The Stride Piano Idiom

What is stride piano, anyway?

A list of those who played authentic stride piano must include James P Johnson, Fats Waller, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Joe Turner, Donald Lambert, Cliff Jackson, Lucky Roberts, and, early in their careers, Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie. To further define the boundaries of the idiom, a list of great jazz pianists who did not play stride piano would include Jelly Roll Morton, Earl Hines, and Teddy Wilson.

The Stride Piano School of American Music dictates that both hands earn a living. The most obvious attribute of this style is that the left hand occupies itself principally with striking a bass note, octave, or tenth on beats 1 and 3 of the 4/4 measure, and a dense chord near middle C on beats 2 and 4. The left arm is therefore continuously engaged in reciprocating motion (hence the name “stride”), and this athletic activity provides a very strong rhythmic and harmonic foundation. The even-beat chords usually contain four notes and are closed voicings (as tightly bunched as possible) which gives them a percussive striking power comparable to the odd-beat bass notes. Thus all four beats are more or less equally accented, which enhances the “swing” of the rhythm.1

However, this oom-pah-oom-pah left hand is merely necessary, not sufficient; its presence does not guarantee the real thing, the genuine article. The unique characteristics of stride piano are subtle — readily detected aurally, but not easily described verbally. Suffice it to say that the idiom is distinguished by a particular rhythmic and contrapuntal feel produced by the combined effect of the sturdy striding left hand and various playful right-hand figures which are phrased in a swinging meter.2

Above all, stride piano is a truly solo idiom; it is entirely self-sufficient and requires no rhythmic or harmonic assistance. In fact, the addition of rhythm instruments usually obscures the impish strut of solo stride piano. The style generates a very full, orchestral sound, as the oscillating left hand activates simultaneously both the low and middle registers, while the right hand operates in the upper registers. The bass notes often comprise a line or voice which moves in proper (i.e., 19th-century European) counterpoint to the melody and harmony above, further solidifying the edifice. At fast-to-medium tempos, stride is played without using the damper pedal, to achieve a crisp rhythmic drive, while at medium-to-slow tempos, the pedal is customarily used to enable the left hand to produce legato3 full-value quarter notes which emphasize the harmony.

Stride piano evolved from classic American ragtime piano music of the period 1895-1910, adding harmonic and rhythmic complexity and subtlety, and attained its mature form by the middle 1920's. It was developed in the Northeast (mostly in New York; in fact it is often labeled “Harlem Stride Piano”) by a fraternity of black musicians as a frolicsome, flashy, swaggering, aggressive solo piano style able to forcibly entertain and command attention, to be audible in a room full of raucous people, and to provide strong enough rhythm for dancing — all for the price of one piano player. Enigmatically, this robust music created by blacks originally for blacks is currently performed and appreciated almost exclusively by whites. The style is applicable not only to the formal pieces written by the stride pianists to display their wares, but is also admirably suited to theme-and-variations presentation of all types of American popular songs and jazz compositions. These formal compositions, often quite difficult technically, were commonly performed either as “party pieces” to dazzle the assembled guests, or to impress (and intimidate) any pianists in attendance. They also were employed as weapons of destruction or attempted destruction at piano “cutting sessions” — spontaneous after-hours gladiatorial contests between two or more pianists, with the winner determined by audience response.

Here are two illustrative examples of classic solo stride piano:
Handful of Keys, by Fats Waller
Gut Stomp, by James P Johnson

This disquisition courtesy of Mephistopheles Records

1. The term “swing” refers to a rhythmic feel in jazz which simultaneously has both strength and buoyancy, both tension and relaxation, plus a relentless bouncing momentum. Swing is a subjective property and cannot accurately be defined in musical terms, but it is strongly dependent on the attack, placement, and duration of the notes. A performance that does not swing is like a car with a flat tire — it is immediately apparent when one drives off that something is very wrong.

2. If a measure of melody consists nominally of eight 8th notes, then, when phrased in swinging rhythm, the odd-numbered notes will have approximately twice the duration of the even-numbered notes.

3. Legato means phrasing a melodic line so that there is no silence and no overlap between successive notes.