Jazz at 100 Hour 6: Up in Harlem – Stride (1921 – 1939)

James P Johnson

In the last hour, we listened to several of the bands associated with New York, with an emphasis on the new large ensemble form, the jazz orchestra. In this hour we’ll stick with New York, but focus in on the piano music of Harlem – “Stride.” We are joined in this hour by Art Wheeler, pianist, producer, composer and educator.

In his History of Jazz, Ted Gioia writes, “It is not going too far to suggest that piano was to Harlem what brass bands had been to New Orleans.”

In the twenties, rent parties assumed an important economic role in the hand-to-mouth existence of many in the Harlem community. In return for small amounts of money, attendees could get an evening’s worth of food and drink and music, primarily piano and mostly Harlem Style or “Stride”. Competition among the piano player was legendary. Cutting contests weeded out the merely competent from the highly-skilled. This led to what Ted Gioia has called “the new image of the jazz musician as half artist, half-warrior.”

In their 2009 book Jazz, Gary Giddens & Scott Deveaux see Stride this way – “Imagine Ragtime taken for a ride down Tin Pan Alley and the revved up to reflect the metropolitan noise and bustle. Where ragtime was graceful, polished and measured, stride was impetuous, flashy and loud. Where ragtime produced a contained repertory, stride was open to anything. The evolution from one to the other occurred gradually.”

James P Johnson.
One of the great early composers of jazz, Johnson’s work bridged the gap between ragtime and the next generation of New York Jazz pianists, like Fats Waller and Art Tatum. Although he may have seen himself primarily as a serious composer of extended works – suites and operas – we know him mainly as the composer and player of terrific stride piano pieces. And as Fats Waller’s teacher!

Carolina Shout. James P. Johnson
James P. Johnson solo (-piano roll). 5/1921.
Giddens and Deveaux write, “Beginning in 1918, [Johnson] punched out a series of influential piano rolls, including an early version of “Carolina Shout”, which became an anthem and a test piece – a kind of “Maple Leaf Rag” for New York’s piano elite. As ragtime became popular through widely distributed sheet music, stride found a smaller but dedicated audience through piano rolls.”

Carolina Shout. James P. Johnson
James P. Johnson solo (-p). 10/18/1921. (The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz)
Snowy Morning Blues. James P. Johnson
James P. Johnson solo (-p). 3/7/1927. (Smithsonian Collection of Jazz Piano)

You’ve Got to Be Modernistic. James P. Johnson
James P. Johnson solo (-p). 1.21.1930. (The Norton Jazz Recordings)
“The transition from ragtime to stride, from formal composition to jazz variations, is illuminated in Johnson’s 1930 recording of ‘You’ve Got to be Modernistic.’ Consider two aspects of its modernism. First, the introduction and first two strains are ornamented by advanced harmonies drawing on the whole-tone scale, that keeps the listener in a state of perpetual surprise. Second, Johnson switches midway from the formalism of ragtime to the theme and variations of jazz…” – Gary Giddens & Scott DeVeaux
The Mule Walk. James P. Johnson
James P. Johnson (-p). 6/14/1939. (Smithsonian Collection of Jazz Piano)
Martin Williams in the notes for Smithsonian Collection of Jazz Piano writes, “Johnson often performed The Mule Walk at dances, particularly for ‘Charleston people and southerners [who] had just come to New York. They were country people,’ he explained, ‘and they felt homesick.’”

Willie “The Lion” Smith.
No less a future jazz immortal than Duke Ellington described Smith’s response to other lesser piano players, “Before he got through too many stanzas the Lion was standing over him, cigar blazing. Like a cat was weak with the left hand, the Lion would say ‘What’s the matter, are you a cripple?’ Or, ’When did you break your left arm?’ Or ‘Get up, I will show you how it’s supposed to go’”

Passionette. Willie “The Lion” Smith.
Willie “The Lion” Smith solo (-p). 1/10/1939.
Finger Buster. Willie “The Lion” Smith.
Willie “The Lion” Smith solo (-p). 1/10/1939.

Echoes of Spring. Willie “The Lion” Smith.
Willie “The Lion” Smith solo (-p). 11/8/1957 (Smithsonian Collection of Jazz Piano)
“Smith could stride with the best. But in his own pieces, he rarely employed a stride bass line. The charming Echoes of Spring … does not stride. Clearly at least some of its roots are planted in the tradition of late nineteenth-century ‘parlor’ piano music … This performance has an openly expressed tenderness, a quality that all stride pianists seem to have communicated implicitly, each in his own way.” – Martin Williams from the notes for Smithsonian Collection of Jazz Piano

Fats Waller.
A student of James P Johnson, no one did more to bring stride piano to the attention of the public than did Fats Waller. Ted Gioia writes, “Although Waller’s small-combo work captured the public’s attention, his solo keyboard performances, documented on a handful of recordings and player piano rolls, remain his most poised statements as a jazz artist… Waller’s solo work reveals his omnivorous musical appetite, drawing on the blues (hear the majestic slow blues in ‘Numb Fumbling’), classical music (evoked, for instance, in the high-register figures of ‘African Ripples”, and the boogie-woogie (note its ingenious interpolation in the opening phrase of ‘Alligator Crawl”), as well as the ragtime roots of the music (as in ‘Handful of Keys’…).”

Numb Fumbling. Fats Waller
Fats Waller solo (-p). 3/1/1929.
African Ripples. Fats Waller
Fats Waller solo (-p). 11/16/1934.
Alligator Crawl. Fats Waller
Fats Waller solo (-p). 11/16/1934.
Handful of Keys. Fats Waller
Fats Waller solo (-p). 3/1/1929

Art Tatum.
The story is often told of Art Tatum showing up at a club while Fats Waller was playing, prompting Waller to stop and announce his guest saying, “I am just a piano player, but God is in the house.” After a childhood in Toledo, Tatum arrived in New York in 1933, taking on Fats Waller, James P Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith in a cutting contest at Morgan’s bar. In another story often told, Tatum, known only by reputation, let loose with his versions of “Tea For Two” and “Tiger Rag” to everyone’s astonishment. James P Johnson later said, “When Tatum played Tea For Two that night, I guess that was the first time I ever heard it played.” Fats Waller chimed in, “That Tatum, he was just too good. He had too much technique. When that man turns on the powerhouse, don’t no one play him down. He sounds like a brass band.”

Tea For Two. Art Tatum
Art Tatum solo (-p). 4/12/1939.
Star Dust. Art Tatum
Art Tatum solo (-p). 10/9/1934.
Tiger Rag. Art Tatum
Art Tatum solo (-p). 12/1935.
“For Tatum, Harlem stride served as a foundation on which more complex musical superstructures could be built, just as medieval Christians often constructed cathedrals on the sites of pagan shrines. And though some might suggest that Art Tatum represented the finest flowering of the Harlem stride tradition, in point of fact, he rang its death knell. In developing his mature style, Tatum all but exhausted the possibilities of stride, forcing later piano modernists – Monk, Powell, Tristano, Brubeck, Evans, and others – to veer off into far different directions in an attempt to work their way outside the massive shadow of this imposing figure.” – Ted Gioia

For the past six hours of our Jazz at 100 program, you have been patiently waiting … so in the next hour, we’ll finally hear from Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven. We’ve established Armstrong’s New Orleans credibility through his apprenticeship in King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in Chicago; we’ve heard him define the role of big band soloist with Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra in New York and we’ve heard him as accompanist to Bessie Smith. In 1926, Armstrong returned to Chicago to record the small group sessions that not only made his reputation but changed jazz forever.

The Norton Jazz Recordings – 4 Compact Discs for use with JAZZ by Scott DeVeaux and Gary Giddens. W.W. Norton 933796
The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz. Columbia P6 11891
Smithsonian Collection of Jazz Piano. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings 0391
James P. Johnson- Carolina Shout. Biograph BCD 105
Fats Waller – The Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 2: A Handful of Keys. JSPCD 928
Fats Waller: 1934-1935. Classics 732
Willie “The Lion” Smith: 1938-1940. Classics 692
Swing Time: Vol. 053, Art Tatum (1937-41). World’s Greatest Jazz Collection
Art Tatum: 1932 – 1934. Classics 507
Art Tatum – Masters of Jazz, Vol. 8. Storyville STCD 4108

Kirchner, Bill (editor). 2000. The Oxford Companion To Jazz. New York, NY. The Oxford University Press.
“Pianists of the 1920s and 1930s” by Henry Martin.
Giddens, Gary & DeVeaux, Scott. 2009. JAZZ. New York, NY. WW Norton & Company.
Chapter 5. New York in the 1920s
Chapter 10. Rhythm in Transition
Gioia, Ted. 2011. The History of Jazz. New York. Oxford University Press.
Chapter 3. The Jazz Age
Chapter 4. Harlem
Lester, James. 1994. Too Marvelous for Words: The Life and Genius of Art Tatum. New York. Oxford University Press.
Morton, Brian & Cook, Richard. 2011. Penguin Jazz Guide, the History of the Music in the 1001 Best Albums. New York, NY. Penguin Books.
James P. Johnson – Carolina Shout
Art Tatum: 1932 – 1934
Fats Waller: 1934-1935.
Ratliff, Ben. 2002. The New York Times Essential Library of Jazz. New York. Times Books.
Chapter 19. James P. Johnson, The Original James P. Johnson: 1942-1945, Piano Solos

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