Zez Confrey



Edward Elzear "Zez" Confrey was born in Peru, Illinois on April 3rd, 1895 - at the dawn of the ragtime era. He was an American composer and performer of a style of playing known as “novelty piano.” Novelty piano was a product of American pianists with classical music training who originally arranged and performed popular songs on piano rolls. Using their piano roll tricks, they put together an extremely complex rhythmic and harmonic series of progressions which demanded the greatest technical skill to perform.

Confrey aspired to be a concert pianist, but eventually abandoned that idea in favor of composing. By 1916 he was a staff pianist for Witmarks in Chicago. He enlisted in the US Navy in 1917, where he ended up entertaining the sailors more than serving with them. One of his performing partners during his stint in the show Leave It To Sailors was a talented violinist from Waukegan, Illinois named Benjamin Kubelsky. He later started telling jokes between tunes and soon changed his stage name to Jack Benny.

After the war, Confrey became a pianist and arranger for the QRS piano roll company. He would make nearly 200 piano rolls during his lifetime, mostly editing them himself. In 1919, he secured a job as a manager with publisher G. Schirmer in Chicago.

In 1921, Confrey wrote perhaps his most famous novelty piano piece - “Kitten on the Keys,” inspired by hearing his grandmother's cat walk on the keyboard of her piano. He played it at the historic 1924 Paul Whiteman concert that also saw the premiere of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue"; two decades later it was still popular enough to be featured in a Warner Brothers cartoon, "Rhapsody Rabbit," where it was performed as a duet by Bugs Bunny and a mouse. Over time, "Kitten on the Keys" would become the third most-frequently recorded rag in history, after Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" and "Twelfth Street Rag" by Euday Bowman.

Following the 1920s, Confrey focused primarily on composing for jazz bands. The onset of the Great Depression may have hit Confrey hard as it did much of the music business not directly involved with radio, as the 1930 census shows him living once again with his parents and his brothers Jim and Frank back in La Salle, Illinois. On March 5, 1932, Zez married showgirl Wilhelmina Matthes, and their son Paul Beaumont Confrey was born in April of 1933.

In the 1940 Federal census, Confrey was shown living in Queens, NY with Wilhelmina and their two sons, Paul (1934) and Thomas (1939). He listed his occupation as a hotel musician. Confrey's 1942 draft card shows him listed as a "free lance composer" still living in Queens, NY, a decade after his unfortunate downslide. He was now perhaps well enough off from his royalties in addition to any playing appearances he might have made during this time that things had been looking up. Zez sought out ways to expand genres within his repertoire of pieces. This ambition was mostly realized, but hindered by the onset of Parkinson's Disease in the mid to late 1940s. While this did not inhibit his compositional abilities, it made performance difficult, and he retired from public appearances.

During the honky-tonk piano craze of the 1950s there was a revival of Confrey's pieces, including Kitten on the Keys and Dizzy Fingers among others, thanks to artists like Lou Busch, Ray Turner and Dick Hyman. He composed a small suite of tunes at the end of the decade, but many of his efforts remained in manuscript form until after his death. Confrey's older works were only infrequently heard or performed during the 1960s.

Zez finally succumbed to the ravages of Parkinson's disease, dying of a stroke in November 1971 at the age of 76. It was right at the beginning of the big ragtime revival that would culminate in a book of his complete works published in 1982. His son Paul cooperated with the project, and ultimately survived his father through August 2008. Wilhelmina survived her husband until September 1991. Zez Confrey left behind more than a hundred piano works, songs and miniature operas, and numerous piano rolls, music publications and sound recordings.


Selected Performances


Novelette (1923) - Novelette is the last piece in Confrey's "Three Little Oddities" piano suite. It showcases his ability to write in a more classical vein. It's a beautiful number that evokes a gentle impressionistic mood.


Locating The Music


Confrey's music is easily found online at sites such as Sheet Music Plus and Amazon.


Compositions for Piano


My Pet (1921)

Kitten on the Keys (1921)

You Tell 'em Ivories (1921)

Poor Buttermilk (1921)

Greenwich Witch (1921)

Stumbling (1922)

Coaxing the Piano (1922)

Dumbell (1922)

Tricks (1922)

Nickel in the Slot (1923)

Dizzy Fingers (1923)

Three Little Oddities (1923)

  • Impromptu

  • Romanza

  • Novelette

African Suite (1924)

  • High Hattin

  • Kinda Careless

  • Mississippi Shivers

Anticipation (1924)

Charleston Chuckles (1925)

Fantasy – Jazz Arrangement (1925)

Humorestless (1925)

Flower Song (1925)

Spring Song (1925)

Home Sweet Home (1925)

Melody in F (1925)

Traumerei (1925)

Fantasy (1926)

Jay Walk (1927)

Jack in the Box (1927)

Walse Mirage (1927)

Sparkling Waters (1928)

Concert Etude (1929)

Heaven's Garden (1931)

Moods of a New Yorker (1932)

  • At Dusk

  • Movie Ballet

  • Relaxation

  • After Theatre – Tango

Buffoon (1932)

Champagne (1932)

Desert Dance (1932)

In the South of France (1932)

Indian Prayer (1932)

Phantom Cadets (1932)

Wistfullness (1932)

Grandfather's Clock (1933)

Sittin' on a Log Pettin' My Dog (1933)

Smart Alec (1933)

Giddy Ditty (1935)

Rhythm Venture (1935)

Arabian Maid (1935)

A Heart Like the Ocean (1935)

Lullaby from Mars (1935)

Mouses' Hooves (1935)

Tin Pan Symphony (1935)

The Birds' Carnival (1935)

Blue Tornado (1935)

Rag Doll Dimples (1935)

Audacity (1936)

Meandering (1936)

Tap Dance of the Chimes (1936)

Ultra-Ultra (1936)

Oriental Fantasy (1936)

Home-Run on the Keys (1936)

Midsummer's Nightmare (1936)

Motif Du Concert (1936)

Wise Cracker Suite (1936)

  • Yokel Opus

  • Mighty Lackawanna

  • The Sheriff's Lament

Sugar Dance (1936)

Sunshine from the Fingers (1936)

Sport Model Encore (1937)

The Hobble De Hoy (1938)

Della Robbia (1938)

That Old Piano Roll Band (1943)

Dancing Shadow (1944)

Elihu's Harmonica (1944)

Parade of the Jumping Beans (1944)

Pickle Pepper Polka (1944)

Tune For Mademoiselle (1944)

Amazonia (1945)

Butterfly (1945)

Flutter By, Butterfly (1945)

Rag Doll Carnival (1945)

Four Candy Pieces (1949)

Song of Thanksgiving (1952)

Four Circus Pieces (1959)

Fourth Dimension (1959)