The Development of the Jazz Piano
By Hotep Idris Galeta (Fall 2001)
Reprinted by Permission
of the Author.
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the beginning of the 20th century, the earliest Jazz piano style emerged, centered
in New Orleans. This style was created and initially dominated by the pianist
Joseph Ferdinand La Menthe, better known as "Jelly Roll Morton" (1885-1941).
Morton was a combination of ragtime pianist, composer, blues and Jazzman rolled
into one. He began playing professionally in the "Redlight District" of New
Orleans called Storyville in 1902 when he was seventeen. Morton is also regarded
as the first true Jazz composer. He was the first to write down his Jazz arrangements
in musical notation and was the originator of a large number of pieces that
became staples in the Jazz repertoire of that time. His arrangement of his own
composition "Jelly Roll Blues" in 1915 was the first published Jazz arrangement
in history. He became an itinerant pianist in 1904 and started to wander throughout
the U.S. stopping off in places such as St Louis at the time of the Worlds Fair,
then on to Chicago, the West Coast into Canada and Alaska and returning to Chicago
by 1923 where he made his first recording. "Jelly Roll" set a precedent by playing
piano at the recording session for the all white band "The New Orleans Rhythm
Kings". Morton is undoubtedly the father of solo Jazz piano. His piano style
represented a synthesis of the chief elements of the blues, piano rags and orchestral
Jazz. A few years before his death in 1941 he capped his eventful career with
a massive recording project at the Library Of Congress in Washington D.C. (May-July
1938) where he related his version of the history of Jazz and illustrated it
with piano solos and song, making fifty two records with more than one hundred
pieces recorded. Allan Lomax the American folk music
historian interviewed Morton and supervised this historic recording project. Few of the people he influenced recorded in his day. Today however there are one or two "Jelly Roll" Morton specialists who attempt to preserve his style the way he played it. James Dapogny is one of them, having recorded a C.D. on 22/09/1993 entitled "Original Jelly Roll Blues" on the Warner/Electra/Asylum Label.
During the 1920's it was generally believed that Chicago had the best black bands and that New York City was home to some of the finest Jazz pianists. This belief amongst musicians and Jazz fans, was predicated upon the fact that during the 1920's the Harlem district of New York City became the center for the development of a highly technical and hard driving solo piano style known as "Harlem Stride ". One of the masters of this new approach in the early 1920's was James P.Johnson (1891-1955). Johnson began playing ragtime piano professionally in 1904 and gradually adapted and innovated his style to the changing times of the post World War 1 era. The highly competitive spirit that existed amongst black pianists of the period led them to practice constantly in order to excel at the frequent "cutting" competitions that separated the "wheat from the chaff". Johnson was a prolific composer, composing most of the music he played but publishing very little. His "Carolina Shout" became a test piece for would be Jazz pianist of the era because of its rhythmic complexity and speed. Johnson's protégé, Thomas "Fats" Waller (1904-1943) was regarded by some as representing the summation of the Harlem style and the link between it and modern Jazz pianism. Waller also made another contribution to Jazz history by successfully adapting the style of Jazz pianism to the Hammond and pipe organ. "Fats" Waller became the most widely known of the Harlem pianists. He toured quite extensively throughout the U.S. and Europe as a solo pianist, accompanist and singer. He was also a prolific composer of Jazz and popular songs. His well-known compositions are "Honey Suckle Rose", "Ain't Misbehaving" and " I'm Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter". The Harlem pianists not only influenced their contemporaries, but also later generations of Jazzmen. In the Midwestern part of the United States during the 1920's and 30's Earl "Fatha" Hines was laying down the foundation for a deferent kind of Jazz piano. His pianism first attracted the attention when he played in Chicago with Louis Armstrong's "Hot Five" band. Hines developed a piano style in which his right hand played melodic figures similar to those of a trumpet, but in octaves, while his left hand provided the firm bass as in a rhythm section. His style combined with the smoother approach of Waller, influenced most pianists of the next generation, notably Teddy Wilson (1912-1986) who was to play a crucial role in the band of Benny Goodman during the swing era of the late 1930's into the 1940's and Art Tatum who performed mostly as a soloist and who was regarded with awe for his phenomenal technique and complex virtuosity.
After World War 1 leading European composers such as Alban Berg, Paul Hindemith, Darius Milhaud, Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg began to take cognizance of the rich promise and vitality of Jazz and began to incorporate some aspects of the style into their works. These composers first heard authentic Jazz when touring black Jazz ensembles played in Europe or when they the composers visited the United States; for example Milhaud when he visited Harlem in the 1920's and Ravel when he went to Chicago in 1928. The best known works inspired by Jazz are Darius Milhaud's " La Creation Du Monde" (The Creation of The World) (1923) Ravels "Piano Concerto In D" (1931) and Stravinsky's " The Ebony Concerto For Dance Orchestra" (1946). Jazz also inspired a number of American composers to write works employing elements within the Jazz genre. Amongst the most enduring of the symphonic works have been Aaron Copeland's " Music For The Theatre" (1925) and George Gershwin's " Rhapsody In Blue" (1924) "Piano Concerto In F" (1925) and " An American In Paris" (1928) The evolution of Jazz piano since the post -World War 1 period, right up to the present day is often the result of innovative, impressionistic European classical influences introduced into Jazz, especially Jazz keyboard harmony. These influences and others will continue to change and mould the face of Jazz and Jazz piano in particular, as the influences of a broader global culture impacts on its evolution. During the 1940's Jazz piano underwent another major change with the introduction of the Bebop style. This radical new style was introduced upon the Jazz scene by a group of musicians who used to get together after working hours at a club in Harlem called "Minton's Playhouse" There they would play and exchange musical ideas until the early hours of the morning. Usually the group consisted of pianist Thelonius Monk (1917-1982) drummer Kenny Clarke (1914-1986) guitarist Charlie Christian (1919-1942) and trumpeter John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie (1917-1992). The alto saxophonist Charles Christopher Parker (1929-1955) also known as "Bird" joined the group of experimenters and became one of the exponents of Bebop. Parkers's contribution to the evolution of Bebop is enormous. He composed quite a number of innovative pieces that has become Bebop standards. His most well known pieces are "Now is The Time" "Scrapple For The Apple" and "Moose The Mooch".
Bebop was still based on the principle of improvisation over a chord progression, but the tempos were faster, the rhythms extremely syncopated, the phrases longer and more complex with exciting new tone colours and dissonant harmonies. The melodic signpost of this new music was the "flattened fifth" of the major scale which thereafter joined the other "blue notes" or "bent tones" of black music. Thelonius Monk one of the revolutionary pianists of the Bebop movement, pianistically came from the stride piano style of James P. Johnson. Where as most of the Bebop players were playing lines that had a melodic curve, Monks lines had sharp angles. His improvisation was spare and choppy and his playing always provocative. As a composer he contributed numerous pieces that are standards in the Jazz repertoire. They are "In Walked Bud " "Well You Needn't" "Epistrophy" and that evergreen Jazz classic and beautiful ballad "Round Midnight". The most innovative pianist to emerge during the Bebop revolutionary years was Earl "Bud" Powell (1924-1966). Powell was a classically trained pianist whose fast highly individual and technically proficient style laid it's stamp upon this new music. Bud Powell was undoubtedly the most overwhelming creative pianist in the "Hothouse" of Bebop. His powerful driving style was incredible and his album "The Bud Powell Trio" recorded by Blue Note Records in the 1950's is a perfect example of those qualities. Monk and Powell were to become two of the major influences on modern Jazz piano. In the late 50's the pianist and composer Dave Brubeck born in 1920 , a student of Darius Milhaud and Arnold Schoenberg achieved great popularity with his blend of classical music and Jazz utilising different meters of time. This was to be another innovative step in the development of Jazz piano. Jazz piano has developed very rapidly over the last forty years. This rapid development has been largely due to the emergence of younger conservatory trained pianists. During the late 1960's and early 70's a small number of highly regarded Jazz musicians were appointed to professorial positions at academic institutions in the U.S. allowing them to combine teaching with touring, recording and lecturing. They filled positions as guest lecturers, composers in residence, artists in residence, visiting professors and tenured professors. The by-product of this innovative concept at academic institutions was that the young aspiring Jazz artist could now study the art form at tertiary level.
1980's there were sixty or more academic institutions that had established Jazz
Studies Programmes in the U.S.This new generation of tertiary educated musicians
were unlike any previous ones in the history of Jazz. The most striking feature
of this group was their youth at the time of attaining "Super Stardom". Many
are and were in their twenties. The came well prepared as they had begun their
musical studies as children, had played in grade or high school bands or attended
summer music camps and later went on to study music further in college. There
they were exposed to both the Western
Classical and African American musical traditions. They then incorporated their knowledge and skills of advanced keyboard harmony and theory into the development of Jazz pianism. This tradition continues up to the present and will continue into the future as more tertiary institutions in the U.S. and around the world offer Jazz and Jazz education programmes.
Pianists such as Herbie Hancock, Chick Correa, Bill Evans, Mulgrew Miller, Kenny Barron, McCoy Tyner, Keith Jarrett, Geoff Keezer, Stephen Scott, Bennie Green ,Brad Maldau and a host of future young emergent pianists who had this exposure to formal musical education will continue to change and mould the face of Jazz and Jazz piano.
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of Global African Music
Received: Fall 2001