Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Stride Piano I - James P. Johnson

As mentioned in a previous post The Great Migration saw many people move from the south to such cities as Chicago, L.A. and New York. By the mid 1920s a movement known as the Harlem Renaissance had taken hold and was to prove to be a major influence in the progression of jazz music. The biggest impact that I have seen seems to be the birth of the Harlem Stride Piano style. By this time the main proponent of the instrument was Jelly Roll Morton, who was influenced by rag piano but who infused it with what he called the “Spanish tinge”. James P. Johnson would also prove to be a highly influential figure in the development of jazz piano.


With the cultural explosion that came with the Harlem Renaissance there was the rise of popular night clubs and rent parties in the city. Places like The Savoy, The Cotton Club and The Apollo Theatre. The movement also created a new black middle class who wished to distance themselves from the rural sounds of “Dixie” jazz and so they turned to music that was more piano orientated. Johnson was quick to latch onto this and composed many pieces that are revered in jazz circles even today. He is widely regarded as the “father” of stride piano. He composed The Charleston, perhaps the definitive dance piece that represents the Jazz Age and the Roaring Twenties.

I’m not a piano player but I have learned that stride piano is so called because it is the left hand that “strides” up the piano in a busy fashion using a boom-chick-boom-chick motion combined with a complex right hand. The idea of using the alternating left hand pattern typical of ragtime as a foundation over which new melodies could be improvised is the basis of stride piano. The stride pianist generally makes more liberal use of blues harmonies in his music than does the ragtime composer. (source:)

Here is James P. Johnson playing one of his famous songs, Snowy Morning Blues.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Frank Trumbauer

Following on from my last post on Bix Beiderbecke, my omission of Frankie Trumbauer has becoming glaring. Bix it seems would always outshine his friend due to his notoriety. However their work together deserves mentioning. The wonderful sax solo at the beginning of Singin' The Blues was from "Tram" and the two were seemingly inseparable.


Here is a nice essay from the Red Hot Jazz website. The piece comes from the liner notes of a 78rpm record from 1947, written by George Avakian, himself a jazz record producer of some note.


Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Bix Beiderbecke

By the mid 1920’s the jazz age had firmly taken hold. Phonograph records and the explosion of radio began to influence musicians outside of Chicago and New York, regardless of race – cornetist, Bix Beiderbecke being a great example of this.


Listening to the music that Bix recorded in the late 20’s is like listening to a soundtrack for a whole decade. The music is eerily familiar. Maybe it is because of the use of the songs in so many subsequent films.(Singing The Blues in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway and Blackboard Jungle, most famously.) However I feel the reason goes deeper. In listening to the songs you can hear the influence the music was to have over the big band era that was to come in the next decade. The crooner becomes popular around this time, (Bing Crosby sang on some songs that Bix played on). Even further than that, it could be said that, the music was highly influential over the “cool jazz” scene decades later. You know this music. It is intrinsicly complex and derives some influence from classical music as well as the hot jazz scene at the time.

The music is markedly different from the Hot Five and Seven recordings made at the same time by Louis Armstrong. And therein lies a lot of criticism. Many it seems have argued that the white bandleaders of the day made the music in a way that was less edgy – more mainstream and accessible. Akin to how Bill Haley and The Comets took the music of RnB and sanitised it to a certain degree to make it more accessible to white middle class America in the 50’s. I personally would disagree with this view. I believe the music has stood the test of time.

Bix himself is a source of controversy in jazz circles in relation to how important his contribution was to the history of jazz. He died young and was largely unknown at that point. Hence the Beiderbecke Romantic Legend and the “Young Man With A Horn” stories. No musical genre is without its legends but I think Bix Beiderbecke’s music stands up with the music that I’ve listened to from this era. His approach is very different from Louis Armstrong’s but no less potent for that. As a guitar player I like to think I can recognise great tone when I hear it.

Singin' The Blues, perhaps the most famous recording he was involved with, nicely demonstrates the collision of the hot New Orleans jazz and a sweet romantic sound.

The following songs are, I think, are a good representation of the Bix Beiderbecke sound. Of course this is only a snippet and I look forward to delving into the other recordings he made.

Here's a nice audio tribute.