88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music

Although Jelly Roll Morton didn’t record until the early 1920s, he mixed elements of ragtime, blues (“New Orleans Blues,” 1925; “Jelly Roll Blues,” 1915), Spanish and French opera, and brass-band music, together with his own elegant melodies and chromatic inner voices, into a jazz style as early as 1911. While electric inventions like the film projector and the sound recorder were revealing, to the public at large, worlds heretofore unknown, it is apparent that the creation of jazz had been brewing in various parts of the South, most notably New Orleans, for a some time—as in the never recorded improvisations of the legendary trumpeter Buddy Bolden.

A telling example of the evolution of ragtime to jazz can be heard by comparing Scott Joplin‘s 1916 recording of the “Maple Leaf Rag” and Jelly Roll Morton’s version of the same piece recorded in 1938. In Morton’s performance, he changes measures from four to five beats, shortens one measure to three, and plays around not only with accents but introduces a freedom of form and pacing inherited from country blues. Joplin does insert some embellishment variations, but basic to Morton’s performance is an underlying triple meter, with jazz accents rather than the sharp ragged rhythm of Joplin’s duple meter.

Morton was known for his beauty of technique and tone, crossed with a rhythmical grace and fluidity that is still outstanding and seldom heard even today. But his most important achievement was that he was a complete jazz composer who established several aspects of the ensemble form, treated timbre and orchestrated contrasts in subtle and original ways, experimented with harmonies (“Freakish,” 1929; “Shreveport Stomp,” 1925) and created new overall forms (“The Pearls,” 1923; “The Crave,” 1938; “King Porter Stomp,” 1924) that allowed for improvisation (the recordings of “Frog-I-More Rag,” 1918, rec. 1924, and “Kansas City Stomp,” 1923, rec. 1925) and extensive variations (“Hyena Stomp,” 1927; “Jungle Blues,” 1927).

Ragtime was also being transformed into jazz in the Eastern states by pianist-composers such as James Hubert “Eubie” Blake, James Price Johnson, Charles Luckeyeth “Luckey” Roberts (whose large hands could easily play tenths and twelfths; he composed “Junk Man Rag” and “Pork and Beans,” 1913, “Music Box Rag” and “Palm Beach,” 1914, and influenced Ellington), and Thomas “Fats” Waller. A protégé of James P. Johnson and an influence on Art Tatum, Waller composed over 400 works, including the songs “Honeysuckle Rose,” 1928, and “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” 1929).

James P. Johnson is often called the Father of the Harlem Stride Piano, a postwar style played at a somewhat more souped-up tempo than the comparatively more genteel, unrushed ragtime. Composer of the signature dance tune of the 1920s, the Charleston (1923, which he performed on radio in 1947 with band and a tap dancer), Johnson recorded his masterpiece, “Carolina Shout,” in 1918 on a piano roll and in 1921 on vinyl. Johnson’s right hand mixes ragtime syncopation with triple meter figures and offbeat accents, and his left hand departs from the common march-like “oom-pah” figures and instead unrolls endlessly varied walking lines with anticipatory accents and rhythmic “turn-arounds.” On one chorus he just pulsates on two notes in the bass. There is harmonic freedom also in the distinct progressions for each of the introductions to the choruses. This complex piece was for years the one on which you cut your teeth if you were yourself an aspiring stride pianist.

Johnson, like Morton, was a fine composer who penned (and staged) sixteen musical revues, as well as symphonic works based on the American experience. His two-movement Concerto Jazz A Mine (1934) is built on the significant styles of American piano—boogie-woogie, ragtime, city blues, stride—and peppered with piano concerto-isms, like octave and scale runs, or sequenced chromatic passages. The second movement is a wonderfully moody ballad that could have easily been a standard. Johnson’s four-movement Harlem Symphony (1932) takes his audience on a “Subway Journey” through various ethnic neighborhoods, sweeping the listener away with a 1930s-style ballad entitled “April in Harlem” that is orchestrated in lush tones. After some toe-tapping entertainment in the “Night Club”, the symphony concludes with a syncopated spiritual in the “Baptist Mission” set to a walking bass and often rocking backbeat. The Victory Stride (1944) is a foot-tapping swing tune featuring a minor key theme played by the saxes backed by a melismatic string section, with spots for piano, clarinet, trombone and trumpet breaks that hearken back to the 40′s bands which kept up the national spirit during wartime.

Solo pianists were (and are) used to treating the piano as a substitute for an all-too-expensive orchestra. The problem of finding the piano’s proper function within a jazz ensemble, a function that would not interfere with, double, or cover up the other players’ lines, was largely solved by Earl Kenneth “Fatha” Hines in the mid-1920s. Hines turned over the left-hand rhythm to the drums and bass, and in place of that he would play walking basses that were based on the harmonic implications of the chord progression (rather than just landing on the roots of the chords). He later evolved a sophisticated ‘comping (short for accompanying) style that was emulated by everyone and developed by the later bebop pianists. Hines’ right hand improvisations were delivered in a clear, bright single note “horn” style, lightly embellished with devices like rotating fourths. He often gave his own compositions strangely humorous titles such as “Child of A Disordered Brain,” “Tantalizing A Cuban,” “Number 19,” and his orchestra of the late 1930s used his “Deep Forest”” as their signature tune.

One of the great classic jazz recordings is the playful 1928 performance of “Weather Bird” by Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines, on which can be heard ragtime, barrelhouse piano, and jazz with non-harmonic tones and “sounds” cheerfully mixed in, as Armstrong reveals his new style (first recorded in his “West End Blues”) of playing free gestures over chord changes (rather than just varying a set melody), which became the basis for modern jazz: decades later Ornette Coleman would even remove the changes, creating a less harmonically driven, more “free” jazz.

From 88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music
by “Blue” Gene Tyranny
© 2003 NewMusicBox