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Ebony and Ivory and Ted and Alice

Jeff Fitzgerald, Genius By

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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.


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