Hitting That Stride

September 5, 2014

By Lee Evans
On the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz CD No. 1, there appear two back-to-back versions of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag”: Joplin’s own fairly strict piano-roll performance, followed by a much looser treatment of that piece by pianist/composer/arranger/bandleader Jelly Roll Morton. Joplin’s version hews fairly closely to the 1899 published score of that seminal work, but Morton’s deviates wildly. You see, Joplin (1868-1917) thought of ragtime piano music as but a new and different classical-music genre; while Morton (1890-1941), in typical jazzman’s thinking, felt that virtually any piece of music could easily serve as a vehicle for an improvised jazzed-up performance. In fact, therein lies the basis of an important distinction made between ragtime and jazz by jazz scholars, who consider ragtime to be a precursor of jazz rather than jazz itself, because it is essentially a composed and notated music; while jazz to a great extent is – or ideally should be – a mostly improvised and therefore most often un-notated musical genre. This distinction forms the basis of one of the definitions of jazz stated by Marc Gridley in his excellent and thorough jazz history textbook Jazz Styles (Prentice Hall), a required text in my jazz history course at NYC’s Pace University

The Origin and Musical Characteristics of Stride Piano

According to Mervyn Cooke in his book Jazz (Thames & Hudson), the next step after ragtime in the historical evolution of jazz piano was 1920’s stride piano, sometimes referred to as Harlem stride piano, because it was in that New York City African-American enclave where this musical style was first created and developed – at so-called rent parties, where pianists competed with one another and attempted to outplay their competitors. Attendees paid to be present at these so-called “cutting contests,” and that was the way that rent money was raised to help support these impoverished musicians.
The name “stride piano” came from the look of the striding motion of the pianist’s left hand, with its constant alternation of bass note on beats one and three and mid-range chord on beats two and four. While this motion was also seen in ragtime piano music, in stride piano style the tempos were generally considerably faster and tended to feature more notes and be harmonically more adventurous; while the right hand was more inventive, improvisatory-sounding and virtuosic than was heard in ragtime. Additionally, in stride piano style, one began hearing greater incorporation of occasional “blue notes” – the lowered 3rd and lowered 7th of the major scale – as well as the beginnings of “swung rhythm” (long-short, long-short interpretation of 8th notes), both qualities immeasurably enhancing the genre’s jazz sound. Also, needless to say, it took a true virtuoso to play stride piano proficiently and effectively.
Were it not for their fame achieved as composers, George Gershwin and Eubie Blake undoubtedly would have been hailed as masters of this idiom. However, the ones most often mentioned as history’s greatest early stride pianists were James P. Johnson (1894-1955), referred to often as “The Father of Stride Piano,” Willie “The Lion” Smith (1897-1973), and Thomas “Fats” Waller (1904-1943). It is generally acknowledged that it was due mostly to the work of these three pianistic jazz giants that stride piano style continued to be extremely popular into the 1930s and even the 1940s.

James P. Johnson

According to musicologist David Schiff in his February 16, 1992 New York Times article, “A Pianist With Harlem On His Mind,” American self-taught stride piano pioneer James P. Johnson was a prolific “invisible composer” of mostly unknown works including an opera, piano concerto, symphony, sixteen musicals, 200 songs and two tone poems. Johnson’s most well-known songs are “Charleston” – from his Broadway show Runnin’ Wild (1923) – and “If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight”, plus his 1921 virtuoso stride piano masterpiece “Carolina Shout”, one of the first jazz piano solos to have ever been recorded. But perhaps Johnson’s greatest contribution to music may be that he and Jelly Roll Morton are said to have been the most significant bridge figures from the ragtime era to jazz.
Johnson’s “Carolina Shout,” “was a standard test piece and rite of passage for every contemporary pianist,” says a Wikipedia entry on Johnson. (The word “shout” is a reference to the ring-shout, a celebrative religious dance of early African slaves in the West Indies and the United States.) The article goes on to quote stride-piano scholar Dick Wellstood as having said that many of the stride pianists of Johnson’s era of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s were not especially gifted as improvisers, and thus mostly played their own pre-composed stride pieces with hardly any variation from performance to performance; whereas Johnson was a master improviser whose performances of any given work of his varied greatly.
Johnson was a seminal figure in jazz history, as well as a tremendous influence on the piano playing of Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Thelonious Monk, whose piano playing is frequently described as having been to a great extent an amalgamation of stride piano style and modernism; in other words an integration of the old and the new.

Homage to Eubie Blake

Mervyn Cooke’s Jazz states that James P. Johnson, who had been trained in European classical music, was “initially influenced by the pianist Eubie Blake, whose work typified the more virtuosic Eastern rag style.” My original piano solo, “Homage To Eubie Blake,” from my Hal Leonard publication Famous Jazz Piano Styles, was an attempt to demonstrate and embody stride piano style; and so I now, with the permission of the publisher, herewith present that work to conclude this article:


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Lee Evans, Ed.D. is a professor of music at NYC’s Pace University. Author of the acclaimed foundation theory and performance workbook Crash Course In Chords (Hal Leonard Corporation), his new and most recent book – scheduled to be published in late August 2014 – for The FJH Music Company is In The Style Of Lee Evans: New Interpretations of Great Jazz Standards, piano-solo arrangements at the intermediate/upper intermediate levels of 12 great jazz standards, including “September Song,” “Stella By Starlight,” “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” “On Green Dolphin Street,” “My Foolish Heart,” and others. For additional information, visit www.leeevansjazz.com.

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