“Rhapsody in Black” Pianist Joe Steele Remembered
Joe Steele, Rhapsody in Black pianist and longtime member of Chick Webb’s orchestra, was born Dec 17, 1899 and died in New York City on February 5, 1964. The Boston-born Steele is another of the forgotten ones of this city’s jazz scene. A 1924 graduate of the New England Conservatory, Steele was in New York by 1926, gigging and recording with the Savoy Bearcats, then the band of banjoist Henri Saporo. He led his own band at the Bamboo Inn 1927-29, counting trombonist Jimmy Archey, trumpeter Wendell Culley, and saxophonist (and fellow Bostonian) Charlie Holmes among the sidemen. In 1929 the Joe Steele Orchestra recorded two sides for Victor.
As a member of trumpeter Pike Davis’s Continental Orchestra, Steele toured with the Rhapsody in Black revue in 1931-32, which Time magazine called “a symphony in blue notes and black rhythm,” starring Ethel Waters. Finally, in 1932 he joined Chick Webb’s Orchestra, remaining until 1936. It was the musical association for which he was best known. After the Webb band, he dropped out of sight. He never recorded again.
Down Beat reported he was in Atlanta in 1939, running a club and leading the band there, but a member of the Steele family informed me that this was not true. Steele left New York to become a professor of music at Texas College, in Tyler, and he left that position for another professorship, at Storer College in Harper’s Ferry, West Virgina. He eventually returned to New York and became a prominent organist in the city’s churches, but he also found time to play jazz and calypso music.
Although he was classically trained and classically minded, Steele did name Art Tatum and Fats Waller as his favorite jazz pianists, and among the next generation, he admired Lennie Tristano and George Shearing.
Charlie Holmes remembered that Steele wouldn’t shake hands with strangers because he worried about his fingers. There is nothing wrong with his fingers on this tune, one of his June 1929 Victor sides, “Top and Bottom.”