Eubie Blake is an institution, a pianist and composer who has outlasted most of the pianos he's played in his 97 years. Last night, his work was celebrated in song and decoration by the United States Army Band as the frail artist received a Decoration for Distinguished Civilian Service from Secretary of the Army Clifford L. Alexander Jr. on the West Terrace of the Capitol.
The frequently joyful syncopation of Blake's music translated well to the somewhat rigid style of the Army Band, particularly the pretty waltz "Valse Marion" and a pair of marches. The "Boston Pops March" was written last year for and dedicated to Blake's close friend, the late Arthur Fiedler, who never had a chance to perform it. Last night's performance was, in fact, the world premiere of the piece and Blake, seated in front of the bank between his wife Marion and Secretary Alexander, kept nodding approval as the piece progressed. During its more martial moments, his thin, bony hands swept up for a little sideline conducting.
A quartet of songs for which Blake wrote the music followed. Soprano Lyra Ross gave a bright waltz-time reading to "I'm Just Wild About Harry," and as she kicked into the one-step moe in which the song became so well known, Blake reared back with a flashy smile of approval.
After receiving Alexander's commendation, "He is an American treasure who will add lustre to the metal," Blake moved to the piano and produced a ragged but right performance of his best-known song, "Memories of You." An apparently impromptu reading of the "Charleston Rag," which Blake wrote in 1899 at the age of 16, was full of pumping bass lines and joyful syncopated runs from the right hand.
For a finale, Blake joined Spec. Ross and Sgt. 1st Class Earl Harringan in a rousing rendition of "God Bless America." The crowd was by this time on its feet and followed Blake's gently insistent conducting right through to the song's final chorus.