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In Tune -- by Bill Fuller
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Stride (or Harlem Stride) was a jazz piano style that came along a good bit after
the New Orleans originators of jazz. The early proponents of stride piano were
soloists who were not very familiar with black folk music and knew very little of
jazz. It has been stated that they came by their knowledge of jazz primarily
through the playing of The Original Dixieland Jazz Band and the musical success it
generated. These pianists were intrigued by this new music which was replacing
ragtime.  The new piano style evolved from “swinging” the rags they already
knew by playing a single note in the bass line for the first and third beats of a
measure and three-or-four-note chords on the second and fourth beats resulting in
a “striding” bass line.

In the history of this style three Harlem pianists stand out as the Big Three of
stride piano: James P. Johnson, Thomas “Fats” Waller, and Willie “The Lion”
Smith. We’ll take a look at each of them and their compositions in the next three
“In Tunes.”

James Price Johnson (1894-1955) was born in New Jersey and, in 1908, moved to
New York where he had access to the full musical spectrum of  the city. There he
gained, over time, the reputation of being one of the premier ragtime players. His
first professional job was at Coney Island in 1912. In the years just preceding 1920,
he cut a number of piano rolls for two different companies. He was, reportedly,
both Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith’s favorite piano player. Johnson gave lessons
to a young Fats Waller and got him his first piano roll and recording jobs. During
his career he wrote a number of compositions, including:

CHARLESTON – written in 1923 for the show “Runnin’ Wild,” it inspired a dance
that characterized the jazz age for decades even though preceded and followed by
other “Charleston” numbers in other shows it was this one that caught on. It was
sung by Elizabeth Welch and danced by a group of chorus boys called The
Dancing Redcaps.

OLD FASHIONED LOVE – written in 1922, also for the show “Runnin’ Wild,” it
had lyrics by Cecil Mack.

PORTER’S LOVE SONG TO A CHAMBERMAID – Johnson wrote this one in 1930,
and in 1934 it was recorded by Fats Waller who was once a student of James P’s.
Duke Ellington was also, in a sense, a student of Johnson’s in that he would take
his piano rolls and slow them down and emulate his style.

recorded by McKinney’s Cotton Pickers in January of 1930; then in June of 1930,
by the Ben Pollack Orchestra with Jack Teagarden doing the vocal. Cuba Austin,
McKinney’s drummer, accused Pollack of stealing the arrangement. Ray Bauduc,
Pollack’s drummer, said their recording sold more copies in Cleveland, Ohio than
anywhere else in the country. The tune was also popularized by Ruth Etting and,
later, Maurice Chevalier. It was used in the film “The Man I Love” with Ida

Stride’s Big Three (Part 2)

The second of the famous Harlem stride giants was Thomas “Fats” Waller. At an
early age young Tom played piano and organ in his father’s church. He was, in
fact, a student and good friend of our first stride giant, James P Johnson. When he
was fourteen he got a job playing organ at the Lincoln Theater in Harlem, and a
year later he was composing his own works. When he was eighteen he made his
first recordings. Once, while in Chicago, he was “kidnapped” by Al Capone and
was paid thousands of dollars to play for three days straight at Capone’s birthday

As “Fats” style and stage presence evolved he became a very popular performer
here as well as in Europe. He wrote many tunes that are still popular to this day.
For him composition seemed easy. He was famous for dashing off a new tune in a
taxi, a bar, or a few minutes before it was to be performed or recorded. Fellow
pianist/composer Oscar Levant dubbed Fats “the black Horowitz.”

He loved novelty swing tunes and practically defined the “loose” style of
presenting them. As his popularity grew, record companies scrambled to give him
new material to record, just as they had done to the young Louis Armstrong only
a few years earlier. Many of these were truly “lemons,” but Fats (as was his
custom), just like Louis, made them lemonade.

Some of Waller’s tunes are:
BLACK AND BLUE – written, along with Fats’ lyricist, Andy Razaf, at the
“strong” request of gangster Dutch Schultz in 1929, for Connie Immerman’s show
“Hot Chocolates.” Dutch wanted a “funny” song about a dark-skinned woman in
a scene that discovered her in an all-white room in a white-sheeted bed. What
Schultz got was a less- than-funny statement on racism which could have proved
“unhealthy” for Waller and Razaf except that it was a big hit in the show.

GEORGIA BOBO – written along with Joe Trent in 1926. The tune was introduced
by Lil Hardin (Louis Armstrong’s second wife) and Her Hot Shots. Lil was no
slouch at composing herself, having written such tunes as “Struttin’ with Some
Barbecue” and “King of the Zulus.”

I-’M CRAZY ‘BOUT MY BABY – written in 1931, with Alex Hill. It was
popularized by Waller himself and by Ted Lewis and his band.

THE JOINT IS JUMPIN’- Fats composed this rent-party paean in 1937, with lyrics
by sidekick Andy Razaf. He popularized it with his own band, Fats Waller and
His Rhythm.

VIPER’S DRAG- Waller wrote and popularized this in 1934, as a piano solo. It was
revived recently in the musical “Ain’t Misbehavin’” by Debbie Allen and Nell

ZONKY- this 1929 tune was written in collaboration with Andy Razaf and was
introduced in the musical revue, “Load of Coal.”
Earlville Association for Ragtime Lovers Yearning
for Jazz Advancement and Socialization
Stride’s Big Three (Part 3):  Willie “The Lion” Smith
William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff, was born in Goshen, N.Y , in 1893.
He was given his new step-father’s surname, “Smith” after his mother threw his
father out when Willie was about two. Frank Bertholoff was gone, but his son
adopted and stuck steadfastly to his father’s Jewish faith all his life.
While probably the least famous of the Big Three Harlem Stride artists, he was,
in the long-run, possibly the most influential because of the tremendous impact
his piano work had on Duke Ellington who said, “Willie ‘The Lion’ was the
greatest influence of all the great jazz piano players...”    
Certainly Willie’s playing was the most delicate of the Big Three. His
compositions reflected a fragile melodic beauty that contrasted sharply with the
two most salient features of his persona: his nickname, and his demeanor.       
It seems every time Willie was asked where his nickname, “The Lion,” came
from, he had a different story. We’ll probably never know the truth, but three of
the most frequent explanations were: 1) James P. Johnson, another of stride’s Big
Three, gave him the appellation “The Lion,” because of his “spunk and
enterprise.”  2) Because of his bravery as a member of an artillery unit at the
front in W.W. I, his comrades called him “The Lion.” 3) Because of his devotion
to Judaism he was called “The Lion of Judea,” later shortened to “The Lion.”  
There are yet other versions extant.
As to his demeanor, Willie was blest with an abundance of self-esteem. He
constantly referred to himself in a god-like third person – “The Lion.” Wherever
he was he reveled in being the head man. No matter where or with whom Willie
was playing, he never said The Lion worked for anyone – always The Lion was
just helping somebody out.
Most of his compositions were written in the 1930’s. On January 10, 1939, he
recorded a number of piano solos (including eight of his own compositions) for
the Commodore Record Company in New York. He loved Ravel and Debussy
and he combined these classical influences into his own compositions of stride:

ECHOES OF SPRING (originally Echo of Spring) – 1935, along with
“Fingerbuster” probably his most well-known composition even though it was
seldom covered by other pianists. Within its beautiful melody subsists both a
classical jazz piano piece and a wonderful slice of American music. Multi-
instrumentalist/arranger Dick Cary recorded it for Arbors in 1991, and Ralph
Sutton in 2002, for Gaslight.

FINGERBUSTER- Each of the Big Three had his special “show-off” piece that
was meant to test the metal of any would-be strider. James P. Johnson had
“Carolina Shout” or “Keep Off the Grass;” Thomas “Fats” Waller had “Handful
of Keys,” and Willie “The Lion” Smith had this 1934 composition, which was his
first solo recording. In it the strength of “The Lion’s” left had is amply

RIPPLING WATERS- Willie “The Lion” Smith’s music has been called the
charming, pastoral antidote to loud and fast. The opening strains of this 1939
composition are elegant and ornate, but as the tune progresses it is hardly
wimpy. This tune too is not often covered because of its challenge. It was
recorded by Cleveland’s George Foley for Century/Advent in 1978.