Jazz Pioneers – James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, and Jelly Roll Morton contrasted

12003-1In addressing such towering figures of jazz piano as the Harlem Stride inventor James P Johnson and his even more famous protegé Fats Waller, I wouldn’t want to attempt an overview of both in one post.  Rather, I am going to focus on a few examples of solo playing from each in an effort to illuminate some important aspects of the Harlem Stride Piano school and contrast it with Jelly Roll Morton’s take on early jazz, as well as demonstrating Johnson’s strong influence on Waller’s playing and a examining Waller outside of his very entertaining role as vocalist and bandleader which often overshadows his excellent pianism.

James P. Johnson was born in 1894 and in his youth was a well-regarded ragtime pianist.  As he developed as a musician, he began to compose his own music in a ragtime style and introduce other elements to create his own unique brand of early jazz.  Being in New Jersey and New York, rather than New Orleans, his set of musical influences was significantly different from that of Morton’s and was also separated from the original “melting pot” taking place down there.  In an interesting way, I believe this resulted in a style that, while lacking the raw laid-back swing of much of the early music coming out of New Orleans, made up for it with a distinctive clean and polished sound that was equally exciting and impressive.

Let’s take his original 1921 recording of Carolina Shout, one of his most famous compositions (next to the Charleston), and examine the unique way Johnson, in his early years, moved beyond ragtime as a composer and a performer:

As with many of the Morton pieces, we have a multiple-strain scheme, though in this piece it definitely retains a more ragtime-esque scheme, with four strains, and a return to the third after the fourth which one sees frequently in Joplin.  Although this does not have the almost automatic climax-building effect that we saw in Morton’s “King Porter Stomp,” it is still quite effective in this piece, and its effectiveness is strongly highlighted by the performance.

In many ways, it seems to me that Johnson’s strengths as a performer play a slightly more important role in his overall musicianship than in Morton’s case.  Though Johnson’s compositions were innovative in many ways, the overall drive of his playing is often achieved through the ways in which he varies and embellishes the compositions in performance.  Now, I have no misconceptions about these variations and embellishments being anything less than worked out in advance, and as such I suppose one could call them “pre-composed,” but I think that making a distinction between the composed framework and the unwritten varitions on and versions of a piece highlights one of the most important facets of Harlem Stride.   As The Bad Plus’s Ethan Iverson pointed out in his excellent 2009 post on Johnson, Johnson’s sheet music of “Carolina Shout” hardly resembles the piece he performed, and his own performances of it varied quite significantly throughout his career.  Though this was also clearly the case with Morton, the differences between the three versions of “King Porter Stomp” that I posted here are more due to changes in Morton’s style throughout the years, rather than substantial changes in the melodies or content of the strains.

Let’s take a somewhat later Johnson solo, from 1929, of his piece “You’ve Got To Be Modernistic,” and check out some specific components of the Harlem Stride style that Johnson pioneered:

Certainly the 8th notes here are significantly more “straight” than those of Morton, and the overall feel is generally more stacatto.  The harmony is somewhat advanced, particularly in the first two strains, which I suppose are the “modernistic” section, where he uses some descending chromatic figures and whole-tone scales to create dissonances which were considered “modern” at the time – there are many examples of this, one of the most intriguing of which is Bix Beiderbecke’s famous piano solo “In A Mist” – more on that at another time.

Interestingly, as I’ve just gone on about the differences between “Carolina Shout” and “King Porter Stomp” above, we now have an example of a Johnson piece following Morton’s scheme of a powerful third strain that builds with variations all the way to the end.  So much for generalization!  Nonetheless, the ways in which Johnson varies the third strain are far more piano-oriented than Morton’s band-oriented piano playing.  His two hands play significantly more separate roles than in Morton’s playing, and we hear many examples of the kind of right-hand upper-register syncopated passages stemming from the ragtime tradition that became a notable facet of this style of stride piano.  Also, some of Johnson’s trademark repeated-eighth-note octaves and chords, both in the left and right hands, appear in this piece.  This was one of his favorite ways of varying a passage or strain, and really creates a powerful forward moving effect in a totally different way than, say, Morton’s left hand embellishments or two-hand rhythmic passages.  We also hear the kind of right hand eighth-notes which would continue to grow in importance as they filtered down through Fats Waller and Art Tatum and made their way into the bebop era as the dominant right hand style.

Annex-Waller-Thomas-Fats_01And, on that note, I want to consider a couple of Fats Waller solos recorded with no vocals or clowning (surprise!) that demonstrate the enormous influence of Johnson on his playing (Johnson was his teacher, after all), and some elements of his own distinctive Harlem Stride style.  Waller, who was 10 years younger than Johnson, legendarily learned “Carolina Shout” from the Johnson piano roll and later went on to study with Johnson.  Here’s an early Waller solo from 1927, “Blue Black Bottom”:

So, here we have the Johnson influence in full force.  Split tenths in the left hand, octave-heavy right-hand work, occasional breaks into right-hand single note passages, a strong separation between the two hands for contrast, a few “novelty” elements, and a ragtime-esque composition with multiple strains.  However, some of the early trademarks of Waller’s style are becoming evident, especially his tendancy to swing the 8th notes much more strongly than Johnson.  Also evident are the enormous size of Waller’s hands, as he hits filled-in 9ths and 10ths with no problems at all in both hands throughout the piece.  And, as a sucker for introductions and endings, I must point out that the trademark Waller ending makes one of its first appearences here.  We find exactly the same ending in this recording of “Handful of Keys” from only 2 years later, when Waller’s more personal style has begun to show itself more clearly (click to listen):

This recording illustrates one of Waller’s surprising lightness on the piano despite (or because of?) the gargantuan size of his body and hands.  This may be a discussion for a later post, but I have recently become preoccupied with bench height and as far as I can ascertain from photos, Waller (along with Erroll Garner) was one of the pianists in the history of jazz who sat the highest while playing.  Whether or not that influenced his touch, the light bouncy feel certainly contrasts with Johnson, who though not as legato as Morton, certainly had a bit more of a heavy hand, and held notes for a bit longer.

Anyway, in this recording we once again hear some important developments courtesy of Waller – certainly the more pronounced swing feel, though a bit “hokey” sounding today, was in vogue at the time, setting the stage for the swing era to come.  The right hand embellishments have moved even higher up in register than in Johnson’s playing, and the whole thing is a bit denser.  As I mentioned above, we have a great deal of single note right hand passages and very impressive work in the left hand with all those 10ths, which are quite hard to hit with accuracy and precision at fast tempos!  Some of Waller’s trademarks are present, especially the lick he uses in the last chorus, with fourths moving to thirds in his right hand, and of course his trademark ending.

Waller was, of course, a talented and prodigious entertainer in addition to a wonderful stride pianist, and in some of his later recordings, his pianism is overshadowed by his vocals and storytelling and somewhat deteriorating technical accuarcy, but as we can hear in his early solos, he was a master of the Harlem Stride tradition pioneered by Johnson, taking it in his own more light-hearted direction.  Johnson, in turn, like Morton, was a true innovator, combining disparate influences into an entirely new sound which was indispensable in the evolution of jazz.

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