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Great Jazz Pianists


Fats Waller: Carolina Shout; Ain't Misbehavin' << sound clip
Earl Hines: Fifty-Seven Varieties; My Melancholy Baby
James P Johnson: Snowy Morning Blues;
You've Got To Be Modernistic << sound clip
Jelly Roll Morton: King Porter Stomp; Original Rags
Duke Ellington: Swampy River
Willie 'The Lion' Smith: Passionette; Morning Air
Art Tatum: Humoresque; Begin The Beguine << sound clip
Teddy Wilson: Tiger Rag; When You And I Were Young, Maggie
Billy Kyle: Finishing Up A Date
Teddy Weatherford: My Blue Heaven
Donald Lambert: Pilgrim's Chorus
Garland Wilson: Rockin' Chair
Mary Lou Williams: Swingin' For Joy
Joe Turner: The Ladder
Joe Sullivan: Little Rock Getaway

The piano is the most versatile of musical instruments. It enables a player to combine notes and create complex chords, and in the right hands, offers exceptional potential for dynamic variety. Unlike its predecessor, the harpsichord, the piano is essentially a percussion instrument. The notes are activated by felt hammers striking strings and each pianist brings differences of touch and emphasis to this process, helping to define the piano as the ideal vehicle for a creative art-form like jazz.

A late seventeenth-century innovation, the piano was perfected by one Bartolomeo Cristofori, then the Keeper of Instruments at the Medici Court in Florence. Originally the piano e forte (literally 'soft and loud'), it embraces the staple elements of rhythm, melody and harmony.

Little wonder then that the piano became the instrument of choice for so many families throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries or that great numbers of aspiring musicians were encouraged to tackle its complexities. Black families in America were no different to their white counterparts in this. They too, wished their offspring to acquire the preferred social graces of the day, among them, of course, sufficient mastery of the piano to provide the accompaniment for turn-of-the-century parlour socials, family festivities and neighbourhood recitals. Unsurprisingly, the piano also became a common feature of church and school life, and the perfect support for many kinds of public entertainment, much of it innocent; the rest, from all reports, sometimes verging on the downright disreputable.

Given its unique character and wide cross-cultural distribution, it was inevitable that the piano would play a central role in the development and diffusion of jazz. Initially, this was through ragtime, a piano-based musical form first developed in Missouri by black performers in the first decade of this century. Rhythmically spirited yet always shapely, ragtime became hugely popular, before it was superseded by the newer piano style known as stride, which emanated from Harlem, the black section of New York. A number of significant innovators were important to its development, among them Willie 'The Lion' Smith and James P Johnson, both represented in this compilation of great piano solos. However, it's Johnson's celebrated pupil, Thomas 'Fats' Waller who we hear first, in a bravura reading of Johnson's composition Carolina Shout. Stride, by the way, is characterised by rhythmically charged 'oom-pah' left hand patterns, guaranteed to swing.

Waller (1904-43) was the son of a church pastor and played the organ before becoming a professional pianist, working in clubs and cabaret, much to the dismay of his parents. Aside from a legendary capacity for alcohol, Waller was also famed for his exuberant keyboard manner and for his compositional gifts. He refined Johnson's original stride approach, adding a flair for embellishment and a powerful drive all of his own. Waller's impish sense of fun came through on many of his popular small group recordings and he is often recalled for that alone. However, there was far more to 'Mrs Waller's harmful little armful' than an arcane feeling for humour; he was a serious performer whose solo work proved to be highly influential and whose many songs, notably Ain't Misbehavin' live on as standards. This lovely tune, with its deft lyrics by Andy Razaf, was first introduced in 1929 in 'Hot Chocolates', a Broadway show enlivened by the presence of Louis Armstrong. Composed in just forty-five minutes, it became a lasting hit.

Earl 'Fatha' Hines (1903-83) grew up in Pittsburgh but moved to Chicago, then the Mecca for black entertainers, teaming up with Louis Armstrong on record. He was among the first pianists to play solos which moved away from the four-square conventions of stride. Irresistibly inventive, Hines was capable of complicated, firmly swinging improvisations which seemed to exemplify originality. Although his left hand chord patterns still set the beat, it was his adventurousness in the treble which impressed modern jazzmen like Bud Powell. His original composition, the punning Fifty-Seven Varieties dated from his late-twenties period in Chicago, while My Melancholy Baby is from 1941 and was made at the tail-end of a session by Hines' splendid big band.

James P Johnson (1894-1955), known unflatteringly as 'The Brute', was the doyen of Harlem's piano professors, an enormously influential pianist and composer, who perhaps failed to achieve the fame which his talent deserved. Aside from the captivating Snowy Morning Blues recorded in 1927, Johnson wrote 'The Charleston' and 'Old Fashioned Love' before turning to extended composition. Classically trained, his keyboard mastery was never in doubt, as can also be heard on You've Got To Be Modernistic.

Ferdinand 'Jelly Roll' Morton (1890-1941), a truly colourful character, was from New Orleans but took himself off to California and Chicago, where he made a series of significant recordings with his Red Hot Peppers. Self-styled as 'The Originator of Jazz, Stomps and Blues', Morton could usually back his claims, whether through his keyboard prowess or as a composer. His King Porter Stomp - named for Porter King, an early ragtimer - was later made popular by Benny Goodman's Swing Band. Original Rags, a Scott Joplin piece, was recorded in New York two years before Morton's final, ill-fated move to California, where he died while attempting a come-back.

Edward Kennedy 'Duke' Ellington (1899-1974) was another who came under the spell of Johnson and The Lion, following his move to New York. Swampy River has an evocative feeling of its own and comes from Duke's Cotton Club period, which presaged his later, glittering career as the most famous bandleader and composer in all of jazz. Appropriately, Willie 'The Lion' Smith (1897-1973) follows with Passionette, the first of two recordings from 1938, which stress the more decorative side of his playing. One of the great braggarts of jazz, Smith (full name: William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff) gloried in his nick-name seeing it as a tribute to his combative personality, typified by his arrival at a club when he would push the resident pianist aside, take over and shout 'The Lion is here!'

When Fats Waller realised that the partially-blind Art Tatum (1909-56) had walked into a venue where he was playing, he announced 'God is in the house!'. Tatum's talents were exceptional: he was simply the greatest jazz pianist of his day, possessed of dazzling technique, marvellous harmonic understanding and rhythmic daring. His pieces here date from 1940 when his powers were arguably at their peak.

Theodore 'Teddy' Wilson (1912-86) expressed in his playing a kind of calm, ordered dignity quite like that of Wilson himself. Influenced by Hines and Tatum, Wilson forged a personal style based on patterned figures which served him well throughout his lengthy career. For a period in the Thirties, he was a member of Benny Goodman's band, helping to breach the colour bar.

Billy Kyle (1914-66) was influenced by the piano styles of Earl Hines and Teddy Wilson. It was apposite therefore, that he replaced Hines as a member of Louis Armstrong's All Stars in 1953, remaining until his death thirteen years later. Essentially a product of the swing era, Kyle was the most tasteful of pianists - witness his sparkling performances of Finishing Up A Date with subtle rhythm accompaniment.

Teddy Weatherford (1903-45) was a powerful, rollicking player who came to Chicago early on before venturing to Asia where he remained for the remainder of his life, succumbing to cholera in India. Mary Lou Williams (1910-81) was proficient as arranger and pianist. Associated with the Andy Kirk big band for many years, she became an important soloist, her unusual harmonic awareness prompting the interest of younger modernists. Donald Lambert and Joe Turner were among the best of stride's second wave. Each was a fine technician, deserving of fame and reputation, yet Lambert (1904-62) preferred to hide his talents under the proverbial bushel, playing out his career in obscure New Jersey bars close to home and recording rarely. Turner (1907-90) travelled to Europe as Adelaide Hall's accompanist, stayed on and became popular, appearing at top clubs in Paris until his death.

Rockin' Chair was one of the first commercial records made by Garland Wilson (1909-54) and shows a marked Earl Hines influence. Often underrated, Wilson was a product of the Harlem stride school who undertook many long-term engagements in London and Paris from 1932 until his death.

Joe Sullivan (1906-71) is the only white performer represented in this collection. A tough Chicagoan, Sullivan was known for his associations with Bud Freeman and Bob Crosby. Little Rock Getaway was his best known solo, and demonstrates his debt to Hines and Waller.

Greatness is no easy matter to define and arguments will continue to rage over the merits of each of these soloists when compared with the others. Still, the evidence is here - all you have to do is listen.

Or to put it another way: 'One never knows, do one?', as Fats Waller used to say.


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