Section from chapter 1921: Striding Ahead   [ return to introduction ]

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By Mervyn Cooke • 325 illustrations,
82 in full color • 256 pages • 8-1/2 x 8-1/2"
Cloth • ISBN 0-7892-0399-5 • U.S. $45.00
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This uncharacteristically somber portrait of James P. Johnson, taken in 1921, scarcely reflects the infectious effervescence and virtuosity of the "stride" piano style he perfected in the 1920s. [ view larger image ] (Corbis-Bettmann)
Harlem Stride

When Jelly Roll Morton (• p. 45) made his historic retrospective recordings in 1938, he demonstrated how he habitually jazzed up Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag during his early years in New Orleans. This tendency to elaborate existing rags by adding melodic embellishments and increasing the tempo was further encouraged during the 1910s by the popularity of piano rolls, and was much lamented by the composers of "classic" ragtime. It led to a brand of piano jazz referred to as the Harlem "stride" school, named after its principal center of development (the black enclave of New York City) and the characteristic "striding," motion of its left-hand split chords. Although in this technique and in its sectionalized structure the new style remained indebted to ragtime models, it was considerably "jazzier" than ragtime in its increased use of blue notes, improvisation and swung rhythm.

Stride pianists developed a formidable skill, especially impressive in the accuracy of their leaping left hands, and considered themselves to be the élite of the jazz world. They dressed well (homburgs and cigars were de rigeur, even while playing) and were often well educated in classical music, which influenced their compositions. Willie "The Lion" Smith, for instance, wrote stride pieces with impressionistic titles reflecting his knowledge of piano music by Grieg and Debussy (• p. 24). 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 and continues to be promoted by performers such as Dick Hyman and Ralph Sutton.

The greatest of the first generation of stride pianists was undoubtedly James P. Johnson, universally known as "The Father of Stride Piano" and best remembered as the composer of the catchy "Charleston" (• p. 58). His most influential piece was Carolina Shout, which the young Duke Ellington attempted to learn by slowing down his pianola's mechanism in order to copy the fingering patterns preserved on a piano roll made by its composer in 1918. Johnson's protégé, Thomas "Fats" Waller, learned Carolina Shout in a similar way and went on to ensure that the popularity of the stride style continued into the 1930s.

For his part, Johnson became increasingly preoccupied with the composition of ambitious (and now largely forgotten) concert works in a symphonic jazz idiom, including the "Negro Rhapsody" for piano and orchestra premiered by Waller at Carnegie Hall (• p. 65) in 1928, and a Harlem Symphony (1932). Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, Johnson adapted his jazz style to changing fashions with some success and continued to record and compose stage shows well into the 1940s.