Edward Elzear “Zez” Confrey was a musical phenomenon. Precocious, immensely talented, with an absolutely natural ability at the keyboard, he became a major celebrity after publishing in 1921 his evocative and rhythmically intricate masterpiece, Kitten on the Keys. Two years later his recordings were available on both the Brunswick and Victor Records labels, as well as on many piano rolls.
Confrey was born on 3 April 1895, in Peru, Illinois. He was the youngest of five children. His eldest brother, Jim, played seven different musical instruments, including the piano. At four, Zez showed enormous ability when he picked out on the piano the same piece his eldest brother was studying. His parents recognised the budding talent and soon engaged a teacher to nurture Zez’s musical gifts. He played in and conducted his own orchestra while attending high school. After graduation, he continued his musical education at the famous Chicago Musical College (which was run by the inimitable Florenz Ziegfeld, Sr.), where his teachers included Jesse Dunn and Frank Denhart. He was immersed in music from the Classics with the likes of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, to the contemporary music of the French Impressionists, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel—music that was considered cutting edge and controversial in the early seventeenth century. During those heady years, Zez was making a living by playing the piano. In 1915 he formed an orchestra with his brother Jim and their group performed in many of the most important hotels and ballrooms. The recordings Zez made with this orchestra became dance music hits for the Victor Talking Machine Company.
During World War I, Confrey joined the Navy and performed in a touring musical revue entitled, Leave It to Sailors. After the war, he was engaged to record novelty piano works and arrangements for the QRS Piano Roll Company, recording 127 rolls between 1918 and 1924. From 1924 until 1927 he recorded another 44 piano rolls, this time, exclusively for the Ampico Corporation. The piano rolls led to recording engagements for the new Chicago company, Brunswick, Edison and Emerson.
In 1921 Jack Mills (the founder of what today is known as Belwin Mills Publishing Corporation) offered Confrey a publishing contract. The agreement saw the publication of Kitten on the Keys, My Pet, Poor Buttermilk, Stumbling, Coaxing the Piano, Dumbell, Dizzy Fingers, and many other piano pieces. In 1923 Confrey authored, what was to be a phenomenally successful book entitled Zez Confrey’s Modern Course in Novelty Piano Playing, which remained in print forover forty years.
Confrey turned more and more to composing for jazz bands after the 1920s. The 1930s and 1940s were the era of the Big Band and Confrey made a lasting contribution to both small and large ensembles. He retired from active composing after World War II, although he sporadically continued to write music through 1959. He suffered from Parkinson’s disease and died on 22 November 1971 in Lakewood, New Jersey. The legacy he left encompasses over one hundred piano works, miniature operas, popular songs, mood pieces, and children’s music.