SAM NOWLIN Champion label

The world of jazz is full of stars, people who receive and deserve a great deal of attention.  Then there are phantoms — musicians who make a brief appearance and then vanish.  The pianist Sam Nowlin is a resounding example of the second group.  I’d made his acquaintance last week, when I took the wrapping off a Document CD called JAZZ AND BLUES PIANO 1934-1947.  Others on this disc are luminaries: Morton, James P.  Then we move into the realm of the less famous but still wondrous: Cassino Simpson, Tut Soper, Dorothy Donegan, Clarence Profit, Dan Burley, even Euday L. Bowman.


But the disc begins with two solo performances by Sam Nowlin, called SO WHAT and CHANGE.

Meet the elusive Mister Nowlin:

I amuse myself by imagining the dialogue in the recording studio: “Sam, what was the name of that?”  “It doesn’t have a name.”  “Well, it needs one for us to release it.”  “Call it I DON’T KNOW.”  “We can’t do that.”  “Why?  So what?” “That’s it!”

About CHANGE as a title I have nothing even mildly whimsical to offer.

About Nowlin, I find little or nothing online.  He recorded three sides, in Richmond, Indiana, on October 8, 1934, for the Champion label.  The third selection, RIFF, was not issued.  Even with the vast, often unreliable library that is the internet, he remains mysterious.  I did find a notation that had him as co-composer of BLUE BLAZES, with Sy Oliver, but nothing more.  And my library (Chilton and more) has nothing to offer.  Nowlin has no erroneous Wikipedia page; Harry Dial does not take him to task; John Hammond seems never to have heard him.

In June 2016, this copy of the Champion disc sold at auction for $899.00 plus shipping.  Details here.

Nowlin black label

Does anyone know more about Sam Nowlin?

The important thing, of course, is how well he plays: an individualistic synthesis of what was in the air in 1934 — you can supply your own names — with a floating understated grace.  It’s a pity he didn’t record more.  But I am grateful that Document offered these two sides.  Great music is made by people who don’t end up in encyclopedias and dictionaries of jazz.  Bless the folks at Document Records for making such a delicious mystery available.

May your happiness increase!

6 responses to “MYSTERIOUS PLEASURES, 1934

  1. Sam’s style and harmonies are also somewhat reminiscent of another somewhat obscure artist, Erskine Butterfield

  2. One of my favorite records. And I have some more for you on Sam Nowlin, some factual, some speculation:

    1. He, and this record, were listed twice as Negro/Race in the Champion 1934 catalog supplement. (The only other artist so described was the mysterious Bayless Rose, a guitarist who as I recall is believed by some to have hailed from the Kentucky / West Virginia coalfields.) Given Starr’s disastrous condition by 1934, it doesn’t seem likely that Sam Nowlin is a “name” performer working under pseudonym.

    2. The playing seems to be that of a “pianist’s pianist,” someone with big harmonic ears who easily works in fragments of Hines, Waller, Lee Sims, and any number of others; I haven’t listened to much Erskine Butterfield, but am sure that this record bears repeated listening with others in mind. While many jazz piano soloists up to that point are burning the barn, Nowlin’s very relaxed yet swinging, like we hear Teddy Wilson in the months and years to come.

    3. I agree with the suggestion that these may be spontaneous performances, entitled only because something had to appear on the label. “So What” is based on “China Boy,” while “Change” is taken from “Rose Room.” But maybe even Sam Nowlin didn’t think about that at the time.

    4. My guess is that Nowlin worked primarily as a soloist, not in a band.

  3. “So What” pre dated Miles Davis by twenty years.

    One wonders, why three sides since a disc needs two sides (ie, four selections) for commercial issue?

    Did Nowlin exhaust his repertoire? Doubt it. Did he grow impatient with recording and leave the studio?

    “Who knows?”

    Dig the Gershwinesque and Bixian harmonies and easy swing.

  4. “Piano Cocktail” – Erskine Butterfield (1944 Joe Davis)

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