All About Jazz: The web's most comprehensive jazz resource

Serving jazz worldwide since 1995
All About Jazz: The web's most comprehensive jazz resource

Genius Guide to Jazz

Ebony and Ivory and Ted and Alice

By Published: August 29, 2004

The history of the piano goes back almost to the beginning of recorded history (recorded on the Decca Label, reissued by Rhino).

Let's recap what we've learned so far, kids:

Okay, now that we have that out of the way, let's continue with our exploration of the instruments that have made jazz what it is today, the people who have made those instruments make jazz what it is today, and the alcoholic beverages that made those people make those instruments make jazz what it is today (I'm still hoping for a corporate sponsorship from the makers of Art Tatum's beloved Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer™. I'm not what you'd call a proud man).

So then.

This month, we're going to take a look at the piano. And if you got up from your computer and actually went to look at your piano, give yourself 5 AAJ points for playing along. Then, subtract 2 points for being easily led.

The history of the piano goes back almost to the beginning of recorded history (recorded on the Decca Label, reissued by Rhino). Virtually from the beginning, man has stretched strings taut and either struck or plucked them to produce sound. As man has advanced, so has his method for striking or plucking strings. Harps, dulcimers, zithers, guitars, harpsichords, and various other forms of stringed instruments have evolved. The guitar, we'll get into later. As for the dulcimer and zither, since they've made no significant contribution to jazz, to hell with 'em.

But really.

For our purposes, we're going to skip over all the history and development of the piano because I could chew up pages just tracing the lineage of the instrument and seriously cut into the amount of times I can mention Pabst Blue Ribbon™ in this piece. Don't think I don't know which side my bread is buttered on. So we're going to start our history of the piano in New Orleans around the turn of the previous century (that would be the 20th century, or the 47th to our Chinese friends). With ragtime, a piano-centric style of music, firmly in place as the most popular music in America, it seemed only natural that the form should be incorporated into the melange of styles and influences brewing in and around the Crescent City (so named for the light, flaky dinner rolls for which they were famous).

Ragtime combined propulsive, syncopated rhythms on the left hand with jaunty, ornate melodies on the right hand. Rare three-handed ragtime players, such as pianist-circus freak Rodney "Fifteen Fingers" Haller, added baroque flourishes into the mix. It is not known if four-armed Hindu god Vishnu ever played ragtime piano, but theologists and music historians both feel that it would have sounded pretty cool. And you may safely disregard everything after the first sentence of this paragraph up to here.

It was in New Orleans that an itinerant pianist-pool shark named Ferdinand Joseph "Jelly Roll" Morton first gained prominence as both a performer and a composer. Melding such disparate influences as blues, ragtime, gospel, minstrel, Caribbean, and so-called "white" popular music (it was actually more of an off-white, or cream color), Morton may have laid the groundwork for the music that would be soon called jazz (after first being called Carl, and later, Mrs. Beverly H. Sheehan).

As New Orleans jazz spread, and combined with other influences from around the country to become a polyglot blend of instruments and sounds, the piano is pushed deeper into the mix. It is perhaps only the revolutionary style of Earl "Fatha" Hines, whose so-called "trumpet style" piano redefined the role of the instrument within the jazz ensemble. Hines' unusual chordal voicings and horn-like melodic phrasing helped to influence the course of jazz. And Hines' insistence on using only 57 keys on a piano (the famed "Hines 57") also influenced the course of steak sauce. And I almost feel compelled to apologize for that gag.

At the same time in Harlem, a complex, physically demanding style of piano called Stride was gaining popularity. Masters such as James P. Johnson and Willie "The Lion" Smith (so nicknamed because he once chased down and ate a gazelle) not only pioneered a new way of approaching the piano, but also brought to a new level the concept of a cutting contest, where players would compete head-to-head to see which one had the better chops. Prior to that, jazz musicians would settle debates as to skill with cricket matches, which often took days and usually ended in a tie.

The emergence of Stride placed a new emphasis on fleet-fingered virtuosity, and perhaps the first great jazz pianist to embody the future of the instrument was Art Tatum (for whom actress Tatum O'Neil was not named). Influenced by famed stride pianist-composer Fats Waller, Tatum brought a playful virtuosity (and a Pabst Blue Ribbon™) to jazz piano. His unbelievable technical ability and harmonic sensibilities would continue to influence pianists to this day. Or, at least, I know up until yesterday. That's the last time I checked.

It is here that we inevitably must come to Duke Ellington. Some of Ellington's over 2,000 compositions are considered to be among the greatest works ever produced by an American composer. More renowned for his prolific and masterful compositions than his accomplishments as a pianist, I am nonetheless compelled to mention him here because, thanks to Ken Burns, it is now Federal law that all articles on jazz must make reverential note of Ellington (statement of compliance on file. Michael Ricci, keeper of records).

I don't mean to detract from Ellington's legacy, and in all seriousness, he is underrated as a pianist. Also underrated is the great Mary Lou Williams, considered by many to be the most important female jazz musician in history. Long regarded more as an oddity, Williams was an extremely important swing pianist and composer who worked for a time as staff arranger for Ellington's orchestra. I had a "staff arranger" gag planned for right here, but had to abandon it because it came out naughty no matter how I phrased it.

Skipping over the big band era because I am in charge here and can, we come to Thelonious Monk. Actually, first we come to the corner of 14th and Jefferson, but you don't get off there. Monk is often described as the "mid-wife" of be-bop; he was present at the birth, but the baby looks nothing like him. Though influenced by Stride, his style remains one of the most unorthodox in jazz history. At times jangling and discordant, at other times haunting and otherworldly, Monk seemed to have an ear for a music that was both familiar and unexpected. An introverted and enigmatic man, Monk may well have been one of the most unusual individuals in jazz history (which is saying something, since I include myself in that appraisal). But emerging from Monk's considerable legacy was a veritable cornucopia of great pianists. I say a veritable cornucopia, because I am being paid by the syllable.

But what I mean to say is.

Building on the roots first established by ragtime, watered by early jazz musicians, brought to bloom by Stride masters, cultivated by great composers, and finally given a mind-altering tinge by Monk, we are brought inevitably to Bud Powell. Powell took all that had come before him and put it all in one staggeringly influential style. If Monk sounded like no one else that came after him, it might be said that almost everyone who came after Powell sounded like him or at least owed a debt to his innovation. Much of what we know as bop piano is directly from Powell, his Tatum-like technical ability and progressive rhythmic permutation created a blueprint for the way the instrument was to be approached for decades. Powell is also, with Bix Beiderbecke, one of the great tragic figures of jazz. Suffering neurological damage in a race-related assault in the forties, Powell was in and out of institutions his entire adult life. The degenerative effect on both his emotional well-being and musical abilities was heartbreaking to watch, played out over more than 20 years.

Let's pause for a moment and let the tide of pathos wash over this piece, then on with the nonsense.

From the succeeding era comes a who's who of pianists. Wynton Kelly (for whom actress Tatum O'Neil is also not named), McCoy Tyner, Cedar Walton, Bill Evans, Gil Evans, Dave Brubeck, Cecil "Crazy Knuckles" Taylor; any one of whom deserves their own bubblegum card. Yet, Topps steadfastly refuses to issue a set of Jazz Pianist bubblegum cards. Upper Deck won't return my calls and as for Fleer, well, the less said about them the better. And I bet you thought this little tangent was just another little device of mine to distract you from the fact that I am glossing over some very important musicians. Shows what you know.

Perhaps the zenith of jazz piano occurred in the late fifties and early sixties. As a wave of intellectualism swept over jazz, causing an estimated $3.2 billion in damage, pianists were suddenly in vogue for the myriad of sounds and the seemingly limitless ambiance they could bring to the music. McCoy Tyner's remarkably prescient contributions to Coltrane's classic works helped to create a timeless sound, as did the works of pianist-composer Gil Evans and pianist Bill Evans (no relation) to some of the seminal works of Miles Davis. Dave Brubeck's cerebral variation on the West Coast school produced recordings that have not waned in popularity since they were released. And Vince Guaraldi's work for the enduring Peanuts specials of the sixties has exposed generations of youngsters to jazz, and added instantly recognizable jazz motives to the collective American musician lexicon. Start whistling Linus and Lucy around anyone under 50 and see if they don't start dancing around like all the kids in A Charlie Brown Christmas (bonus points if someone does that weird, sixties-vintage thing the one unnamed kid does. You know the one I'm talking about).

As the late sixties and early seventies washed over America like a garish hash of both the fake and the freak (and the fake freak, who is still with us as the Credit Card Hippie), jazz was noticeably affected. The avant-garde movement, led in the piano division by the oft-mentioned Cecil Taylor, was so relentlessly exploratory that one almost felt compelled to make quotation marks in the air when calling it "music." The same way one does when referring to Christina Aguillera as a "singer."

As the seventies wore on, the Fusion movement took hold and players like Herbie Hancock (a one-time Miles Davis sideman) and Chick Corea (also a former Davis sideman, who had nothing at all to do with the Korean Conflict) brought electronic keyboards to the mix. While technically not pianos, one would be hard-pressed to find much in the way of acoustic pianos in the seventies. The sounds of the ubiquitous electric piano (which is on permanent display in the Holiday Inn Lounge Hall of Fame and Museum in Passaic, New Jersey) permeated the era.

So we find ourselves in the eighties and nineties. With no dominant central figure on the piano, like Wynton Marsalis on the trumpet , and no polarizing figure like Kenny G on the saxophone , the piano is quietly relegated to the background as it was in the big band era. Like Pabst Blue Ribbon™, though, the piano remains unconcerned with its popularity and continues to provide useful service to all who seek it out. And if that doesn't get me some sort of corporate kick-back, I don't know what will.

Till next month, kids, exit to your right and enjoy the rest of AAJ.

comments powered by Disqus