Oh, the profuse world of Stride Jazz Piano, flourishing during the rich era of “hot” music in the 1920s. What key board virtuosity and swing! So many influences on it and from it, making it one of the most exciting full piano sounds. It’s a significant part of the Harlem Renaissance, a vibrant and multifaceted idiom, filled with both nuance and power, and if that is not enough, its greatest practitioners, Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, and, the bridge between ragtime and stride, Eubie Blake, wrote hit pop tunes and Broadway musicals. When they play... chills go up your spine.
Stride influenced 20th Century pop music and was influenced by it, because its practitioners matured simultaneous and within Tin Pan Alley and plugged their own songs there. You can hear George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Walter Donaldson and
Vincent Youmans in stride and you can hear stride influence in them.
The most accomplished and spectacular practitioners, Waller, Willie The Lion Smith, Donald Lambert, and above all, Johnson, respected European musical tradition and had some formal training. Consequently they paid attention to dynamics, tone, tension and release, more so than those who worked in the other primary styles: boogie woogie, "trumpet style," "New Orleans" sound and the "swing" sound of Jess Stacy or Joe Sullivan (not to denigrate these great jazz piano idioms in any way).
Duke Ellington and Count Basie were fine Stride pianists, and Ellington's
1920s recordings sometimes sound like orchestrated James P. Johnson or
Willie The Lion Smith. Art Tatum was a stride pianist, as was Thelonious
Monk, Errol Garner and George Shearing, early in their careers.
The left hand in stride gives the piano its own full rhythm section, often a necessity before jazz bass proliferated. It is inaptly so called as the left hand tends to "stride" or alternate between the low section of the piano and chords around the middle of the keyboard. The name is only cursory because stride is a musical language using many devices, riffs, harmonics and mixed meters such as 3/4 time against 4/4, and 6/8. The left hand plays single notes, octaves, full tenths with inner voicing, (or arpeggiated ones with either the top or bottom note being played first) in the lower keyboard alternating with inverted triads toward the middle. And the alternations are not just with the first - third beat for the low section, and the second-fourth near middle C, but may alter that pattern, emphasizing the first and the third beats rather than the normal 2 and 4, that a rhythm guitar might do. Rapid harmonic progressions, always cohesive with the chords of the underlying song, blues, or virtuoso piece may be tonic- dominant, circle of 5ths, chromatic or descending diminished. Various critical rhythmic tension and releases occur, not only one between the right and left hands meter, but another created by dynamic rise and fall over a period of measures. All this combined with the right hand melodic or stride riff improvisations make a rocking, swing beat.
When one first attempts stride after hearing a James P or Fats display
selection, it's as if you've disassembled your entire car, having the
pieces all over the floor just as somebody drives by in a Ferrari. Any
jazz pianist attempting the style must listen to the masters and play
over a period of years, long enough that the performer does not have to
think about each left hand alternation but can anticipate whole sections
or choruses. Relaxation and no-need-to-eye the keyboard are musts. As
with all visceral jazz, it is impossible to play properly by simply reading
sheet music or analyzing chord structure, and when some try to play a
Waller or Johnson piece note for note from a written transcription the
result is a mechanical or Disneyland Pizza sound, lacking the essence
of stride. And why do some pianists seem preoccupied with speed rather
than substance, often tensely attempting to play a James P. Johnson composition
faster than he did, himself, as they rush faster and faster, trying to
catch a train? The same mechanical sound results.
In the past several years a few name modern jazz pianists have attempted
stride, not having lived with the style, listening and practicing for
years, with unfortunate results. Their left hands, used to playing single
chords in between the bass player, make enough clams for a bouillabaisse.
Often those who want to sound knowledgeable when hearing stride, mistakenly
comment that it is or sounds like ragtime. Ragtime, a beautiful period
idiom, is usually a specific three theme (A, B, C) written non-jazz
music, has the alternating left hand and occasionally contains
cadences similar to those in stride. This probably leads some to believe
the two are the same. Ragtime derives from far fewer sources, its harmonics
and rhythms are much simpler, more repeated, and most important, it lacks
multiple layers of tension and release, and is not improvised [although
one could, I surmise]. Practitioners such as Dick Hyman and Lambert can
successfully play material from so many different times: Beatles, 1930s,
and the classical chestnuts in stride.
To compound the fractures, self anointed scholars, web site commentators and misguided "jazz history" teachers combine pre-bop piano idioms together, with little conscientious analysis, attention, or understanding of the distinctive qualities of this music, propagating inaccurate characterizations. Proof of this is their habit of citing sheet music or recordings that have only superficial connection with stride, or are the least successful samples by the stride greats. Some propose that Teddy Wilson, Jess Stacey and Jelly Roll Morton are playing stride. As great and innovative as these giants are, they were not stride pianists.
Over the years there are those who have asked me basically the same questions: “Is stride where the left hand plays an octave on the first and third beats, and a chord on the second and fourth? [As already mentioned there are many left hand devices.] If you play tenth intervals in the left hand, are you playing stride? Can you play stride if your hands are too small to stretch a tenth? [Donald Lambert, one of the best, could not stretch a tenth.] Is stride just sped up ragtime? [One can play a stride slow blues or a romantic ballad.] Such queries show that they have spent little time listening to stride, or are trying to analyze it the quantitative way some “jazz schools” teach. How could anyone fully quantify or midi-digitalize a description of impressionist music or visual art?
It takes time to delineate all the musical elements of the style after careful study.
Pianists remarking that they play “some” stride, is a give away that they don’t. A real Stride pianists plays whole songs or display pieces with variations on a theme for several minutes, not just a few bars of alternating left hand between extended modal excursions. They will also respect the song, subtly reminding the listener of the melodic line while creating variations in an harmonic context with what the composer asked for rather than rattling off the melodic line at the beginning of the performance and then going off on a completely abstract journey.
Sorry if I sound too negative or disparaging of recent developments. It's
only because when you hear the real thing its as good as jazz piano can
get, like a soaring Prez solo.
A recent glaring distortion occurred in the otherwise wonderful movie
RAY, a bio of Ray Charles. There is a scene where the young Charles listens
to a much older mentor, a specifically country boogie-blues player, who
is unfortunately referred to as a stride pianist.