Eubie Blake has been pounding 88 keys for 91 years.
Last night he was at it again. The Broadway composer and ragtime pianist -- who at 97 doesn't remember how many tunes he has composed, but knows the number is well over 3,500 -- came to Washington this week to play some piano, to receive a medal for Distinguished Civilian Service from the U.S. Army, and to hear one of his compositions for the first time.
On Thursday, Blake was receiving visitors at Fort Myer, in the headquarters building of the Army Band, which played an all-Blake program last night on the West Terrace of the Capitol, with the medal presentation as the centerpiece of the event. Before the music began, he was wondering how his unheard composition would sound.
"It's called the 'Boston Pops March,'" said Blake. "I composed it for Arthur Fiedler, but he went off to Australia before he could hear it. Then he got sick and died and he never did hear it. I can remember one part of it, but the rest will be a surprise to me when I hear it."
Eubie Blake travels in a wheel chair, now, and his hearing isn't quite what it use to be; if you lower your voice respectfully when you talk to him, he asks you to shout a little. His memory fades in and out, but the oldest memories remain the clearest, and perhaps they are the best.
He still recalls in detail how he first picked out a tune on a keyboard -- in a Baltimore music store, when he was 6, after sneaking away from his mother during a shopping trip.His memories of touring for the USO during World War II are vague, and he sums them up in a single sentence: "I led the band."
But the details are still crisp on how he got out of the draft during World War I -- when he was five years past the draft age but had trouble proving it.
A Pall Mall sits in a large ash tray next to Blake's right elbow, smoldering down toward its unfiltered end. Blake still smokes a pack of cigarettes a day, and he remembers his first one:
"I've been smoking ever since I was 6 years old. I went off to school and my mother gave me 2 cents to buy fish cakes for lunch -- but I went around the corner to the store and told them, 'My father sent me for 2 cents worth of cigarettes.' They asked me what brand he smoked, and I had never seen my father smoke anything but a pipe, so I told the, 'Oh you know,' and finally they let me take my pick of a couple of brands.
"I got eight cigarettes for those two cents. I haven't stopped smoking since then, although my mother beat me when she caught me." She also beat him for composing ragtime tunes on the $75 organ that was costing her 25 cents a week -- but he hasn't stopped that either.
Nine decades and thousands of songs later, "Tunes are going through my mind all the time," he says. "I'll write one down -- eight or 10 bars of it -- and put it away, but now my wife makes me copyright everything that's really a tune, not just a little fragment of melody. She says I have 1,500 tunes published and about 2,000 more unpublished. 'Memories of You' is my favorite tune, now. There used to be another one, but now I can't remember the title or the tune."
He uses a numerical system of musical shorthand that he learned at New York University when he went back to school in his 60s and got a degree in composition. "That way," he says, "I know I have not written the same tune twice, and I can keep track of them, and I go look them up and, sure enough, I have them already written down. Somebody heard me play a figure and he used it -- but there isn't anything I can do, because I didn't copyright it."
Documentation was not Blake's strong suit until he married his second wife, Marion, after he retired from show business at age 65. He knew his age, because his mother told him, but he had trouble proving it because he never had a formal certificate of his birth in Baltimore on Feb. 7, 1883.
"I remember in the First World War, they wanted to draft me, and I knew I was over the draft age, but I couldn't prove it," he says. "I told them, 'I'm not a fighter, I'm a composer.' The Draft Board asked me, 'Where's your birth certificate?' and honest to God I had never heard of a birth certificate. Later, I talked to my partner, Noble Sissle, who was born in Indiana where they kept track of these things, and he had one. But I didn't.
"So I told them my age, which was five years over the draft age, and they asked me how did I know. And I told them 'My mother said so. Why would she lie?'"