James Edwards Yancey (February 20, 1894 or 1895 or 1901 – September 17, 1951) was an American boogie-woogie pianist, composer, and lyricist. One reviewer described him as "one of the pioneers of this raucous, rapid-fire, eight-to-the-bar piano style".
Yancey was born in Chicago. There is uncertainty over his birth year: at different times he stated 1900 and 1903, and other sources give 1894 or 1898. Researchers Bob Eagle and Eric LeBlanc suggest 1901.'
His older brother, Alonzo Yancey (1897–1944), was also a pianist, and their father was a vaudeville guitarist and singer. By age ten, Yancey had toured across the United States as a tap dancer and singer, and by twenty he had toured throughout Europe. He began teaching himself to play the piano at the age of 15, and by 1915 had gained a sufficient profile to influence younger musicians, including Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons.
He played in a boogie-woogie style, with a strong-repeated figure in the left hand and melodic decoration in the right, but his playing was delicate and subtle rather than hard driving. He popularized the left-hand figure that became known as the "Yancey bass", later used in Pee Wee Crayton's "Blues After Hours", Guitar Slim's "The Things That I Used to Do", and many other songs. Yancey favored keys—such as E-flat and A-flat—that were atypical for barrelhouse blues. Distinctively, he ended many pieces in the key of E-flat, even if he had played in a different key until the ending.
Although influential from an early age, Yancey did not record at all in his early career, performing only at house parties and clubs. His first recordings, in 1939, created a considerable stir in blues and jazz circles.
He made most of his recordings solo, but later in his career he recorded with his wife, Estelle Yancey, singing, as Jimmy and Mama Yancey. They appeared in concert at Carnegie Hall in 1948, and recorded their first album in 1951, released by Atlantic Records the following year.