1911© Music by William H. Tyers
William Henry Tyers * Richmond, Virginia Mar 27, 1876
† New York City, NY Apr 18, 1924
Tyers wrote this tune in tango rhythm. It was shifted to 2/4 time, ornamented, and made into an enduring brassband favorite. Original it was written as Panama – A Characteristic Novelty for and named after a famous vaudeville act, Aida Overton Walker and her Panama Girls.
Mort Stine, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC 27858, wrote to us:
Robert Goffin, in his book “Frontiers of Jazz,” claims to have heard a Belgian military band play “Panama” when he was a little boy, presumably about 1905. Given that Goffin, like a lot of early jazz critics, heard pretty much what he wanted to hear; that his whole book is dedicated to the premise that jazz was of French origin by way of New Orleans; that he never took the trouble to learn that “Panama” was copyrighted by William H Tyers in 1912, and that there is no reason to suspect that Tyers needed to plagiarize anybody, since he had a pretty successful career writing original tunes, I feel justified in dismissing Goffin’s claim. It’s a good example of the old jazz criticism, where you just made stuff up!
WILLIAM H. TYERS
William Henry Tyers was once well known throughout the United States as a composer and arranger of popular music. From the late 1890s through to 1920, the appearance of his name on an orchestration or piano sheet was a widely recognized stamp of quality. Contemporaries remarked upon the tunefulness and harmonic sophistication of his music: In 1912 the critic of the New York Evening Post wrote, “Were the name of Strauss appended to the Tout à Vous waltz by Tyers, it would be one of the most popular waltzes in the world to-day.”
Tyers was born in Richmond, Virginia on March 27, 1876; his father was from South America, and his mother was a former slave. When he was twelve Tyers’s family moved to New York City. It was around that time that he first became interested in music, and began taking piano lessons. While still a boy, Tyers “. . . showed a remarkable genius for composition.” By the time he was a teenager, he had composed an impressive number of dance pieces, including waltzes and polkas.
When Bill Tyers was twenty he became the music librarian for a touring concert company, which he accompanied to Europe. While in Hamburg, Germany, he availed himself of the opportunity to study orchestration with a Professor Gaspari. Unfortunately, ill health forced him to return home. That same year—1896—Bill Tyers composed “Sambo: A Characteristic Two Step March,” which at this writing stands as the first instrumental rag ever published (predating both the oft-cited “Mississippi” and “Harlem” rags, both from 1897). “Sambo” was issued in New York by the white pioneer ragtime composer/publisher Frederick “Kerry” Mills (1869–1948). For its time it is an exceptionally advanced number, sporting ornate woodwind obbligati and snappy, syncopated trombone counter-melodies—both techniques not commonly seen in popular orchestrations until well after 1905. With its opening cornet fanfare, “Sambo” is the delightful herald of the coming ragtime age.
Around 1897 Bill Tyers was hired as the staff arranger, editor, and orchestrator for the Joseph W. Stern music company in New York. How this connection was made is lost to history, but it represented a major racial breakthrough: Tyers was the first African-American to hold such a position in a field dominated by conservatory-trained Europeans. During the late 1890s and on into the first decade of the twentieth century, Stern was America’s number-one publisher of black music.
Their roster of composers and songwriters was impressive: It included Bob Cole and the Johnson brothers, Irving Jones, James Reese Europe, Ford Dabney, Ernest Hogan, Eubie Blake, Williams & Walker, Chris Smith, “Lucky” Roberts, Joe Jordan, Tom Turpin, and, briefly, Scott Joplin. In his position at Stern’s, all of this music passed through Bill Tyers’s able hands before reaching the printing plant, making him a critical link between the “underground” world of black musicians and the white music publishing industry. He held this position at Stern until around 1913.
While arranging and adapting the music of others, Bill Tyers also kept his hand in as a composer. He penned many light classical selections like his graceful “Meno D’Amour.” Curiously, he never wrote vocal music of any kind. Tyers’s interest in Latin rhythms (attributed to the influence of his father) made him one of the first North American composers to experiment with the new tango and habanera styles. His “Cuban Dance” “Trocha” was a successful early effort, but “Panama” became the most well known. It was a standard number in the repertoire of every dance orchestra of that era, helping to fuel the great tango craze that gripped the nation circa 1913–15.
Tyers was a founding member of the Clef Club. He was one of the organization’s first officers, and also assistant conductor for the various large Clef Club ensembles in their public exhibitions. The club’s October 1910 “Second Grand Musical Melange and Dance Fest” featured Tyers conducting his “Smyrna” and “Panama”; it is quite possible that this was the world premiere of both compositions, since the former was not published until 1914, and the latter, 1911.
In 1914 Bill Tyers resigned from the Clef Club along with Jim Europe and several others to form the Tempo Club in Harlem. During this time he assisted Europe with his Society Orchestra projects, filling in as conductor for Irene and Vernon Castle as needed. Tyers also led his own orchestra at the Strand Roof Garden on Broadway for many years. He joined ASCAP in 1917. In summer seasons between 1919 and 1924 he conducted his own orchestra at the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire.
Tyers spent his last years as a freelance arranger for a number of New York music publishers, including Stern, Leo Feist, G. Ricordi, and Maurice Shapiro. He also composed much special music for individual vaudeville acts, and spent long periods touring in vaudeville as musical director for the white dance team of Rock & White. In 1919 Will Marion Cook appointed Tyers assistant conductor to the New York Syncopated Orchestra; he toured with the NYSO until 1922.
William H. Tyers died in New York City on April 18, 1924. Rick Benjamin.i1