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A Great Day in Harlem: The Spirit Lives - 50 Years On

By Published: May 30, 2013
"I had started listening to Fats Waller records when I was three and this quickly led to my thinking that stride piano was absolutely the greatest sound. My parents always read the New Yorker magazine and they had a section listing jazz events, jazz concerts and gigs in bars, that sort of thing, and they mentioned that Willie 'The Lion' Smith was playing at a place called the Central Plaza, which was a big dance hall, and it was also used during the day for live TV rehearsals. They would rehearse there during the day and they'd have two bands at night. They had an upright piano against the middle of one wall, in this huge room. The article said that Willie 'The Lion' Smith, one of the last remaining stride pianists, was playing there.

"I was thirteen so I got my father, who liked jazz, to take me there, and from then on Willie and I became very close. Every time I would go there as a kid I would stand next to the piano and watch him. It was an osmotic education because you can't really learn a lot from watching somebody's hands, especially if they're moving fast, such as in stride style.

"It was more having him as second father, and just hanging out with him as much as possible. As to pedagogy, he wouldn't say 'use this progression' or 'this fingering' or anything like that, and I was too ignorant to ask him how he executed certain passages, or have him slow them down. And he could be intimidating. He'd suddenly say 'OK' and then sit down and start to play, and quite often too fast for me to get anything visually.

"By the photo date I'd spent about two years getting very close to Willie and went to different events with him. One day he said: 'Why don't you come with me? They're going to take my picture.' That's all he said. He didn't say that all these musicians were getting together. So we just showed up, and I immediately realized that there were all these different musicians, some of whom I recognized, some of whom I didn't—especially the modern ones, the post-bop ones, because I narrow-mindedly had no interest in that at age fifteen."

Having got up early and dressed for the occasion, you might suppose that Smith was upset at missing the final shot, but according to Lipskin that wasn't the case: "No, he didn't even talk about it, not at all. That photo appeared, it was in one issue, and that was it."

Another notable absentee from the photo, Duke Ellington, greatly admired Smith's playing, and Smith's influence on the great Washingtonian is something Lipskin has no doubt about. "Duke? Oh sure, and Fats (Waller), in fact, there are certain records where you can hear Willie's phrasing, and of course there's Duke Ellington's 'Portrait of the Lion,' which, though using a typical Willie riff and rhythm, ironically doesn't capture his essence as much as Ellington's piano playing sometimes does. One of the reasons that Duke was very fond of Willie was (because) in 1923 Duke came from Washington with a little pick-up band to try to make it in New York, and Willie befriended him and was good to him."

Of his great mentor, Willie "The Lion" Smith, Lipskin says: "There isn't a day goes by that I don't think of Willie, or Fats Waller
Fats Waller
Fats Waller
1904 - 1943
or James P. Johnson
James P. Johnson
James P. Johnson
1894 - 1955
, because I continue to learn from them.

"This picture cut across jazz idioms, it was sort of like a history of jazz right there up until that time. That's why there is tremendous significance in the picture—it's not just that it was probably the largest number of jazz musicians ever photographed at once, I think it was also the musical diversity."

The difference in jazz idioms in the late 1950s is brought into focus by a couple of anecdotes from Eddie Locke and Michael Lipskin: "I played with Earl Hines, and I played with Willie 'The Lion' Smith, just him and me," Locke explains. "The first time I played with a stride pianist it was a disaster! I couldn't find where I was, I couldn't do nothin.' You gotta be in a whole different mind set when you're playing with a stride pianist."

Lipskin throws some light on the dynamics of drumming with stride pianists: "The first difficulty is that most younger drummers are not used to the pre-bop swing beat of stride; those trained in a post-bop method of playing want to really be too busy, during accompaniment, and are not used to playing with the stride rhythmic nuance.

"All you would have had to do was watch Sonny Greer play, or old Jo Jones, Fats Waller's drummer. If you listen to the best of them they sound as if they're playing foxtrot with swing, and you really just play time. I'm not putting down one or the other styles; it's just that it's very hard for people who grow up in the bop world to really play pre-bop, you know, swing Fats Waller-style."

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