Snowy Morning Blues

February 12, 2010

Well, Paris has got a bit of snow on the ground, but it’s my family in Maryland/DC that this next post goes out to. Buried as they are it seems like a nice way to have a nature-imposed week long vacation, as long as the electricity holds.
James P. Johnson was the father of the Harlem stride style of piano playing. He influenced the later generation of players such as Art Tatum, Fats Waller (whom he taught personally), Willie “The Lion” Smith, and then later on Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and more. I’m particularly drawn to his style of piano playing for the tasteful harmonic mix of Joplin inspired ragtime with jazz, blues, and classical idioms. That and his searing, rhythmically complex interplay between left and right hands (man that left hand is something else). The following, lifted right off the wikipedia article, nails it on the head (despite the awkward first sentence):
The Stride pianists introduced a far more free-swinging rhythm into their performances than is possible to duplicate, than for instance, by merely correctly interpreting the well-worked-out and annotated ragtime compositions of Joplin and his colleagues; there is more to achieving the swinging stride effect than by merely playing notes on a printed page. A certain amount of the rhythmic subtlety that is required to play stride successfully is transcended by what can be written on the printed page. In a stride performance there must be a certain degree of anticipation of the left hand by the right hand, a form of pulling and tugging, or tension and release, where the patterns played by the right hand are interpolated within the beat generated by the left. Crudely stated and oversimplified, this is what can be said to give a correctly executed stride performance its lilt, swing, and powerful drive. It is doubtful that any amount of written description, no matter how accurate, can give a truly accurate portrayal of what it means to stride or swing. The interested reader is referred to the solo recordings of Waller, or Johnson, for a truly convincing demonstration of the swinging power of stride.
Obviously Waller and Tatum are perhaps the most well-known, so I figured a nod to the father of it all was in order.
My brother, a stride/ragtime/blues piano player himself, passed the James P. records on to me.

Snowy Morning Blues – James P. Johnson

And for kicks, here’s his “Carolina Shout”…

Carolina Shout – James P. Johnson

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