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.

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