Stride & Other Piano Styles

What Is Stride Piano?
The term ‘stride’ comes from the action of the left hand which strides back and forth, playing a note or tenth in the bass followed by a chord in the middle register. This creates an oompah-oompah effect. While this is going on, the right hand is playing the melody and/or improvising.

This style was a by-product of ragtime which was all the rage between 1900 and 1920. As the popularity of ragtime waned, along came James P. Johnson (1891 – 1955), ‘Fats’ Waller (1904 – 1943) and Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith (1897 – 1973). Not for them the strict regime of ragtime – stride allowed them to improvise (ragtime was mostly played ‘as written’).

James P. was known as the Father of Stride Piano. There were many others who played in the stride style in the 20s, 30s and 40s including ‘Jelly Roll’ Morton, Earl Hines, Joe Sullivan, Art Tatum, Bob Zurke and Jess Stacy. Ralph Sutton was the accepted ‘king of stride’ during the last 40 years.

My First Experience Of Stride
During my teenage years a friend would invite me round to his house to listen to his latest 78s, mostly consisting of big bands – Stan Kenton, Woody Herman and Count Basie. One day he played me a record of James P. Johnson playing a tune called “Roumania”; on the reverse side was “Laughin’, Cryin’ Blues” – another piano roll – by 19 years old ‘Fats’ Waller. I immediately fell in love with both of these and decided this was the style of music I wanted to play.

I eventually recorded “Roumania” for the Stomp Off label at a live concert in Kingston, Surrey. On the same concert was French stride pianist Louis Mazetier and, not to be out-done, he played “Laughin’, Cryin. Blues”. They can be found on Stomp Off CD 1302 (“Harlem Strut”).

Styles Of Jazz Piano
RAGTIME was generally played ‘as written’ from the sheet music and therefore was not regarded as jazz. Yet the famous Bunk Johnson recorded many ragtime pieces with his band; also there are jazz performances of the “Maple Leaf Rag”, where there are many improvised choruses. The ‘big three’ of ragtime were Scott Joplin, James Scott and Joseph Lamb. Joplin was accepted as the King of Ragtime and his Maple Leaf Rag started a craze which lasted until shortly after his death in 1917.

BLUES evolved from black southern Americans. Guitarists usually in a melancholy/depressed state played the melodies. ‘Father of the Blues’ W.C. Handy memorized these tunes and put them onto manuscript, i.e. “St. Louis Blues”, “Memphis Blues”, “Beale St. Blues”, et al. Once they were written down they became part of the pianists’ repertoire. Most blues consist of 12 bars.

STRIDE (or Harlem Stride) evolved from ragtime. In its early days, there were set pieces i.e. Carolina Shout (James P. Johnson), and Handful of Keys (‘Fats’ Waller), which were played with little variation, but nowadays a lot more improvisation goes on and most ‘standards’ can be given the stride treatment.

NOVELTY PIANO or NOVELTY RAGTIME came about when classic ragtime faded and a more watered-down form was forced upon the public. Hundreds of tunes were written, the most popular being Zez Confrey’s “Kitten on the Keys”.

BOOGIE WOOGIE is basically an up-tempo version of the blues, the “big three” being Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson and Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis. ‘Pine Top’ Smith is credited with the first boogie woogie with “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie” (1928). Tommy Dorsey had a million seller with it – he called it “T.D’s. Boogie Woogie”. Boogie woogie was featured at the famous Carnegie Hall Concert in 1938 and became a craze for five years, when it faded out of fashion.