A pioneer of ragtime and jazz piano in Canada, William Eckstein was always on the cutting edge of popular dance music in the 1920s and 1930s. While ragtime’s original roots lie in European classical music, Eckstein specialized in ‘novelty rag’, which features flashy passages and a high technical difficulty. In 1919, Eckstein was one of the first Canadians to play live on radio, on Montreal’s XWA (CFCF).
Eckstein was born in Pointe St-Charles, now known as Montreal, in 1888 and began studying classical piano at age 3. By the age of 4, he was performing live at churches and community center benefit concerts around the city. Eckstein was quickly recognized as a child prodigy and by age 12 was awarded a piano scholarship to McGill University. With 14 children, the family struggled, so Eckstein turned down the opportunity in order to become a paid performer on the vaudeville circuit. Throughout his vaudeville career, Eckstein played piano on Broadway and on Canadian and US tours, being billed as the “The Boy Paderewski”, after famous Polish pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski. His engagements were varied ranging from the Canadian National Exhibition to the White House, where he played for President Theodore Roosevelt.
In 1906, Eckstein quit the vaudeville circuit, returning to Montreal where he began working as a pianist for silent movies at The Strand Theater, being billed as “The World’s Foremost Motion Picture Interpreter” and eventually earning the nickname “Mr. Fingers”. Eckstein was also establishing himself as a songwriter, composing the piano rags Delirious Rag and Perpetual Rag with his protégé Henry Thomas, which Thomas later recorded. Eckstein and Thomas collaborated on numerous other songs including You Are My All in All and Goodbye Sunshine, Hello Moon.
In 1920, Eckstein began branching out, creating and performing with one of the first live jazz bands in Montreal, led by William’s brother Jack entitled “Eckstein’s Jazz Orchestra”. Eckstein was also a featured solo pianist on the Victor label, many times recording under the pseudonym ‘Vi Palmer’. Perhaps the most significant of Eckstein’s recordings was the 1923 Maple Leaf Rag, written by Scott Joplin, which was the first solo-piano 78-rpm.
In 1930, the invention of ‘talkies’ brought an end to silent films and with it came the end of Eckstein’s career at The Strand Theater. This did not deter Eckstein, who moved on to cabaret, radio and television shows, eventually settling at the Château Ste. Rose night club in Montreal. His act involved piano-duets with notable jazz figures including Robert Langlois. In 1959, Eckstein solidified his place in Canadian jazz history when he composed and played the patriotic Queen of Canada in honour of Queen Elizabeth II’s royal tour. This song received international praise and earned Eckstein letters of thanks from Buckingham Palace, the Governor General and Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.
In May, 1963, friends, family and fans of Eckstein hosted an evening of appreciation for his work. This would prove to be Eckstein’s last public performance, suffering from a severe stroke later that night and eventually passing away four months later on September 23, 1963. William Eckstein devoted his life to mastering his chosen craft, inspiring and opening doors for Canadian jazz pianists including Oscar Peterson and Eckstein’s own protégé Vera Guilaroff, who collaborated with Eckstein on numerous songs and radio performances. Eckstein’s music has remained popular, being recorded by jazz singers Sarah Vaughn and French-Canadian pianist Mimi Blais.