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Jazz Appreciation Month: Stride Piano

Stride master Fats Waller at the piano
New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer: Fisher, Alan, photographer. - Library of Congress Prints and Photographs
Public domain
Stride master Fats Waller at the piano

Historically speaking, jazz and blues met at the piano. For Jazz Appreciation Month, KNKX Music Director Carol Handley traces the development of the irresistible style called "stride" from its beginnings to the present day.

If ragtime piano can be seen as the starting point of jazz piano, then the next step in the evolutionary process wasn't a step all — it was a "stride."

Around 1920, the popularity of ragtime piano began to wane as blues music became the new fad. In response to this, several pianists, primarily in Harlem, began to experiment with a blending of styles. The result was stride piano.

Stride pianists took the basic left-hand "oompah" rhythm of ragtime — but played it with more swing and complexity — while the right hand played the melody and the ever-increasing improvisations.

As the left-hand bass-playing became more complex, it required a broader use of the bottom end of the piano, so the pianist's left hand had to literally "stride" greater distances up and down the keyboard, often at great speed.

Let’s take a quick listen to some early pioneer stride players and a new, chart-topping stride album.

James P. Johnson “You've Got to Be Modernistic” from Snowy Morning Blues

That was a 1930 recording from James P. Johnson, the man generally credited as the father of stride piano. Born in New Jersey in 1894, Johnson grew up in New York City. Like many other pianists of his time, he was heavily influenced by the piano rags of Scott Joplin. But by the early ‘20s, Johnson was breaking new ground and in his day was as modern as they come.  

Willie "The Lion" Smith's 1939 recording "Finger Buster" is a stride piano classic. It defines the style to such a degree that nobody can really claim to be a stride piano player unless they can play "Finger Buster." Along with James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, Smith was one of The Big Three of Harlem stride pianists.  

Willie "The Lion" Smith - Finger Buster - from Commodore Story

Where do you begin to talk about Fats Waller? He was one of the greatest pianists and songwriters in jazz history. One of the most popular entertainers of his time, Waller was briefly a student of James P. Johnson, and he went on to create a peerless legacy of delightful and innovative music. "Lulu’s Back in Town" is one of his many recordings.

Fats Waller - Lulu’s Back in Town - from If You Got to Ask, You Ain't Got It!

Not many musicians have recorded tributes to pianist Art Tatum. The reason? Pretty simple: Nobody can play like Art Tatum. In fact, there's an often-told story about the night Tatum entered a club where Fats Waller was playing. Waller immediately got up from the piano, saying, "I only play the piano. Tonight, God is in the house."

Tatum's technical chops and gift for lightning-fast improvisations are unequaled. In this version of "Tea for Two," you can hear what stride piano sounds like in a group configuration.

Tatum - Tea for Two - from Complete Capitol Recordings

The passage of time has done nothing to diminish the joy of stride playing.

On his latest chart-topping album Future Stride, Emmet Cohen revisits the style, without a trace of quaintness by meticulously covering the genre’s lexicon spanning the past century and melding its context with “modern” music. Future Stride finds the immediacy in a stylistic approach that can speak volumes to modern listeners open to recognizing its thrilling vitality. This is the title track from Emmett Cohen’s Future Stride.

For Jazz Appreciation Month on KNKX – I’m Carol Handley