Thursday, October 11, 2012

Musician Cuts Webbing Between Fingers

David A. Jasen and Gene Jones, That American Rag (New York: Schirmer Trade Books, 2000), p. 94.

One of the Detroit piano legends was Bart Howard, a small, cigar-chomping black man who, in the teens, was considered that city's ragtime king. We know a bit about Howard because in the 1960s, the ragtime pianist/composer Tom Shea took the last opportunity there would ever be to find out about him. Shea sought out George Walls, Dewey Lee, and Don McCullough, three of Howard's admirers who long outlived him. [...]

He went to a neighborhood "doctor," who snipped the skin between his forefingers and his thumbs to give him extra reach. While recovering from this career-enhancing operation, Howard wore gloves that held marbles between his middle fingers to increase their span also. When he was ready to play again, he could reach a tenth.

Lars Bjorn and Jim Gallert, Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit, 1920-1960 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2001), p. 21.

Howard was a small man who always played with a cigar
between his teeth. His hands were so small that he had
trouble reaching octaves so he had a man named Dr.
Alexander operate on them, cutting the skin between
his thumb and index finger to increase his reach.[122]

122. Tom Shea, "Bart Howard," Ragtimer 6, no. 3 (1967). On the basis of interviews with two of Howard's students Shea guesses that Howard was born around 1880 in Detroit or Toledo. He was playing in ragtime contests [...] by 1915 and played in Detroit and Windsor until his death in the mid-1930s.

[Some other pianists rumored to have had the webbing on their fingers cut are Earl Hines, Luckey Roberts, Errol Garner, Robert Schumann and Franz Liszt. Guitarists Chet Atkins, Jimi Hendrix and Steve Howe, and Indian flute player Panallal Ghosh also had the operation, according to various claims I found by Googling. --bc]