Early Piano Styles


Image2Ragtime was generally played ‘as written’ from the sheet music, and was therefore not regarded as a jazz form. It is not true that Scott Joplin was composing a waltz when he had an attack of the hiccups and ragtime was invented! The style evolved through the Minstrel shows of the 1800s and later the Cakewalk. The Cakewalk started out as a social dance, originating in Florida in the 1880s, where couples would prance with a high-spirited strutting step side-by-side to jig-like banjo and fiddle music which was popular at the time. Rich plantation owners would present a prize to the best couple. Eventually the prize became a cake – hence the Cakewalk. From Florida, the dance spread all over America. The music was syncopated – hence its association with Ragtime.

Scott Joplin – known as “The King of Ragtime” – was writing marches and waltzes up to 1899 when he composed his first Ragtime piece ‘Original Rags’. He had taken five themes from various folk songs and put them together to form a complete piece. Soon afterwards, the ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ followed and was to become his biggest hit – it sold over a million copies of sheet music. The big three of Ragtime were Joplin, James Scott and Joseph Lamb. A typical composition would consist of four sections, each of 16 bars. The right hand would syncopate while the left hand played a “boom-chick” (also known as oom-pah!). The origin of the word ‘Ragtime’ is unknown, although a newspaper article in 1888 referred to a piece of music as having ‘ragged time’ (said quickly it becomes ‘Ragtime’).

Many critics referred to it as ‘the Devil’s music’ and reflected that it was lowering moral standards. At the height of its popularity, here is what one writer said:

‘The counters of the music stores are loaded with this virulent poison which, in the form of a malarious epidemic, is finding its way into the homes and brains of the youth to such an extent as to arouse one’s suspicions of their sanity. It is an evil music that has crept into the homes and hearts of our American people regardless of race, and must be wiped out as other bad and dangerous epidemics have been exterminated.’

Even more amazing, at its 1901 convention in Denver, Colorado, the American Federation of Musicians condemned ragtime in a harsh statement delivered by its president. Union musicians were specifically cautioned against playing Ragtime, and the Federation’s president maintained that:

‘The musicians know what is good, and if the people don’t, we will have to teach them.’

Ragtime’s popularity began to fade around 1917 – the same year that Scott Joplin died. In 1974, seventy-two years after its publication, Joplin’s ‘The Entertainer’ swept the USA – it being part of the musical score to the film ‘The Sting’. The piece heralded a return of Ragtime to American popular culture and Ragtime festivals are still held all over America.

Image3The Blues evolved from the black communities in the southern States of America. The melody’s were played by guitarists – usually in a melancholy/depressed state. ‘Father of the Blues’ W.C. Handy memorised these tunes and put them onto manuscript. Once they were written down they became part of the pianists’ repertoire. The first piece of music to be published with ‘blues’ in the title was ‘Baby Seals Blues’ in 1912 (there had been earlier pieces but they referred to military uniforms and were not jazz/blues compositions as such). ‘St. Louis Blues’ (1914) is the most popular, and the most played tune in this idiom.

Image4The Ragtime and Blues influence can be heard in ‘Jelly Roll’ Morton’s compositions such as ‘Shreveport Stomp’ and ‘Jelly Roll Blues’, but he gave the bass line (left hand) more freedom – a more jazzy feel. Morton said he heard forms of the Blues in New Orleans prior to 1900. Some of the early blues pianists played their compositions at a fast tempo, and it was referred to as ‘fast blues’ or Boogie Woogie. Pianist Jimmy Yancey was a Blues specialist, as was ‘Pinetop’ Smith. In the 1920s, any record or piece of music with the word ‘blues’ in the title was guaranteed to sell.

Image5Harlem Stride Piano evolved from Ragtime and the term ‘Stride’ comes from the action of the left hand which plays a constant beat against a melodious right hand. The big three of Stride were James P. Johnson, ‘Fats’ Waller and Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith. Not for them the strict confines of Ragtime, they developed a much freer, swingier style. Apart from improvising much more than the Ragtime pianist, the Stride pianist makes more use of the Blues harmonies. James P. Johnson composed the ‘Carolina Shout’ circa. 1921 and it became a test piece for piano players around that time (and still is). ‘Fats’ Waller composed some excellent piano solos i.e. ‘Handful of Keys’ and ‘Alligator Crawl’. Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith studied harmony in classical music, and his compositions are much more complex. John L. Fell in his book “Stride” explains it thus: ‘A jazz piano style developed in Harlem after World War 1. Stride elaborated on Ragtime but was more rhythmically sophisticated, more knowledgeable in its harmonies, and often more skilled in execution. Stride’s flowering coincided with the demise of Ragtime’.

Image6Novelty Piano (or Novelty Ragtime) developed around the same time as Stride. Novelty Piano compositions were invariably played ‘as written’. They were often written in awkward keys and usually had to be played very fast. In 1921 Zez Confrey composed the most famous piece in this idiom – ‘Kitten on the Keys’ and hundreds of composers put pen to paper to try and cash in on the craze. Scott Joplin’s Ragtime compositions were relatively easily to play compared with Novelty Piano pieces such as ‘Pianoflage’ (Roy Bargy) and ‘Ghost of the Piano’ (Arthur Schutt) – they were practically impossible to play by the average piano student. For this reason, its popularity soon waned. “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (Irving Berlin) and ‘12th. St. Rag’ (Eudie Bowman) were not written in the form of a Classic Rag and are therefore referred to as Novelty Ragtime. Following the immense popularity of ‘12th. St. Rag’, Bowman composed ‘1lth. St. Rag’. It was a dismal flop.

Image7Boogie Woogie is a style of piano music strongly linked to the Blues. A repetitive left hand figure is played in the bass while the right hand improvises in the treble. ‘Cow-Cow’ Davenport was trained in Ragtime, but pioneered the Boogie Woogie piano style and recorded many Blues pieces. Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith said that the first person he heard using a ‘walking’ or ‘boogie’ bass was in 1914 by Kitchen Tom, a pianist from Atlanta. Clarence ‘Pine Top’ Smith is credited with the first Boogie Woogie to be published – ‘The Original Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie’.

The famous swing concerts at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1938 brought Boogie Woogie to the attention of the public when the ‘big three’ were featured – Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson and Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis. Boogie Woogie became a national craze in America which lasted for about five years. Lewis had a hit with his own composition ‘Honky Tonk Train Blues’ whilst Ammons recorded hits of the day including ‘Red Sails In The Sunset’, ‘You Are My Sunshine’ plus many of his own pieces. The style became popular because of its simple, repetitive beat (plus your average bar-room pianist could knock out a simplified version). ‘Fats’ Waller refused to play it and his contracts had a clause which stated he ‘wouldn’t have to perform Boogie Woogie’.

Most big bands had their Boogie Woogie vocalist(s) and the world danced to popular hits like ‘Scrub Me Mama With A Boogie Beat’ and ‘Beat Me Daddy, Eight To The Bar’. The craze lasted from the late 1930s to the mid 1940s. It later became a basic ingredient of another craze – popular in the 1960s – ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’. Boogie Woogie has continued to flourish on the Continent and pianists as young as eighteen are playing it wonderfully well.

Neville Dickie