PCS Blog

A Guide for your Ear

Posted by Katie Watkins | 27 October 2014

• Fats Waller playing “I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter.”

• Dick Hyman explaining stride style.

• NPR segment on stride piano w James P. Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith plus Fats Waller examples.

• Fats Waller playing “Ain’t Misbehavin’” in Stormy Weather film.

• Erroll Garner playing “Honeysuckle Rose” by Fats Waller.  

Stride Piano

Fats Waller made it look so easy, even effortless; he laid his hands on a piano and across the keys they wove and bounced and skittered and flew, making incredible music. Playing stride piano, a form of early jazz, is not for the faint of heart or hand. It requires a deep musical knowledge, acute technical facilty, a fully developed sense of style, and improvisational creativity and verve. The greats of stride piano, especially James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, aspired to be classical composers as well as popular music `composers, and in their later years both wrote longer concert works in an effort to reach that goal. In fact, stride piano requires that classical foundation, which Fats Waller had.

• The popularity of the HARLEM STRIDE style of piano jazz burst onto the national scene with the recording of James P. Johnson's "Charleston" in 1924, which spurred the most popular dance of the decade (other new dances were the fox trot, the shimmy, the black bottom, and the varsity).

• Stride combines ragtime's syncopation with the progression of jazz, but adds much greater creativity in the bass (the left hand) and more upbeat rhythms. Instead of march rhythms in the bass, it uses split chords—"a four-beat pulse with a single bass note, octave, seventh or tenth interval on the first and third beats, and a chord on the second and fourth beats"—and then sometimes reverses that beat.

• "All jazz pianists before the development of be-bop in the 1940s were initially schooled in the stride style, which remains the most technically challenging of all jazz keyboard idioms…."

• Johnson's "lesson" piece that taught other musicians the stride style was "Carolina Shout," which Waller learned at 15, and he "went on the ensure that the popularity of the stride style continued into the 1930s."

• The stride style could encompass any popular music, and, unlike ragtime, did not rely on sheet music: "True Stride pianists practiced a full jazz piano style that utilized highly creative, often flamboyant devices such as arpeggios, black note slide-offs, varying rhythmic accents, and tension/release."

• At clubs and rent parties, stride pianists were known for their cutting contests, piano duels that flaunted their skills.


Sources: the "Tin Pan Alley: Ragtime, Jazz, Swing & Big Band" web page of the Songwriters Hall of Fame website; "Harlem Stride" on Mervyn Cooke's The Chronicle of Jazz website; "Ragtime" on The Parlor Songs Academy website; "Stride" from Wikipedia

Richard Maltby, Jr. and Murray Horwitz wrote lyrics to Handful of Keys to describe stride piano technique.

Here are excerpts:

I like to tickle on an ol’ piana.

I like to play it in a subtle manna.

I get a lot of pleasure with a span of keys underneath my fingertips…

…A handful of keys and a song to sing,

How could you ask for more?…

…When my left hand thumps out bass notes

I’m halfway to playin’ that stride piano.

Then right there in between those bass notes

I play chords for that stride piano sound…

First my right hand goes off with a melody I make up

Then my left hand plays tricks with the rhythm

And both hands are takin’ it up.

My fingers feel breezy, they’re easy on the keys….

Rent Parties

These musical gatherings were known as parties, rent shouts, rent socials, parlor socials, or Saturday night functions. It didn’t matter what you called them, they meant the same thing: someone was low on funds and had decided to throw a party to help make ends meet. Rent parties weren’t limited to Harlem. In fact, in every black ghetto where rent money was hard to come by, Saturday night functions would occur.

The admission at the door would pay for the musicians, and would vary according to their popularity. The apartment owner would make his rent by selling drink and food. This was during the height of the Prohibition and the hooch was usually rotgut whiskey or bathtub gin. But it wasn’t the food or liquor that attracted crowds to a social; it was the music and the fierce competition that existed between the pianists.

This was exuberant music, shouts, and stride. People came to have a good time and they didn’t want to hear the blues. The men who played this music were garish extroverts who led the revolution in black music. It wasn’t unusual for one of these parties to last all through the night and once the competition got going, two pianists would battle for hours on end. Each would try to outdo each other with dazzling rhythms, new harmonies, or new tunes.

Constant improvisation and variation were demanded, leading to many changes and the maturation of jazz piano style.


Source: Maurice Waller from “Fats Waller”
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