|Bill Evans (image source)|
Modern jazz evolved for the piano as it did for all other instruments but the evolution gives as good a guide as any to where we are now with jazz as a music form.
Ragtime was the first stage on this journey and Scott Joplin could be said to have laid down the foundations in the late 1890s. He wrote Maple Leaf Rag, a hit and a breakthrough for Afro American music in being accepted as mainstream, but whilst “groovy” it was not really jazz.
When Jelly Roll Morton combined ragtime with blues improvisation and swing, stride piano was born; his fusion of ragtime and the blues was as near the origin of jazz as any can pin down. His composition in 1915 of Jelly Roll Blues was the first published piece of jazz music.
But although there was plenty of swing in his playing there was little room and indeed virtually no improvisation, it needed Earl “Fatha” Hines to correct that, quote……
“He tried to imitate the sensitive virtuoso line of his friend Louis Armstrong, while playing ragtime with his left hand. Without meaning to he was one of the first piano players that were improvising and swinging in a jazzy manner.”
Stride piano was born. With that, jazz moved from New Orleans to Chicago a new era in jazz started: blues was in !
James P Johnson and Fats Waller were not only great pianists and innovators but also composers of numerous hits of that era. For Johnson his tune “Charleston” was the biggest dance hit of the twenties, for Waller who became the most famous of the jazz pianists of the time it was a huge hit live and for his big selling endless hits he turned out for his record label Victor, his Broadway musical that starred Louis Armstrong in 1929 “Connie's Hot Chocolates” had Louis singing two of Waller's great compositions “Ain’t Misbehavin” and “Honeysuckle Rose”.
All of which leads us to Art Tatum, in the eyes of many contemporaries and many later the greatest of all jazz pianists. He used Waller's stride technique but expanded it with incredible left hand harmonies in very complex ways with amazing chord progressions and his incredible technique put him at the top of the tree. Two quotes from contemporaries say it all: when Tatum dropped in to hear Fats Waller play at a club in 1938 he said to the audience, "I just play the piano, but God is in the house tonight" and Teddy Wilson said “If you put a piano in a room, just a bare piano. Then you get all the finest jazz pianists in the world and let them play in the presence of Art Tatum. Then let Art Tatum play ... everyone there will sound like an amateur."
Art Tatum plays “Tea for Two”:
One is not enough of this man so here he is with Jerome Kern's “Yesterdays”:
The swing era that started in the twenties reached its peak during the thirties and forties and the big bands that gave people some good times during the Depression became exponents of swing, with the dance halls hosting many of the greatest names in jazz, culminating in Basie and Ellington. Swing piano was personified by Teddy Wilson and Mary Lou Williams. Teddy’s wonderful relaxed and flowing style was very successful and he had a string of hits with various singers including Lena Horne and Helen Ward, and played a big part in Billie Holiday's successes. He even had his own big band for a brief period but reverted back to small groups and eventually his trio.
In 1959 he recorded this version of Lullaby of Birdland:
and here at the end of his career in ‘65:
Mary Lou Williams was a much more influential figure than her current status suggests. Not only did she almost span all eras of jazz, always moving on pushing the boundaries, she never stood still or became bogged down in one era, and is acknowledged as the most important woman in jazz for roughly three decades. She was playing spirituals and ragtime by the age of four and playing at picnics and dances in Pittsburg at six !
Her writing and arranging started with her first group and she went on to write and arrange for most the big bands of that period.
When she moved to NY in ‘41 she became an important figure in the birth of be bop and her NY apartment was always full of those early be bop stars whom she cultivated: Gillespie, Davis, Dorham, Parker and Blakey plus many aspiring young musicians.
She was also one of the first to write extended jazz pieces (suites) such as the Zodiac Suite she wrote for Ellington and in later life when she turned to religion after an extended two year stay in Europe, she was rapturously received in the UK and played with the Ted Heath band in ‘53. On her return Stateside she started to write again but in a different vein, though she never forsook her jazz.
She wrote several spiritual pieces including a cantata and three masses, and her album from ‘63 “Black Christ of the Andes” a mixture of blues and gospel should be in everyone's record collection.
Charity works for down and out musicians and several shops sponsored by her to that aim were started in Harlem, and she took an artist in residence position at Duke University where she taught jazz history and arranged, it did not stop her performing in her final years including at the White House.
The lady paid her dues !
This version of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” is as fresh and modern as anything you will hear, beautiful piece:
and this from her ‘74 album “Zoning” on SYL-O-Gism:
Mary Lou deserves to be heard a lot more, a very important and very accomplished figure in jazz.
Into the be bop era and Bud Powell. Powell was the first pianist to adapt the Gillespie and Parker style of playing to piano, as a young child Powell learn the classical piano but was playing jazz at the age of eight; Thelonious Monk had a big part in educating Powell.
Powell's life was riddled by bad health and alcoholism plus spending many visits to mental hospitals for schizophrenia and he spent a large part of his relatively short life in France to escape the racism and pressures that were prevalent in the states. A combination of alcohol TB and malnutrition finally killed him in’66; an enormous funeral in Harlem followed.
His “Golden” period is considered to be ‘49 -’53; not much is available from that period on video and this version of I Want to be Happy with Mingus on bass and Roy Haynes on drums is not the greatest sound wise, but is a good example of the man in that period.
and this from ‘49 with Ray Brown, he was married for some time to Ella Fitzgerald, and Max Roach on drums, Tempus Fugit:
Because the be bop period and on, is so full of wonderful pianists, part 2 will follow.