Stride Piano: Bottom-End Jazz
If ragtime piano can be seen as the starting point in the evolution of jazz piano, then the next step in that evolutionary process wasn't a step all; it was a "stride." Around 1920, the popularity of ragtime piano began to wane, as blues music became the new fad. In response to this — while also incorporating some of the influence of Tin Pan Alley — several pianists, primarily in Harlem, began to experiment with a blending of styles. The result was stride piano.
Stride pianists took the basic left-hand "oompah" rhythm of ragtime, but played it with more swing and complexity, while the right hand played the melody and the ever-increasing improvisations upon it. As the left-hand bass-playing became more complex and contrapuntal, it required a broader use of the bottom end of the piano, so the pianist's left hand had to literally "stride" greater distances up and down the keyboard — often at great speed.
In this list, we'll hear from some of the great stride players. Of course, in a five-song list, we can't include all the greats, though we do manage to squeeze six pianists into five songs. So if you're a stride fan, be sure to leave a comment about some of your favorites so that we can all dig a little deeper into this delightful music.
Stride Piano: Bottom-End Jazz
James P. Johnson
- Song: You've Got to Be Modernistic
- from Snowy Morning Blues
We'll begin with a 1930 recording from James P. Johnson, the man generally credited as the father of stride piano. Born in New Jersey in 1894, Johnson grew up in New York City. Like many other pianists of his time, he was heavily influenced by the piano rags of Scott Joplin. But by the early 1920s, Johnson was breaking new ground with stride recordings such as "Carolina Shout" and "Keep Off the Grass." As amazing as those earlier recordings were, you can hear Johnson trying to push stride piano over the top in "You've Got to Be Modernistic." As with the rest of the songs on this list, the passage of time has done nothing to diminish the brilliance and joy of this performance. In fact, if you want to see how well it's withstood the test of time, check out avant-garde pianist Jason Moran's version of the song on 2002's Modernistic. James P. Johnson was as modernistic as they come.
Willie "The Lion" Smith
- Song: Finger Buster
- from Commodore Story
Willie "The Lion" Smith's 1939 recording "Finger Buster" is a stride piano classic. It defines the style to such a degree that nobody can really claim to be a stride piano player unless they can play "Finger Buster." Along with James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, Smith was one of The Big Three of Harlem stride pianists. Although not as famous as Waller or Johnson, then or now, Smith was a musician's musician, widely admired by his peers and influential to many younger musicians who would soon become major forces in the Swing Era, including Duke Ellington, who once said, "Willie 'The Lion' was the greatest influence of all the great jazz piano players who have come along. He has a beat that stays in the mind." Smith has a beat, all right. He also has chops like crazy.
- Song: Viper's Drag
- from If You Got to Ask, You Ain't Got It!
Where do you begin to talk about Fats Waller? He was one of the greatest pianists and songwriters in the history of jazz. He was one of the most popular entertainers of his time. He died at 39, but to hear his music and see him play it in any of the many readily available video clips, you'd think he packed 10 lifetimes of fun into his time here. Waller was briefly a student of James P. Johnson, but his talent was so immense that he soon became Johnson's peer; Waller went on to create a peerless legacy of delightful and innovative music. "Viper's Drag" is just one of the many stunning selections from Waller's 21-year recording career.
- Song: Tea for Two
- from Complete Capitol Recordings
Have you ever noticed that not many musicians have recorded tributes to pianist Art Tatum? The reason for that is pretty simple: Nobody but nobody can play like Art Tatum. In fact, there's an often-told story about the night Tatum entered a club where Fats Waller was playing. Waller immediately got up from the piano to allow Tatum to play, saying, "I only play the piano. Tonight, God is in the house." Tatum's technical facility and gift for lightning-fast improvisations are unequaled. In this version of "Tea for Two," you can hear what stride piano sounds like in a group configuration. After a solo opening from Tatum, he's joined by bassist Slam Stewart and guitarist Everett Barksdale. All three players get solo spotlights, and their interplay — especially between Tatum and Barksdale — is awe-inspiring.
Dick Hyman & Ralph Sutton
- Song: After You've Gone
- from Just You, Just Me
After the first generation of stride piano giants had gone, two pianists stand out as keepers of the flame. They are Dick Hyman and Ralph Sutton, and we'll hear them perform together in this version of "After You've Gone." Sutton, who died in 2001, devoted his considerable skills to stride piano, while Hyman, who's still active on the international jazz scene, works in many jazz styles, and has become one of the great living treasures of the jazz world. In this duet, they begin at a leisurely pace, each allowing the other to explore the song's melodic possibilities. After about three minutes, though, they can't restrain themselves any longer and kick the song into full stride. If one great stride piano player can make two hands sound like four, what happens when two great stride players go into overdrive? Listen and find out.