3 Compelling Stories from They All Played Ragtime

Reading Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis’ seminal work They All Played Ragtime (1950) was a transformative experience. Each page was packed with information, but presented as compelling stories, a page-turner. As the first full-length book chronicling the birth and development of ragtime, Blesh and Janis piece together the fascinating, sometimes tragic, stories of the pioneers who created and championed the music.

My fascination with ragtime is fairly new and there is still so much of it that I need to hear, read, and experience. Here are three moments from They All Play Ragtime that have really resonated with me.

The strenuous life of John Stark

John Stillwell Stark is best known as the primary publisher of Scott Joplin’s music. However, he has a fascinating story of his own. Stark was born into a large family, the 11th of 12 children, his youngest sibling and mother dying in childbirth. He was raised by an older sibling. Stark had several ventures before becoming a music publisher – serving in the Union army, farming, selling ice cream, and selling Jesse French cabinet organs with the help of his Conestoga wagon. Tired from his labor-intensive occupations, Stark moved to Sedalia, Missouri and opened a music store. He went on to coin the term “classical ragtime,” the sub-genre of the music exemplified by Scott Joplin. Stark championed music by composers across gender and race, even in the face of the booming Tin Pan Alley publishing industry that emerged toward the end of his career.

The Ragtime School of Axel W. Christensen

Pianist Axel W. Christensen created a network of nearly 100 music schools across the United States that specialized in teaching ragtime piano technique. He also published numerous popular method books that were used at his schools and beyond. At the peak of his business, Christensen had about 200,000 students enrolled in his ragtime schools across the nation. While Christensen’s entrepreneurship was impressive, some felt that his methodology oversimplified ragtime and promoted a level of mediocrity. Regardless, Christensen’s schools and books were responsible for engaging countless new fans of the music.

James P. Johnson on bebop

In an interview for They All Played Ragtime, stride pianist James P. Johnson shared his thoughts about the musical trends contemporary with the book (late 1940s, 1950):

Why do these composers, and the beboppers, too, try to get away from melody? It shows a weakness. No melody is in them and they know it.

They All Played Ragtime, p. 205

The so-called “beboppers” such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie introduced a new fiery technique and complex harmonic language to jazz that has irreversibly influenced how jazz is created and taught today. The faster tempo of the music challenged dancers (though it could be done) and the melodies jam-packed with rapid notes and angular leaps challenged vocalists and lyricists (though this could also be done). Perhaps these are the words of a man who was disgruntled by what the young people were doing with music, but I personally think there is more to it. His words made me think, what would jazz sound like today if bebop never came into being? We will never know for sure, but perhaps this could be an interesting idea to explore in a future post…

While these are a handful of the stories that have stayed with me, there are many others I could share. I highly recommend that anyone with an interest in ragtime read this book. Much of the information comes directly from the source with contributions being made by James P. Johnson, Joseph Lamb, Eubie Blake, and the families and peers of Scott Joplin, John Stark, Tom Turpin, and many others.

Jitterbug Waltz

I have an affinity for the Great American Songbook. To clarify, the Great American Songbook is not a literal book (though there are compilations of tunes from the repertoire such as the infamous Real Books, which usually also include jazz and sometimes rock tunes) but rather a phrase commonly used to refer to the popular American music of the 1920s-1950s from Broadway shows and Hollywood movies. Sometimes the Songbook gets a bad rap, usually because there are tunes that have cheesy lyrics or pedestrian melodies. However, there was also a lot of masterful music produced in this era by the likes of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, and others. While I enjoy the vast majority of the repertoire, there are some songs that resonate with me deeply. I recently wrote about my obsession with Vincent Youman’s “I Know That You Know” and had fun with the process of diving deep into a tune I felt passionate about. Here I will do the same thing, but with Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz.”


I was first introduced to this tune by my late mentor Bobby Jackson. I was captivated right away by the grand opening motive. I was also amazed by how bluesy the song was, yet it was not a blues in form. I discovered that this sound I was hearing was what is now my favorite chord, the IV7 chord, which is also a sound I heard over and over again in the music of Duke Ellington (one of countless examples being “Come Sunday”) but did not know what it was until years later.

“Jitterbug Waltz” was written in 1942 by pianist/composer/entertainer Thomas “Fats” Waller. He was inspired to write it by a piano exercise his young son was practicing at the time. While he had not recorded on it for decades, Waller chose the Hammond B3 organ for the first recording of this tune.

Thomas “Fats” Waller first recording “Jitterbug Waltz” on B3 organ.

Vocalist Dinah Washington recorded “Jitterbug Waltz” in 1957 with lyrics by Charles R. Grean and Maxine Manners. Jazzstandards.com (a website I have learned a lot from over the years) says the lyrics describe the waltz dance. While Washington’s performance was great and the arrangement compelling in its own quirky way, I was disappointed in the cheesy lyrics, which, as mentioned in the introduction, is a common generalization about the Great American Songbook.

Dinah Washington sings “Jitterbug Waltz”

Thankfully, the lyric debacle was rectified in 1978 by Broadway director Richard Maltby, Jr. for the musical Ain’t Misbehavin (later renamed Hot Chocolates) which detailed Waller’s life. The new lyrics describe a pair of dancers waltz through their tiredness late into the night.

The night is getting on, the band is getting show
The crowd is almost gone and here we are still dancin’
Nothing to do but waltz
Our feet can barely move, my legs are yellin'”Whoa”
But we’re in such a groove that love is still advancin’
Nothing to do but waltz
You can’t suggest that we could go on Jitterbuggin’
We’ve nothing left for moves more strenuous than huggin’
But we don’t need much room to gently cut a rug in we twoI’m tired and out of juice and yet from head to toe
My body’s feeling loose and warm and kind of supple
Nothing to do but waltz
The minutes slip away, my arms just won’t let go
I think I’d like to stay ’til we’re the only couple
Nothing to do but waltz
You never know how far this sort of thing will get you
We’re not as tired as we would like to think, I bet you
You’d stay up half the night with me if I would let you
So come let the waltz play again

Abbey Lincoln and Hank Jones recorded a stunning duo take in 1992 using the new lyrics.

Abbey Lincoln and Hank Jones on “Jitterbug Waltz” with the 1978 lyrics

Cécile McLorin Salvant recorded a dreamy, sensual take of “Jitterbug Waltz” with pianist Aaron Diehl on her 2013 Grammy nominated album WomanChild. This was the first version I heard with a vocalist, thanks to Bobby Jackson, and it has stayed in my listening rotation ever since.

Cécile McLorin Salvant and Aaron Diehl on “Jitterbug Waltz”

These 1978 lyrics have become the predominant ones for “Jitterbug Waltz.” I could not find the original lyrics online. Even when I searched specifically for Dinah Washington’s lyrics, I was only directed to the new lyrics, though I have not been able to find Washington ever recording a version with them.

While I have spent a great deal of time discussing the lyrics, “Jitterbug Waltz” is most commonly played as an instrumental tune because of its difficult leaping melody line at the beginning. Here are some instrumental versions I enjoy. There are many others, too many for me to list here. Is your favorite take of “Jitterbug Waltz” here?

from Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s 1973 Bright Moments
Eric Dolphy waltzing on the flute
another take featuring Dolphy on the legendary live Charles Mingus album at Cornell
an inventive arrangement by Michel Legrand
Zoot Sims swinging hard with a wonderful “warm” tone
Dizzy Gillespie’s take on “Jitterbug Waltz”
Art Tatum bringing his virtuosity and harmonic inventiveness to this tune
Vince Guaraldi, famous of the music of the cartoonThe Peanuts, tearing it up on “Jitterbug Waltz”
Chick Corea bringing some fresh ideas into this vintage tune
Herbie Hancock adding some exciting metric modulations (check out Michel Legrand’s arrangement for this as well)
Erroll Garner offers a lush, slow rendition of “Jitterbug Waltz”
Frank Foster dazzles with a Trane-inspired solo

I Know That You Know

I love jazz standards. I especially love finding great tunes that have somehow escaped the common repertoire (though tunes do cycle in and out of popularity). To celebrate my first gig as a bandleader in Boston, I thought it would be fun to profile one such tune that we will be performing tonight entitled “I Know That You Know.”

The website JazzStandards.com provides great background on the tune:

“I Know That You Know,” composed by Vincent Youmans with a lyric by Anne Caldwell (also known as Anne Caldwell O’Dea), was introduced by Beatrice Lillie in the 1926 Broadway musical  Oh, Please!  … Although the show ran for only 75 performances, the song rose to number five on the charts in 1927, performed by Nat Shilkret and the Victor Orchestra. The Benny Goodman Orchestra revived it in 1936 and took it to number 14 on the charts.

JazzStandards.com

This tune was on a couple albums I really enjoy but for some reason it did not stick out to me when I first heard it. It wasn’t until being introduced to Jimmie Noone’s version during Survey of Woodwinds Styles class that I was completely captivated. Between the great arrangement, the sweet tone of the alto saxophone on the melody, and Noone’s virtuosic obligato, I was obsessed. I have probably listened to this version well over 100 times at this point:

Years later, I found another take by Noone:

These are the two versions that I had already heard prior to realizing the splendor of this simple tune. In retrospect, they are absolutely amazing.

Nat King Cole takes it very up-tempo. I love his phrasing on the melody, especially how he sometimes pulls back against the time:

The infamous Sonny Side Up rendition, while great, somewhat obscures the melody with the heavy tenor counterpoint, which is perhaps why I did not realize this was the same tune at first. I love how the two Sonnys express their different musical personalities on this tune (and the rest of the album):

I was thrilled to find out that Sonny Stitt recorded this tune on alto:

Twice! (maybe more?):

My jaw dropped upon first hearing this stunning take by Art Tatum. His use of the whole-tone scale is particularly jarring as are his metric modulations:

And then I discovered “I Know That You Know” made some appearances in film. Here is a fun take from Tea For Two (1950). I love the incorporation of tap dancing in the performance of the tune. While there is some dated dialogue at the end of the clip, I think it is still worth a watch (or 50 if you are like me):

I then found this clip from Hit the Deck (1955). It includes a verse, and I have not been able to determine if that was added for this film or if it is original to the composition. While this performance is in the theater vein rather than jazz, I appreciate the way the delivery of the lyrics changes their meaning:

The lyrics to the tune seem pretty consistent between all the vocal versions:

I know that you know
That I’ll go where you go
I choose you, won’t lose you
I wish you knew how much I long
To hold you in my arms

This time is my time
Will soon be goodbye time
Then in the star light, hold me tight
With one more little kiss
Say, nighty night

They do not hold much substance, and while they are sweet, are not what attracts me to this tune. I think it is the unusual accenting of the 4th beat, along with the contrast elements of the melody with the first half being stagnant and the second half with a lot of motion, that keep me so invested in this song.

What do you think of this tune? Is there another version I should check out? Which tunes are you so crazy about that you have to scour the internet for every version you can find? Let me know!