Listening Log: Week 6

I have deeply missed putting out my weekly Listening Log. October has been an intense month as school and work have ramped up. I also released a new single with Henry Godfrey called Cabin Fever. To make my posts less daunting to write, I decided to trim down my log to three entries rather than five. I’m ready to bring back the Listening Log and look forward to sharing more wonderful music with you.


Ragtime Dance No 1 — Charles Ives

I am fortunate to be taking an incredible class about the music of Charles Ives. I am just beginning to explore his Ragtime Dances and am fascinated by how he honors the aesthetic of the music yet carries it forward in a new direction with rhythm, form, and orchestration.

Sunflower Slow Drag — Scott Joplin & Scott Hayden

This collaboration between two important figures in establishing the classic rag is a delightful piece. I have enjoyed listening to Richard Zimmerman’s solo piano rendition and the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble’s brisker take on the piece.

Charleston Rag — Eubie Blake

Eubie Blake, along with Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, Willie “The Lion” Smith, and Luckey Roberts, pioneered the Eastern take on Ragtime, which evolved into the stride piano style. Preceding his performance of Charleston Rag on the album The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake, he shares that he composed the rag in 1899, the same year that Scott Joplin’s groundbreaking Maple Leaf Rag was published by Stark & Son. Blake also explains how he combined the walking bass line (sometimes referred to as a boogie-woogie bass, but Blake preferred the term walking bass) with ragtime rhythmic ideas.

I was also able to find this incredible live performance of Charleston Rag as played by Blake at the age of 85.

Eubie Blake performs Charleston Rag live in 1972.

What music moved you this week?

Ragtime and Stride – Two American Piano Styles

Ragtime and Stride are two styles of American piano playing that are closely related and often mistaken for one another. Both styles are virtuosic with an active, steady bass line with a syncopated melodic line in the right hand. The styles developed over a short period of time, first Ragtime and then Stride.

Here’s a breakdown of some features that set these two styles of playing apart.

Repertoire

Ragtime repertoire consisted primarily of “rags,” a compositional form and style inspired by marches. These pieces of music were typically written down and played as the sheet music dictated. Most rags were composed in duple meter (2/4 or 2/2), though there are a fair selection of waltzes (3/4) in the repertoire. They often consist of four strains, melodic ideas typically 16 measures each that are organized in the following form:

||: A :|| ||: B :|| A ||: C :|| ||: D :||

A common formal variation is to include a final playing of the “A” strain at the end of the piece. Rags often start with a short introduction before the first playing of the “A” strain. Other modifications to the form are possible, even prevalent.

Stride repertoire was more open-ended. It included songs from the Great American Songbook as well as original compositions. Tin Pan Alley songs were typically published in the form of a very generic piano arrangement. This gave stride pianists room to add their own personalities into these songs rather than being beholden to the sheet music.

Improvisation

Ragtime music did not involve improvisation. It stayed true to the written music. Sometimes, performers would repeat sections of pieces more times than indicated to add length to the pieces, particularly during social functions.

Stride allowed for more embellishments and improvisation as part of the performance of pieces. This component was critical to moving forward from Ragtime into the Jazz tradition.

Origin

Ragtime originated in the southern and midwestern United States in the 1890s. Missouri was a central hub for the music, perhaps in part because legendary Ragtime composer and pianist Scott Joplin made Sedalia, MO his home for much of his life.

Stride originated in Harlem, New York City around 1920. James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, and Willie “The Lion” Smith were the three pianists credited with being innovators and masters of Stride piano. These artists were aware of Ragtime and drew from its rich tradition in their own music.

Recorded History

Ragtime waxed and waned in popularity before recorded music was commonplace. The music was primarily preserved in the sheet music published during the time. Toward the end of the Ragtime Era, player pianos came into prominence and some Ragtime performances were preserved as piano rolls. Once music recording technologies advanced, some of the surviving pianists of the Ragtime Era, such as Eubie Blake and Joseph Lamb, recorded their works.

Stride developed alongside early recording technology. This is a true gift because we, a century later, can hear how Stride was played at the time of its creation by the artists who created it.

I hope this explanation helps bring clarity to how Ragtime and Stride are distinctive approaches to pianistic performance and composition in the United States.

Sources

About Stride Piano
Harlem Stride Piano
History of Ragtime
Stride Piano: Bottom-End Jazz
Stride Piano


Learn More About Ragtime

This is a collection of the sources I have used for my research on ragtime. I am always looking for more places to learn, so please let me know if you have any recommendations.

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