train Blues and Yancey Special, which she recorded for the General label in her 4-78-rpm disc set, From Bach to Boogie Woogie; her performance of Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie on the kooky NBC radio show The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street; and a live performance from a 1943 Armed Forces Radio transcription disc when she appeared on the Harry James radio program. I know there is at least one more such selection, a 1947 piece by Lou Singer based on Rameau’s Tambourin, titled 18th Century Barrelhouse, but the link to play this gem online doesn’t work, so I have no idea what it sounds like. Yet her passionate proselytizing of boogie harpsichord helped inspire Francis Steegmuller’s 1949 novel, Blue Harpsichord.
Marlowe was certainly not the only keyboardist to play jazz on the harpsichord. Contemporary with her, Meade Lux Lewis made a few harpsichord sides for Blue Note (also some recordings on the celeste with guitarist Charlie Christian and clarinetist Edmond Hall), and pianist Johnny Guarneri—scion of the famed violin makers of Cremona who went rogue and joined Artie Shaw’s big band, where he switched to harpsichord for Shaw’s Gramercy Five recordings—were also involved in this endeavor, but let’s face it, none of them had Marlowe’s academic credentials. Not even Carmen Cavallaro, a trained concert pianist who made his living playing schlock in the movies (and recorded Runnin’ Wild Boogie for Decca on the “harpsipiano”), was on her level of legitimacy. In addition to her recordings and appearances already mentioned, Marlowe also appeared at the Blue Angel cabaret (3143 Broadway) in New York, pitching boogie to undoubtedly well-lubricated listeners. There is some question, in fact, as to whether or not Marlowe’s boogie woogie period hurt her reputation in the long run. Her obituary in the New York Times is headed, succinctly, Sylvia Marlowe, A Harpsichordist, as if she were just some wandering nomad who trucked around with a Pleyel in her Pontiac pounding out jazz, not a serious artist who also played Bach, Rameau, Couperin and Handel in addition to the modern composers she commissioned.
In 1948 Marlowe married neo-Romantic painter Leonid Berman. and her “legitimate” career got a huge boost when she became Professor of Harpsichord at the Mannes College of Music in New York. One of her best and most famous pupils was Kenneth Cooper, who remained a close friend until the day she died. Cooper was bowled over by the fact that Marlowe continued to keep in touch with him—and many of her other pupils—for years after they studied with her, calling them up to ask their opinions on her choice of new repertoire and how best to approach it. She treated her pupils as valued colleagues, not as peons. She also gave great parties at her New York apartment, the walls of which were covered with Berman’s paintings, and came to know virtually every living composer in the Big Apple. Among those who gathered there regularly were W.H. Auden, Harold Rosenberg, Lionel Trilling, and composers Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, Hovhaness and Rieti. She undertook a tour of the Far East and Southeast Asia in 1955, accompanied by her traveling harpsichord and gowns of “miracle fabrics” she could wash in her hotel room, dry out and wear. Her life was a whirlwind of activity that only ended with her death from emphysema on December 11, 1981.
Marlowe took not only her live performances but her recordings very seriously indeed, and left a valuable legacy behind, but in the long run she will undoubtedly be best remembered for those modern works she commissioned—and her boogie woogie playing. Despite the fact that Marlowe did not and probably could not improvise (she played these set pieces exactly the way they appeared on the original recordings), she got the swing and rhythm right, not an easy task for a well-bred woman from the halls of academe. Yet nowadays her boogie is far less known or admired than her classical performances, and this really isn’t fair. Sylvia Marlowe was a pioneer of her instrument in ways different from Landowska, and this chapter of her life deserves to be better known and appreciated.
— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley