Ragtime and Stride Piano
On January 23, 1900, ragtime pianists from all over the nation came to Tammany Hall in New York City to participate in the competition for the Ragtime Championship of the World (Shaw 1986, 45). To "rag" a piece of music was to treat it with syncopated figures which would reverse or omit the accents normal to the meter, and to add embellishments to the basic melodic line. These pianists were judged on the inventiveness and musicality of what they could do for two minutes with one of the most popular tunes of the day, Ernest Hogan's "All Coons Look Alike to Me". Incidentally, the Hogan song did not embody the prejudicial stereotype implied by its title. It was a ballad of a broken love affair in which a woman, now possessed of a new lover who spends money on her, airily dismisses her old love with the comment, "All coons look alike to me" (Shaw 1986, 41).
Ernest Hogan (born Ernest Reuben Crowdus (1865-1905)) from Bowling Green, Kentucky, a black vaudevillian who performed the song often, once revealed that he borrowed the melody from a pianist in Chicago (Ewen 1977, 118). The huge success of the tune brought mixed feelings to its author. Although the lyrics were innocuous, blacks did not like the title, which was derisive when separated from the lyrics (Southern 1971, 316). Controversy surrounded the song, and Hogan died unhappy in the thought that his innocent novelty tune had generated so much social friction.
Ugly as the thought is today, "coon songs" permeated show business, both black and white, for thirty years or more. The songs – some of them highly syncopated, some nothing more than Tin Pan Alley pop tunes on black topics – brought a protest from Frederick A. Mills, classical violinist-turned-pop composer. He wrote "At the Georgia Camp Meeting" (1897) to celebrate, rather than denigrate, black-derived syncopation. The song became very popular, and was often performed as accompaniment to a cakewalk.
The cakewalk, too, blazed across the pop music skies in the late 1800s. A first annual Cakewalk Jubilee was held in Madison Square Garden in 1892, a three-night contest drawing dancers from all over the nation (Shaw 1986, 44). On the plantations of the South, a cakewalk was an event wherein a slave couple, dressed in hand-me-down finery, would prance around in elegant and exaggerated mockery of the high manners and dancing styles of the white folks in the "big house". After cakewalks became a minstrel show staple, they moved into Tin Pan Alley where tunesmiths turned them out by the dozens. The high-strutting style of the cakewalk was probably much like the prancing drum major in front of a marching band today.
Already loaded with syncopation, "coon songs" and cakewalks provided ragtime pianists with ready-made inspiration. Several pianists stood head and shoulders above the crowd.
Benjamin Robertson "Ben" Harney (1872-1938) billed himself as the Inventor of Ragtime. He was not, of course, but he was skillful and very popular. His Rag Time Instructor (1897) demonstrated clearly how to take ant tune and rag it (Shaw 1986, 45). In performance, he would rag pop tunes at will, and also classical works like Mendelssohn's "Spring Song" and Rubinstein's then popular "Melody in F".
Harney wrote many tunes and pop-ragtime hits, but the musical craze that swept the nation was caused by several others, among whom Scott Joplin (1868-1917) was by far the most influential and important. Although rags were around several years before Joplin settled in Sedalia, Missouri, it was his "Maple Leaf Rag" (1898) which created the ragtime explosion in American popular music, and Joplin became the most famous ragtime pianist-composer in the land – the "Father of Ragtime".
John Stark, Joplin's white friend and publisher, saw to it that Joplin got all his proper royalties, and soon the composer-publisher team came out with dozens more of the delightful rags, among them "Peacherine Rag", "Sunflower Rag", "Pineapple Rag", and "The Entertainer", made popular again in 1973 by Paul Newman and Robert Redford in The Sting. That movie and its background music were part of a genuine revival of ragtime music, with new recordings, concerts, scholarly studies, and finally a biographical movie, Scott Joplin (1977), starring Billy Dee Williams as the composer.
The sectional design of the rag (see p. 67), coming from European march form, put a miniaturist like Joplin at his best. His rags have a "cogency all their own, together with originality of harmonic color, a seemingly endless fund of infectious melodies, and a natural feeling for syncopation" (Ewen 1977, 160).
Among Joplin's admirers was James Sylvester Scott (1886-1936) whose "Frog Legs" (1906), "Great Scott Rag" (1909), and "Climax Rag" (1914) sold well for publisher John Stark. His rags have a bit more air and daylight than Joplin's, and he attracted a faithful audience to his special voice.
A white Eastern pianist, Joseph Lamb (1887-1960) wrote a body of rags considered equal in every way to the gifted black composers of the day. Joplin heard some of Lamb's rags, and persuaded Stark to publish Lamb's "Sensation Rag" and several others in 1908. Lamb stopped writing rags for many years, but came back with "Artic Sunset", published four years after his death. Lamb's later works show a fertile imagination and a willingness to experiment a bit with the traditional dance form.
James Hubert "Eubie" Blake (1883-1983) wrote his first rag, "Charleston Rag", at age 16, and played one of his best tunes, "Memories of You", during a Memorial Concert at the Eastman School of Music one week before his 99th birthday. In his long and distinguished career, Blake composed a variety of rags and pop tunes most of which found new life in Eubie, a 1978 revue. His collaboration with lyricist-vocalist Nobel Sissle (1889-1975) for the celebrated musical Shuffle Along (1921) was the first of many successful shows for which he composed the full musical score.
In their pure form, piano rags were played in a stately and dignified manner. Joplin and others cautioned their students to hold back, to avoid fast and flashy performances. Those words of advice were ignored often, especially on the East Coast, and a whole body of "novelty rags" appeared by the white composer Felix Arndt (1889-1918) – "Soup to Nuts", "Toots", the still popular "Nola", and many others.
A generation later, Edward "Zez" Confrey (1895-1971) followed with "Kitten on the Keys", "Dizzy Fingers", and "Stumbling". These tunes were highly entertaining, but they were a far cry from the dignified musical statements Scott Joplin and his compatriots made when they first introduced the rag to America.
The syncopated rhythms of ragtime spawned a host of dances in addition to the cakewalk – the fox trot, turkey trot, grizzly bear, bunny hug, lame duck, camel walk, and a half dozen others. The nation was wild with dancing. In the 1910s, smart young couples would spend sunset to sunrise bouncing through various nightclubs, dancing the latest craze of the month.
Their parents, of course, were outraged. This seems to happen in America every generation or so – upper-class white adolescents pick up black folk-street musical behavior, and rework it into the latest "in thing" to do. At this specific historical moment, there was considerable "fear of racial contamination, not only from the black source of the music and dance, but also from the Jewish groups who dominated Tin Pan Alley's modernized song machine" (Maltby 1989, 42).
Even some professionals were opposed to ragtime. The American Federation of Musicians passed a formal resolution asking its members to "make every effort to suppress and discourage the playing of such musical trash" (Ewen 1977, 168).
Ivan Narodny, writing in the New York Evening Sun in 1916, said that ragtime suggested the "odor of the saloon, the smell of the backyard and subways. Its style is decadent. It is music meant for tired and materially bored minds. It is essentially obvious, vulgar, and yet shockingly strong, for the reason that it ends fortissimo" (ibid.).
As always, the pronouncements of organization officials and music critics carry little weight in the real world of show business. Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band", Hughie Cannon's "Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home?", and Lewis Muir's "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee" continued to delight listeners and dancers right up through the First World War.
Classical composers, too, were caught up in the fever of the day – Igor Stravinsky wrote "Piano Rag Music" (1919); Paul Hindemith, "Ragtime" (1921); Darius Milhaud, "3 Rag Caprices" (1922); Erik Satie, "Rag-Time Parade" (1917), and Claude Debussy, "Golliwogg's Cakewalk", from Children's Corner (1908).
The dancing and ragtime fever began to diminish after World War I, and a new breed of pianists rose to fame. Many of them started out as ragtime pianists, and simply pushed the concept of "ragging" to another level of improvisation.
James P. Johnson
By all accounts, the Father of Stride Piano was James P. Johnson (1891-1955). He began playing at rent parties and Harlem night spots, then moved into making piano rolls. Duke Ellington, among many others, spoke often of the wonderful effect of hearing Johnson's powerful left hand on "Carolina Shout". The essence of stride piano is the continuous arc-like activity of the left hand delivering alternate bass notes and full chords while the right hand improvises freely in and around those chords.
The ragtime pianists did the same thing, of course, but they did not have to invent everything they did with their right hand. They played what the composer had written, most of the time.
Charles Luckyeth Roberts
Charles Luckyeth Roberts (1887-1968) held his own with the best of the stride pianists, but is remembered more for owning the successful Harlem night spot, The Rendezvous. He also wrote a great many popular songs for black musicals, one of his early ones being "Ripples of the Nile", which later became Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Cocktail" (Shaw 1986, 62).
Thomas "Fats" Waller (1904-1943), a pupil of James P. Johnson's, went on to great fame as a composer, stride pianist, and comic entertainer. Fats would offer a near continuous string of sly remarks while playing passages of enormous difficulty, all without a hitch or a halt. His compositions have become jazz classics: "Jitterbug Waltz", "Squeeze Me", "Honeysuckle Rose", and the tune which became the title of the May 1978 revue, Ain't Misbehavin'.
Willie the Lion
William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff Smith (1897-1973) taught many of the fine pianists of the 1930s; Joe Bushkin and Mel Powell (later, a classical composer) are best remembered. Known far and wide as "Willie the Lion", Smith backed up most of the great blues singers, and was a regular at all the best New York clubs for forty years. Duke Ellington memorialized him in a jazz symphonic work, "Portrait of the Lion".
ESPECIALLY INFLUENTIAL PIONEERS
Two of the great stride pianists moved from their early styles into the beginning of modern thinking, and their musical innovations affected not only later piano styles, but later developments in the entire field of jazz.
Jelly Roll Morton
Ferdinand Joseph La Menthe "Jelly Roll" Morton (1885-1941) listened to the legendary Tony Jackson, the best of the New Orleans ragtime pianists, and decided on a career in the same field. Thus Jelly Roll Morton set out to conquer the world of jazz and other things, for at one time or another Jelly Roll was a minstrel show comedian, a pool hustler, a hotel-club owner, a boxing promoter, a cosmetics business entrepreneur, a music editor, a recording executive, and always a dashing figure with the ladies.
But Jelly Roll Morton the pianist and composer is the one most important in American history. His huge gifts and equally huge ego were clearly evident by age 17 when he was ejected from his home for playing piano in the New Orleans bordellos. From that point on his career was non-stop achievement. He based himself in California 1915-1923, Chicago 1923-1928, then New York 1928-1935, all the time performing, composing, and recording as solo pianist and band leader.
The most typical features... are abundantly evident: his wealth of melodic invention and skill in variation; the tremendous swing... his feeling for formal design and attention to detail; his effectiveness of pianistic resources; the contrasts of subtle elegance with hard-hitting drive; the variety of harmony, and yet freedom from complication and superficial display (Ewen 1977, quoting William Russell, 137).
His Chicago recordings, valuable collectors' items now, place Jelly Roll Morton and His Red Hot Peppers among the greatest of all studio jazz groups. Several generations of jazz musicians were inspired by Morton originals "Black Bottom Stomp", "Smokehouse Blues", "Dead Man Blues", and more. His solo recordings of "Kansas City Stomp", "Frog-i-More Rag", "Grandpa's Spells", "King Porter Stomp", and "Tiger Rag" are, likewise, ranked among the great moments in jazz history.
Jelly Roll claimed that he "invented jazz". It was another of his many exaggerations, of course, but there is a bit of truth to it. He was among the first to make "arrangements" of tunes, to alter a phrase here and there, to add an interlude, and to prescribe who would do what in which order. Others did it, to be sure, but he made it central, not peripheral, to the musical offering.
And he was among the first pianists to play his eighth notes long-short, an absolute component of the genetic code of jazz from then on. Indeed, long-short, uneven eighth notes are so critical to jazz that arrangers must write in a specific instruction if they want any other interpretation. Jelly Roll had a big hand in creating this condition.
When Morton's career began to fade in the late 1930s, Alan Lomax brought him to the Library of Congress for almost nine hours of performing and reminiscing. Despite that fact that Morton's prodigious technical skills were rapidly declining and his life-long habit for hyperbole was still fully functional, he offered at that time a splendid oral history of a major chapter in the story of jazz – the story of Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton.
Staff pianist at Toledo's WSPD at age 17, Art Tatum (1910-1956) staggered the world of jazz with his immense pianistic invention and stunning velocity. Classical virtuosos Sergei Rachmaninoff and Vladimir Horowitz came to hear him. Once, when he heard that Tatum was in the audience, Fats Waller said, "Folks, I play piano, but God is here tonight!"
Born with cataracts on both eyes, Tatum gained limited vision in one eye after several operations. He could barely see shadows and colors with his right eye. Myth has it that Tatum listened to piano rolls as a child, and, not knowing that some of those piano rolls were made with two pianists, set out to achieve what was necessary to enter the competitive field. And enter he did. At the "cutting sessions" in New York in the 1930s, Tatum always destroyed anyone else in the club. Many pianists refused to play when they knew Tatum was in the house.
His awesome technical speed was calculated on an early recording of "Tiger Rag" at 370 beats per minute. In a 1949 concert recording of "I Know That You Know", taken at 450 beats per minute, the eighth-note runs would approach 1,000 notes per minute (Megill and Demory 1984, 40). Such is the stuff of jazz legends.
More important, Art Tatum developed a style of "substitute chords: chords which were substituted for, or added to, the original chords of a tune, and which were more complex than those original chords" (MaCalla 1982, 56). This was a revolutionary idea, and it soon altered the entire approach to improvisation. After Tatum, all jazz musicians began to improvise not only on and around the stated melody of a given tune, but also on and around the stated chords. The use of substitute changes is a major component in modern jazz, and Tatum was one of the first, and the best, to explore that area.
The ragtime pianists took the syncopated rhythms of "coon songs", cakewalks, and other minstrel-derived music, and developed a new form, the rag. They also "ragged" the pop tunes of their day. And when the stride pianists took existing rags, pop tunes, and blues compositions, and made substantial changes in the rhythm, melody, and chord sequences of those tunes, another step had been taken toward the world of modern jazz.
At the same time, a new form of black-derived music rose to claim the attention of entertainment-crazed America. Different from blues and ragtime, this new stuff was perfect for the Roarin' Twenties, a splendid complement to bearskin coats, bootleg whiskey, and flappers. It was called Dixieland.