Harlem and the kings of STRIDE

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kings of stride
A story of
Fats Waller
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stride piano
 

   Numb Fumblin'   Fats Waller (1929)


Harlem is one of the neighbourhoods in New York located just north of Central Park. In 1658, Peter Stuyvesant, who was then Governor of this former Dutch colony, baptized it New Harlem.

Harlem  125 thTowards the middle of the 19th century, farms began to desappear little by little, giving way to opulent-looking homes of a wealthy, white population. From 1880 to 1890, enormous real estate programs multiplied. Speculation reached its peak, only to finish in a veritable crash in 1904-05.

Proprietors, worried about recuperating their investments, rented some of the vacant housing to several black families, and then to an entire African-American community who were seeking decent living conditions.This migration continued into the 20's, bringing along with it, its culture, customs and conditions of life which were, at times, made difficult by unemployment, high rent and overpopulation.

In this context, there was much to be found in the way of entertainment in Harlem. Nightlife in the 30's and 40's was at an all time high. There were theaters and clubs on every street corner. That is, if your skin was the right colour to get in. The most famous of these, the Cotton Club or Connie's Inn were inevitably associated with the big names in Jazz and show biz. Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, among others, had their beginnings here. There was dancing, drinking and merrymaking until down every night. Orchestras could be found everywhere and the piano was king.

Fats at a rent party by Oliver "Ollie" HarringtonPiano players where in great demand. Taking their inspiration from Ragtime, their style evolved to a more highly improvised form of swing called Stride. In Stride piano,  the initial theme is played and the right hand continues with variations, while the left provides a solid accompaniment, alterning between a bass note and a chord. The bass is often played with a tenth, which enriches  the playing. This characteristic movement of the left hand, the pump is the origin of the name Stride, which means to straddle or stretch across. Each player adapts these figures to his personal talent, thus giving his own authentic performance. Playing becomes smoother and more powerful with hard work and daily practice. Some Stride pianists performed at clubs and accompanied singers. Others were featured at house rent parties and private evening parties in which destitute renters collected money to pay the rent by organizing parties at home. Once the pianist and drinks were paid for, the rest of the money was used to settle the back rent. Occasionally, piano players would organize a spontaneous cutting contest in the wee hours of the morning ; this is a genuine piano contest where each participant gives his own show, trying hard to impress the audience.

Some of the famous stride pianists of the time included Luckey Roberts, who played at The Little Savoy Club before becoming a regular at Baron Wilkins, a famous club in Harlem. Eubie Blake, Russel Brooks, Henry Hank Duncan, Donald Lambert, Claude Hopkins, Joe Turner, Cliff Jackson, among others, also had solid reputation. But there were three Stride pianists who impacted the history of Jazz forever. By influencing generations of pianists, they paved the way to the period following ragtime, swing and modern piano.

   Rippling waters   Willie Smith

William, Henry, Joseph, Berthold, Bonaparte, Bertholoff ... plus connu sous le nom de  Willie SmithWillie The Lion SMITH was a great figure of stride. He was a real tickler as they were called at the time and was always ready to take on all comers. His subtle harmonies and delicate phrasing made him an outstanding player and there was a lyricism and modernity in his style. In certain themes, Smith would avoid the usal technique of the pump with his left hand, and would use a sort of running or sliding broken arpeggio. Most of the time, he performed solo in clubs and rent parties and would occasionally go on wold tour. He always brought up his memories and his pianists friends from Harlem and only made recordings towards the end of his career.




   Carolina Shout   James P. Johnson  (1921)

James Price JohnsonThe illustrous James Price Johson is the one pianist who stood far above all the others. His playing was extremely precise and he combined all possible difficulties imaginable; keys, rhythms, complex technique feats and subtle dissonances and all this with an unchanging tempo. He was born on February 1, 1894 in New Brunswick, New Jersey and took his first lessons from his mother. He came to New York in 1908, and continued with teacher by the name of Bruto Gianini. He was soon playing ragtime by Scott Joplin
Johnson never missed an occasion to listen to those whom he considered masters, Eubie Blake, Lucky Roberts, and Richard “Abba Labba” McLean. Very early on, he performed in clubs, either solo or in a small groups. He accompanied the blues singer, Bessie Smith, and acquired a solid reputation as an instrumentalist and composer. His Carolina Shout became an obligatory passage for any stride pianist worthy of the name and his “Charleston” was heard around the world. Strangely enough, he would never have the kind of recognition that he deserved. Nevertheless, he is considered to be the father of the stride piano style. His influence spanned more than a generation of pianists.

   Handfull of keys   Fats Waller  (1929)

Thomas Fats WallerAnd then, there was Thomas “Fats” Waller (1904-1943). Young Waller listened to religious hymns and organ in the church where his father was pastor. This contributed to his early appreciation of music. The piano quickly became a refuge for this turbulent boy whose only thought was to imitate his idols, James P. Johnson and Willie "The Lion" Smith. Jonhson took him under his wing, providing him with an intensive initiation to stride, while simultaneously giving him a solid base of music theory. This was to be the beginning of an exceptional career. Pianist, conductor, singer, composer, Fats Waller was indeed a prolific artist.

His clownish nature often overshadowed his immense qualities as a pianist. The critiques of this artist who was capable of turning any trivial ditty into a hit, were occasionally severe. An accomplished musician, his lighthearted playing resolutely turned to swing which he played with all his heart. Fats Waller was a dynamic and colourful character, instantly spreading his joie de vivre. His interest in practicing was minimal. He would spontaneously give the best of himself whether it be in a club, broadcasting a radio show, alone or with his orchestra. Jazz history is deeply marked by his compositions which have become standards (Black and Blue, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Honeysuckle Rose, Squeeze me ...), as well as by his numerous recordings, and, of course, by his inimitable presence whenever he played and sung to the joy of the public.

références :
Ain'tMisbehavin the story of Fats Waller by Ed Kirkeby - Da capo press, NY
Fats Waller, Maurice Waller and Antony Calabrese - Schimer bokks NY
Fats Waller, Alyn Shipton - Omnibus Press, London
Crédit photos : The Frank Driggs collection, M. Lipskin, S. Grossman, D.Schiedt
english version : Thanks to Jerry Zucker for his precious help

copyright 2000 / 2017  JCS

 

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