Take It All In Stride

Honestly, I never meant this blog to sound like a musical historian’s nightmare. What’s happened is that as I think about the music that grabs me, I start researching its background and I keep finding these really interesting little nuggets that surprise and delight me.

Jazz, for example. I learned that jazz mixes musical traditions from West Africa, western Sahel, Europe (especially its military band music), spirituals and blues from the American South (of course), Appalachian hillbilly music and, believe it or not, New England religious hymns. (Which reminds me: I need to watch the epic Ken Burns documentary Jazz as soon as possible!)

As noted yesterday, ragtime music was really the progenitor of jazz, and the cakewalk evolved into ragtime around 1895. But ragtime was also influenced strongly by minstrel show music, “jig bands,” and — I’m really sorry about this — a genre of music called “coon songs.” (The link will take you to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University, and to a powerful and fascinating discussion of the development and influence of that music).

One of the first ragtime compositions was published by Ben Harney. The music was vibrant, enthusiastic, and often extemporaneous. While early ragtime music took on the form of marches, waltzes, and other traditional song forms, its consistent characteristic was syncopation. Syncopated notes and rhythms became so popular with the public that sheet music publishers even included the word “syncopated” in advertising. (According to the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, the musical form was originally called “ragged time” because of its syncopation, and this later became corrupted as “ragtime.”)

In 1899, a classically trained young pianist from Missouri named Scott Joplin published the first of many ragtime compositions that would come to shape the music of a nation. He recorded his most famous composition, “Maple Leaf Rag,” on a Pianola piano roll. This is the master himself playing it:

One of the most distinctive features of ragtime music is the stride piano. The pianist’s left hand plays “a four-beat pulse with a bass note or tenth interval on the first and third beats, and a chord on the second and fourth beats, or an interrupted bass with three single notes and then a chord,” whatever that means, while the right hand plays melodies, riffs, and often contrapuntal lines. The name “stride” comes from the left-hand movement “striding” up and down the keyboard.

When ragtime gave way to jazz (influenced in no small measure by virtuoso pianist, bandleader, and composer Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton, who was known as the Originator of Jazz — it even said so on his business card!), stride piano was the pioneering jazz piano style, and featured improvisation, blues notes, and swing rhythms, as well as classical devices. Stride is one of the most difficult styles of jazz piano playing, takes years to master, and by the end of World War I stride players were engaging in “cutting contests” to show off their skill.

Then came the amazing, the prolific, the brilliant Thomas “Fats” Waller. I marvel at his skills as a pianist and composer, but I didn’t realize that he was an organist and a comedic entertainer as well. His grandfather was an accomplished violinist. As a young man, Fats learned the latest piano styles by studying a player piano recording of the genius Harlem stride pianist James P. Johnson. He soon studied under Johnson, and later joined him in making piano rolls for the QRS Music Roll Company. He also benefited from instruction by legendary stride pianist Willie “the Lion” Smith, who gave Fats the nickname “Filthy.”

One of my favorite Waller tunes, “A Handful of Keys” (1929), is an ode to the stride piano:

I like to tinkle on an old piana.
I like to play it in a subtle mannah.
I get a lot o’ pleasure
With a span o’ keys
Underneath my finger tips
Tricklin’ off o’ my lips.
A handful o’ keys
And a song to sing,
Now how could you ask for more?
Than ticklin’ the ivory,
Singin’ jive,
I repeat what I said before:

I like to sing a little tune that’s mellah.
I like to vocalize,
There’s nothin’ swellah.
I love to have a supple melody
Just tricklin’ off o’ my lips.
A handful o’ keys
And a song to sing,
Now how could you ask for more?
Than ticklin’ the ivory,
Singin’ jive,
I repeat what I said before.

I like to tinkle on an old piana.
I like to play it in a subtle mannah.
I know I’ll always be the top banana
With a handful o’ keys!

Here’s Christoph “Boogie Wolf” Steinbach playing “Handful of Keys” faster than his shadow:

Just for fun, here’s a note-for-note transcription of the same piece performed by the Speakeasy String Quartet, who specialize in the music of the ’20s and ’30s:

In 1978, Ain’t Misbehavin’ opened on Broadway and introduced a new generation to the music of Fats Waller. Starring Nell Carter, André De Shields, Armelia McQueen, Ken Page, and Charlaine Woodard — brilliant singers and actors, each of them — it won that year’s Tony Award for Best Musical, and Nell Carter took home the award for Best Featured Actress. Even though it was filmed for television in 1982, I am heartbroken to report that it has never been issued on video or DVD. The best I could do, clip-wise, is this highlights reel from the North Shore Music Theatre‘s excellent production of the show:

One of my favorite songs from the show — and this was definitely due to the staging rather than the music itself — was “The Viper’s Drag” (also known as “The Reefer Song”). André De Shields was sexy, sinuous, seductive, and sly in this performance. But if I can’t have André, I’ll happily make do with Seth Sharp, doing the number at the Loftkastalinn Theater in Reykjavik, Iceland, of all places:

But frankly, no one can do Fats Waller music better than Fats himself. Here he is playing “Ain’t Misbehavin'”:

Had enough? Not till you’ve seen him do “This Joint is Jumpin'”:

It hardly seems fair that we would lose him at such an early age (he died at 39 of pneumonia aboard an eastbound train near Kansas City following an engagement on the west coast). Then again, to quote Fats, “One never knows, do one?”

Last but not least, here are the Muppets (yes, the Muppets) doing “Honeysuckle Rose”:



~ by Craig R. Smith on 5 September 2007.

14 Responses to “Take It All In Stride”

  1. You know how I feel about Fats. Merci!

  2. The sting quartet is amazing but it’s hard to beat the Muppets for virtuoso skill.

  3. I feel sorry for the bee.

  4. I’m a Fats fan too.

  5. I’m impressed! How do you find time to research AND write one of these every day?

    I always thought my dream job would be research, but not of the type that I’m doing. The type that has to disinter interesting nuggets, as you’re doing.

  6. Ah. The secret, Helen, is that I’m ten days ahead. I started writing early in August. I suspect that as September wears on — assuming I don’t keep ahead of the game — that the length, depth of research, and no doubt quality of my posts will suffer. But we’ll see.

  7. AACCKK! How do you find time to be so organized? I’m obviously a dreadful pfaffer…

  8. Helen, I’m sure Indigo and Adamus and anyone else who knows me personally are writhing on the floor in a frenzy of hysterics right now. The notion that I, of all people, could ever be called even remotely organized is the height of absurdity. I’m the original ADD boy. I just get obsessed from time to time.

  9. (Clears throat.)

  10. What, you beg to differ, my friend?


  12. Actually, I purloined that phrase a bit from dear Noel Coward. In Act II of Blithe Spirit, Ruth Condomine is angry over the behavior her husband Charles exhibited the night before at a séance, when he saw the ghost of his dead wife, Elvira. He was less than apologetic, which enraged Ruth even further.

    RUTH: Now look here, Charles, in your younger days this display of roguish flippancy might have been alluring. In a middle-aged novelist it’s nauseating.

    CHARLES: Would you like me to writhe at your feet in a frenzy of self-abasement?

    RUTH: That would be equally nauseating, but certainly more appropriate.

    I love Noel Coward.

  13. As do I…

  14. I just came across this post and I just wanted to say THANK YOU! I love this music and it’s great to see it all compiled here 🙂 You made my night.

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