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Before World War I, the upbeat music of John Phillip Sousa and Scott Joplin were popular throughout the land thanks to 78-RPM records, record stores and readily available gramophones. But war changes people’s perspectives. All war is entered optimistically with patriotic fervor, clear determination and blind adherence to a cause. By the end of World War I, the population was sick of the bloodshed and profoundly shocked at the cost of modern warfare. It was no longer clear why we needed to give so many lives to solve other countries problems. By the end of the war on November 11th, 1918 over 15 million lives had been lost.



John Phillip Sousa



Scott Joplin

The average America had been involved and directly affected. Their perspective had changed. The time before World War I was part of a distant and troubled past. The music and art from before the war no longer felt appropriate – It felt naïve and detached from reality. The world map had been redrawn and represented an entirely new place, with new realities and a need for new expression. Music and art would never be the same.

New York City was teaming with cultural influences brought by foreigners from Italy, Ireland, Poland, Russian Jews and many, many others. Harlem was alive with newcomers from New Orleans, Mississippi, Chicago and the Western States. Each brought a bit of their own traditions and music. Their past lives may not have been easy but the creative influences were great.

There were jobs in Harlem and around New York during World War I but they didn’t pay well for African Americans. Waves of immigrants were flowing through Ellis Island and engulfing available jobs with people willing to work long hours for practically nothing. Nevertheless, there was some work and the beginnings of a Black middle class. A bit of money and free time leads to an active Harlem industry for after-hours entertainment. Bars, Inns, brothels and dance halls were everywhere and with the audiences came the demand for musicians and entertainers. Harlem gained a mystique of hedonism that proved to be an irresistible draw for the well-to-do whites in lower Manhattan. By the dawn of the 1920s there was an air in Harlem that anything goes. One way to gage the feel of the times was to note that the pre-marital birth rate of the Roaring Twenties was not matched in America until the 1970s.

Prohibition began enforcement on January 16th, 1920. Unfortunately for its authors, it had the opposite of the intended effect: people didn’t drink less, they began to drink more. Before prohibition, relatively few women drank regularly. Once they were told by the government that they were not permitted to drink at all, they took to alcohol like a fish takes to water. It was pretty much the same way for teenagers. New words and ideas entered the lexicon of the day: bathtub gin, rumrunners, the Mob, Cosa Nostra, speakeasies, stills, etc. Distribution networks sprang up to meet the demands of the new underground liquid economy. Fortunes were made. Lives were lost. Harlem benefitted as nightlife exploded. The need for musicians exploded with speakeasies and brothels – the Roaring Twenties sprang to life.

The Ragtime works from before the war were no longer popular. They evolved to something new. Speakeasies and brothels needed steady musical entertainment and hired soloists or bands depending on the quality of the establishment. If they could afford a band, they’d have one. At the very least, however, they’d support a solo piano player. The music had to be upbeat, fun, danceable and entertaining. The roots of Jazz were beginning to be felt throughout America and finding their way into the darkened protected halls of the nightclubs of Harlem.

The piano players were expected to play for long hours. It was potentially boring work and challenging to keep the tempo upbeat. The style that began to emerge was visibly entertaining and athletic. The left hand might strike a steady 4 beat pulse; single notes or comping on the 2 and 4. Unlike the earlier piano players of St. Louis, stride was played faster with the left hand leaping greater distances. This freed the right hand for counterpoint improvisations. The improvisations could go on for long periods to help fill the long hours the player was expected to perform. The name ‘stride’ came from the left hand movement: striding up and down the keyboard. There were, of course, notable exceptions to the above: there have always been blue variations at slower tempos.

It was wild, hedonistic, creative, alive and unbridled. Naturally, it caught on. Soon, different piano players were trying to out-do each other in musical competition. Cutting sessions went on late into the night and included private parties with a cover charge to cover the rent.

Players in Harlem during World War I included Lucky Roberts and James P. Johnson, freely stealing piano riffs from their contemporaries. Stride players practiced a full jazz piano style that used not only blue notes and swing rhythms (not seen in Ragtime) but also Classical devices such as arpeggios, musical scales and flourishes as well. Other notable stride pianists included Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith, Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Donald Lambert, Cliff Jackson, Eubie Blake, Dick Wellstood, Claude Hopkins, Ralph Sutton, Hank Duncan, Dick Hyman, Don Ewell and Mike Lipskin.



James P. Johnson

The music spread to other cities and variation emerged. In New Orleans pianists were called ‘Professors’. The right hand style and regional repertoire were a bit simpler. For example: Jelly Roll Morton’s sound is distinguished by his use of 6ths by the left hand instead of single notes or 10ths. This was part of what gave his playing a New Orleans flavor.

Stride Piano flourished through the Roaring Twenties and began to fall from popular grace after the crash of 1929. Another national crisis was gripping the country and changing the American psyche once again. By 1933, the beginning of the Roosevelt administration, 12 percent unemployment, the dust bowl and the end of prohibition were conspiring to find expression in new forms of art and music. America was ready for something new and different.

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© 2008, Leonard Wyeth