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Blues, Stomps, Boogie and Stride Piano
Mamie Desdunes Dugue and
Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton
In his 1938 recordings at the Library of Congress, sessions that were implemented by historian Alan Lomax, Jelly Roll Morton spoke of his early influences, one of which was described as thus:
…among the first blues that I've ever heard, happened to be a woman, that lived next door to my godmother's in the Garden District. Her name was Mamie Desdunes [Dey-doon or Des-doon]. On her right hand, she had her two middle fingers, between her forefingers, cut off, and she played with the three. So she played a blues like this all day long, when she first would get up in the morning…
Then Morton proceeded to play what is the basis for this track. Her full name was actually a New Orleans Creole, Mary Celina Mamie Desdunes Dugue, the last appendage courtesy of her common-law husband, warehouse worker George Dugue. According to a 1949 interview with trumpter Bunk Johnson:
… She was pretty good looking — quite fair and with a nice head of hair. She was a hustling woman. A blues-singing poor girl. Used to play pretty passable piano around them dance halls on Perdido Street. When Hattie Rogers or Lulu White would put it out that Mamie was going to be singing at her place, the white men would turn out in bunches and them whores would clean up.
There is no indication that Mamie was actually a prostitute, and given her known history and address, it seems unlikely that she worked in the Storyville district in any capacity other than as a performer. She died in late 1911 at age 32, and would have been largely forgotten if not for Morton. At best, this might be a paraphrase of the simple blues pattern she played, owing to her disfigured right hand, with some of Morton infused into. The lyrics are typical of the time for New Orleans, with some portions common to a number of blues songs. This performance looks to take the subtle aspects of the blues piece - successfully exploited by pianist Butch Thompson
in his Daring 88 recording of the work - and combine it with a reading of the lyrics in my best attempt to put some desparation into them, the final result also released on my 2011 album Bluz
Hart A. Wand (M) & Lloyd Garrett (L) - 1912
holds a place of historical significance in the history of blues, albeit not quite the same place in which it was touted even through the 1990s. It was long considered to be, along with Baby Seals Blues
, the first or among the first blues with the word blues
in the title. There were pieces preceding this that used the word blues
, and there were were some blues contained within a part of a piece that also preceded it. However, Dallas Blues
may be the first titled blues published that actually was completely a blues number. While W.C. Handy got a lot of press for his pieces, they were closer to modified marches or rags with some 16 bar sections. Wand was playing this piece on violin in at least 1911, if not earlier, and was prompted to put it in publication. It is made up of true-blue 12 bar patterns, although the chorus in the first edition (used here to some extent) repeated the last 8 bars. But it's close enough otherwise. Also, unlike Handy's blues, or at least early recordings of them, Dallas Blues
is intentionally and deliberately slow giving it that wistful feeling associated with the genre. Its popularity prompted the addition of lyrics soon after the initial run, which helped it make its way to several records in the 1920s and 1930s. I add a double-time passage in the final chorus evoking a performance style from the 1920s as well.
The Memphis Blues (Instrumental)
William Christopher Handy
(M) and George A. Norton (L) - 1912/1914
Beat out by a few weeks by Artie Matthews'
arrangement of Baby Seals Blues
, this was Handy's first blues publication. Many consider him to be the "Father of the Blues", but in truth he was more likely the most effective salesman and archivist for this musical genre. He had paid attention to many of the blues riffs and styles demonstrated to him by other capable southern musicians since the 1890s, and much as Béla Bartok
did with his native folk music, Handy was able to interpolate what he had heard into what he additionally wrote in a coherent printable form. In 1909, a year after he moved to Memphis, Handy was asked to compose a campaign tune for hopeful Memphis politician Edward H. Crump
. Mister Crump
started with a true 12 bar blues strain, followed by a 16 bar section, and ended with another 12 bar phrase.
Once Crump won the election, the lyrics became old news, so the composer removed the lyrics and re-titled the piece Memphis Blues. Handy's band, which until this time had largely done a staple of Ragtime and Sousa-like marches, began playing his blues in their travels, which gave Handy the advantage as far as dissemination and publicity. Still, for three years he marketed it to no avail, as most publishers wanted him to finish those two sections that were "each missing four bars." In 1912, a frustrated Handy arranged for self-publication and distribution of Memphis Blues through a Memphis music store, and a national distributor expressed interest at the same time. The first thousand copies that Handy paid for arrived, and after a week he went in to see how sales were going. Handy was perplexed as the store manager and the distributor showed him a pile with very few pieces gone, and told him sales were very sparse. Further discouraged, he sold the copyright and all future royalties to the other two. Years later it was discovered that this devious pair arranged to have a second thousand copies printed, and that the first thousand of this very popular tune had sold out in four days. Handy could only watch as the money from the piece rolled in elsewhere, and was even further injured when a lyricist who knew little or nothing about Handy or the blues added the original set of inaccurate lyrics (there was no bassoon in Handy's band). A mixed blessing was that he learned a lesson about copyrights, and the fame helped him sell future pieces at great profit.
LeRoy "Lasses" White - 1912
Le Roy White was situated in the Dallas, Texas area, and was, perhaps not too ironically, white. He acted in vaudeville in blackface, as shown on the cover of this piece, and this was one of his earliest published tunes. It also helped to set a standard of sorts for the rompin' stompin' type of blues that became popular on the Southern vaudeville during that time period. Copyrighted in 1912 as The Negro Blues
, the original work had as many as fifteen verses, not including the second one found in this recording. Either White or his publisher, Bush and Gerts, trimmed the verses to six, then changed the title to the somewhat more offensive Nigger Blues
in 1913, a surprising move as by that time most "coon songs" had all but died out in most parts of the country nearly a decade prior. Yet there is nothing in the lyrics that reflects the questionable title. My good friend and colleague Jeff Barnhart
started performing this in 2009 and based on another colleague's suggestion he called it Lasses Blues
after the composer's stage name. I followed up with the modified sheet music cover. While Jeff clearly owns this piece (if you ever get to hear him sing it you'll understand), I am subletting it for this bodacious effort with his blessing.
Yellow Dog Blues
William Christopher Handy
W.C. Handy was not the first blues writer (who knows who was?), but he was able to popularize this cousin of ragtime as nobody had before. Yellow Dog Blues
was originally written as a rag song, The Yellow Dog Rag
, based on a strain Handy had heard a vagrant singing one day while he was waiting for a train. It was one of the earliest published blues that clearly follows the 12 bar pattern throughout. When his other blues became popular, he re-titled it as a blues, and it instantly sold well. The Yellow Dog was actually the name of a freight line in the south. It also answered the question posed in an earlier popular blues piece, I Wonder Where My Easy Rider's Gone Today
. "He's gone where the Southern cross the Yellow Dog," referring to the town of Moorhead, Mississippi where the two routes intersected. The Firehouse Five Plus Two
Traditional Jazz band originally thought it was a song about dogs, so their eventual recorded incarnation included both dog howls and
train whistles. My version is based on the interpretation that opens the legendary Paul Lingle's
only studio album, recorded for Good Time Jazz in 1952.
Saint Louis Blues (Jazz Piano Solo)
Saint Louis Blues (Miss Kelsey Vocal)
William Christopher Handy
Over the years, The Saint Louis Blues
has become the benchmark by which other traditional blues are measured. While not the first put out by Handy, it is definitely the most popular. A lot of this is due to the flexibility that is allowed for interpreting this piece. Handy utilized the opening strain from a piece he wrote in 1913, The Jogo Blues
, as a basis for the chorus. He combined it with a true blue strain he had heard a woman sing some twenty years prior while down on his luck in St. Louis. In need of a new hit, but bothered by distractions in a home with three young children, Handy rented a room down on Beale Street for one night, and produced this first true blues hit, music and lyrics complete, by morning. Unlike Memphis Blues
, it took a bit longer to gain ground. The flexibility with which it can be interpreted, including varying tempos, orchestrations, and moods, have made it the most recorded blues piece ever, and one of the top five pieces of music ever covered. My jazz interpretation here is culled from many sources, but is largely comprised of my ideas merged with an interpretation shown to me by jazz pianist Dave Brubeck
. His take on the popularity of the piece was due to early "jazz fusion", since it combines traditional major blues with a minor tango, or more properly, habanera. A rhythm that likely originated in Africa, the habanera and its distinct melody are probably what makes St. Louis Blues
instantly recognizable. A traditional interpretation is on the way eventually.
The Snakey Blues - An Etude in Ragtime
Will Nash - 1915
Will Nash was a pianist in W.C. Handy's
traveling band in 1915, and submitted this ragtime blues (subtitled "An Etude in Ragtime") to his boss. Handy subsequently put into print under his own label, and it soon became a moderate success, albeit only on one piano roll from that time. This folk-influenced piece shares some stylistic elements of Artie Matthews' Weary Blues
of that same year, including early stirrings of what would become the boogie or boogie woogie style which would grow out of Texas. Both the A section and the trio were comprised of the increasingly prominent 12-bar blues pattern. Of interest here is the trio, which is an innovative blues in thirds, one of the earliest of its kind. The final section, a fourth strain in a blues piece being very unusual for that time, was based on an earlier tune titled Fare Thee, Honey, Fare Thee Well
, which dated back to the beginning of the century. This was one of the first pieces that Handy and his band, presumably with Nash at the piano, recorded in 1917. It actually gained more popularity in the 1960s and 1970s among ragtime and blues pianists. As for the title, "Snakey" is most likely derived from the description of a kind of seductive dance that had been gaining popularity on stage as well as in bordellos of the time, but dated back to as early as 1893 with Little Egypt
at the Chicago Columbian Exposition.
Beale Street Blues
William Christopher Handy
By the end of the 1910s, there was little dispute as to who the king of the blues was. This was soon to change with the coming of the Jazz Age and the rise of Ellington, Whiteman, and Gershwin. Handy was still on a tear and able to produce more hits, though. Beale Street
was originally packaged as a blues song, but when re-titled as a blues in 1919 it became his second most recorded piece behind St. Louis Blues
. The lyrics are a bit more risqué and melancholy than his previous efforts, including "If Beale Street could talk, If Beale Street could talk, there'd be a lot of married men would have to take their beds and walk," and "that's where business never closes until someone gets killed". It also contains a reference to the impending onset of prohibition, perhaps the real motivation for that blue feeling. Ironically for Handy, it was lyrics that often hurt him, as many performers did not want to recall the "old days" of The South, and preferred to focus on the music itself. The piece gained some fame when it was interpolated into Shubert's Gaieties of 1919
, which was less famous than Florenz Ziegfeld's
, but still popular. This is a traditional reading with some improvisation on the third strain.
Spencer Williams - 1917
When Williams was just starting to garner some attention as a composer and performer, he came out with this fine piece which has since become a standard. Tishomingo refers to a county in Mississippi, an area where much of the delta blues style originated. Originally the province of the Chickasaw tribe, it was formed in 1870 and was one of the centers of black settlements in post-slavery days. While this is not a blues in the traditional 12-bar format, it still has the same bluesey tone within its 32 bar chorus, a common format in the 1910s and 1920s for many songs with "blues" in the title. Williams manages a wistful feeling and longing for home, later found in the 1926 hit Deep Henderson
by Fred Rose
. This piece will also be familiar to listeners of A Prairie Home Companion
, as host Garrison Keillor
has long used the piece off and on with a modified lyric to open the show. There are hints of pianist Marvin Ash
within this performance, which includes the seldom-heard verse.
James Price Johnson
This early stride piece is the benchmark that was set not only for stride composition, but for performance also, based on Johnson's two piano rolls and a recording as well. The Carolina Shout
recording on Okeh was so significant that it is debatably considered to be the first jazz piano solo ever recorded, even though it is essentially a swung rag. Many young aspiring stride pianists, including a young Duke Ellington and 16-year-old Thomas "Fats" Waller, sat in front of a player piano pumping out one chord at a time to learn this piece, and it became a favorite at both cutting contests and rent parties for at least two decades. There are a number of differences between the 1918 piano roll and the 1921 piano roll and recording, largely in feel but to some degree in phrasing as well. The earlier one is still grounded in ragtime, and has some extra measures, possibly a result of poor editing on the part of Artempo, the roll manufacturer. The 1921 performance is much looser, partly a result of three years of additional work on the style, and perhaps Johnson approving of the final edit. While this performance is based largely on the 1921 piano roll, there are some variances outside of that as well so I could infuse my own stride point of view into the piece.
Royal Garden Blues
Clarence Williams and Spencer Williams - 1919
Clarence Williams had no shortage of ego, and claimed to have published the first sheet music with the word "jazz" on the cover. This New Orleans entrepreneur and sometimes composer did, however, readily give due credit to those who were among the best in that hotbed of jazz. His name often appeared as a co-credit on publications obviously written by others, but his ability to market them tenaciously often justified this minor vanity. Clarence briefly teamed up with composer Spencer (no relation) for a few numbers, of which Royal Garden Blues
is the most lasting. Actually, their authorship has been disputed at times, particularly by musician Jimmie Noone
who claims that it was he and Joseph "King" Oliver
who sold the piece to Williams, yet no decisive conclusion has been reached as to the true composers. Named after a popular Chicago performance venue, the Royal Garden Cafe
, later the Lincoln Gardens
, the first recordings of the piece by ensembles such as "King" Oliver's Creole Jazz Band
indicate a relaxed blues tempo. It has since often been performed a bit more upbeat by modern day traditional jazz artists. Both styles are represented here. The first iteration more closely follows the sheet music, while the repeat lets loose in a more contemporary style. The pivotal theme is the third one which provides a natural opportunity for improvisation for the performers.
Muscle Shoals Blues
George Washington Thomas
Seven years before he did his Victor recordings of Handful of Keys and Honeysuckle Rose, 18-year-old Fats Waller clearly demonstrated his growing prowess on his first two piano tracks, Birmingham Blues
and Muscle Shoals Blues
, recorded for OKeh Records, the race division of Columbia Records. Originally trained on the organ and working hard to craft the active left hand action required for piano, Waller set new standards for integrating the blues with stride. This recording is based more on the original sheet music than on Waller's recording, but there is an infusion of one of his early boogie-woogie style choruses, something that would become a more frequent facet of blues piano performances within a few years. Thomas was a black pianist from Houston, Texas, who at one time partnered with composer Clarence Williams as a publisher. It is no accident that many consider him and his brother Hoceil to be the originator of the boogie-woogie style, which really was an evolution more than it was an invention. George was a pioneer of the walking bass, however, one of many popular blues bass line styles. As for the Muscle Shoals itself, this was a reference to a treacherous stretch of shallows and rapids on the Tennessee River in northern Alabama just below Chattanooga, Tennessee.
James Price Johnson
Other than Carolina Shout
, the Johnson piece that most budding stride pianists clamored to learn note for note, this is one of the most awesome pieces of his early career. Mysteriously, like many great Johnson pieces, this one was never copyrighted or published. A listen to either this recording or his one and only live recording from 1921 may indicate why. While not impossible to notate, it would be difficult to translate many of the subtleties that exist in the recording into printed form. The piano roll is no less easy to follow. The left hand in Johnson's playing was very advanced, as indicated by recordings from as early as 1917. One of his trademark patterns when playing fast was the use of shifting left hand patterns, such as |Octave|Octave|Chord|Octave| Octave|Chord|Octave|Chord|. Johnson makes good use of the part of the circle of fifths in the A section. The B section has little in the way of melody, yet the rhythmic patterns and chord changes carry it through very well. The C section is the most melodic of the three, leading into an interlude comprised largely of chords. I suggest trying to find the Johnson recording of this, which is available on various CDs in current release. Then you will know what I'm up against in trying to emulate his playing!
Tin Roof Blues
Paul Mares, Ben Pollack, Mel Stitzel, George Brunies, Leon Roppolo, Walter Melrose - 1923
The collective composers of this piece comprised a group know as the New Orleans Rhythm Kings
, but their collective authorship has been brought into question, with hints that this was a rehash of Jazzin' Babies Blues
by Richard M. Jones
or Rusty Nail Blues
by Buddy Petit
. The chorus melody was already known by white New Orleans players as the less than glamorous Pee Hole Blues
, and the black ones as Don't Get Funky 'Cause Your Water's On
among other sundry names. There are some very original elements to it just the same, and Tin Roof Blues
has become a staple of traditional jazz bands around the world. There was indeed an actual Tin Roof Café just west of downtown New Orleans situated at Washington and Claiborne, but it had been closed by 1910. A new one was built in Baronne Street, but details on when are sketchy. Publisher Walter Melrose
may have given the piece its title based on the lyrics he wrote for it evoking the memory of the original joint, if not the newer one. No doubt it was not quite as vivacious as it appears on the cover, but one can dream. I am joined in this performance by my talented and beautiful wife Pamela on the clarinet.
Canal Street Blues
Joseph "King" Oliver
and Louis Armstrong - 1923
Considered by many to be one of the most dynamic bits of duet work between Joe Oliver and his young protégé, Louis Armstrong, Canal Street Blues
, which existed pretty much as a recording for a long time, was actually a sort of borrowed blues, as were so many from that era. The first theme contained licks that Oliver had emulated before, and had been performed by other Chicago jazz bands. It was the B strain, however, that Oliver derived largely from the 1892 scared song The Holy City
, and which was also paraphrased in Chimes Blues
recorded around the same time. Canal Street Blues
is named after a famous thoroughfare in New Orleans, Louisiana, which happened to separate the downtown rail station from the infamous Storyville district, latter of which was closed in 1917. It is credited to two of that city's natives, Oliver and Armstrong, although in a sense, clarinetist Johnny Dodds had some role in shaping the overall feel of the tune in his solos. For this take, which employs both of my sons, features my wife, Pamela, as clarinetist, who is calling more on Firehouse Five Plus Two/Kid Ory player George Probert than Dodds in her own solos. With Alex on drums and Zachary on tuba, we come up with a small piece of New Orleans played Virginia style, but with a degree of regard and authenticity, and certainly a modicum of musical joy.
Honky Tonk Train
Meade Lux Lewis
- c. 1924
This is an early boogie blues, and was recorded on many occasions by Lewis and his peers for over twenty years. The boogie sound is created by a consistent left hand pattern over a non-moving or relatively stable bass line, as opposed to Boogie-Woogie, which came later, and had distinct moving bass lines. This is essentially a tone poem of a train trip complete with a starting whistle, bridge crossings, whistle conversations, and the final pull into the station. Three years later (1927), the composition Boogie-Woogie
would spawn a much-modified genre from Boogie, which incorporated a moving bass line. Lewis recorded the piece in 1927, but it was not released until two years later, putting a damper on potential sales based on how fresh it was at the time. When it was finally released, Boogie-Woogie recordings were making inroads into the public's phonographs. My rendition is an interpolation of the original recording. This is also a staple of my friend, Michigan pianist Bob Milne
, who knows a great deal of music in this style.
Snowy Morning Blues
James Price Johnson
- c. 1925
Although Johnson was well known for dynamic stride piano, he was equally capable of creating captivating melodic and harmonic lines with very simple techniques. He was one of the first stride pianists to be recorded, both on gramophone discs and player piano rolls, so much of his legacy remains from the time he first became a prominent figure in the genre. Snowy Morning Blues
is not "blues" in a traditional sense, as it is not comprised of sections featuring the well-known 12 bar riff. Instead, it has a "bluesy" feeling through the use of melodic devices and "blue" notes. Among the trickiest of these devices is Johnson's trademark backwards tenth, in which the upper note is played just in advance of the lower note, instead of the other way around. Johnson, like many others, was perfectly capable of playing a solid tenth, so this was inserted deliberately for style. The A section of this terse tune contains a repetitive melody over a changing chord line in the left hand. It is followed by a B section that is at first delicate and sparse, then repeated with the direction to "punch it" according to at least one printed score. Listen for harmonic variations between the two iterations. One last time through the A section takes it out. The riff in the last four bars is the same in each section. The piece also begins and ends with the same riff. It is known that Johnson took this piece at a pretty good clip, but I have traditionally played it slow, as learned from Judy Carmichael
, and even slower at the behest of ragtime pianist Sue Keller
. So lay back and relax. I only wish it were just a bit longer for those really
Fred Rose - 1926
I was first introduced to this bluesy piece by Washington D.C. area pianist Daryl Ott
, a great blues and ragtime singer in his own right. He recorded it in St. Louis many years back with the help of (the late) Trebor Tichenor
. Composer Rose spent his early musical years in Chicago, and soaked up the influence of that city, which is clearly shown in his songs of the 1920s. He was a talented performer in his own right, as well as a recording artist and radio star. Deep Henderson
, although not written in blues form, is one of the most sorrowful and wistful songs I have encountered. The long sustained high notes leading downwards to the end of each phrase help punctuate this. It's not certain which Henderson he is referring to, but many of his songs refer to the Carolinas, which could be a clue. As further evidence of the influence of ragtime and early jazz on the the genesis of "country" music, Rose went on to be a successful country writer in Nashville, and reportedly "discovered" the legendary Hank Williams
. He was also among the first artists inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Muskrat Ramble (a.k.a. Muskat Ramble)
Edward "Kid" Ory - 1921/1926/1950
Of all the traditional jazz standards in the history of the genre, this one still remains in the top ten among fans and musicians alike, in part because of the KISS (keep it simple stupid) paradigm. Ory started out on banjo in New Orleans, Louisiana, but switched to trombone after a few years. He then moved to Los Angeles, California, around 1919, one of only a handful of New Orleans musicians to do so. At that time, he wanted to also add saxophone to his skillset, and it was while practicing this instrument that he came up with this simple but catchy melody, a variance on The Old Cow Died and Brock Cried
from New Orleans. After working with it he decided to tuck it away for future reference. That was in 1921. It emerged a couple of times over the next few years, but nothing much came of it. After subsequently moving to Chicago from LA, Ory was in a recording session with Louis Armstrong and they ran short of a side. He pulled out Muskrat Ramble
(which Lil Hardin Armstrong
allegedly named on the spot) and they quickly worked it out, making the first official recording of the piece. It was a hit in very short order. However, the publisher and record label both reportedly wanted to avoid the rodent-centric connotation of "rat" in the title, and renamed it variously Muskat Ramble
or Muscat Ramble
, equating it to a particular European wine instead. (The real muskrat is a fairly large aquatic rodent like a beaver with a rat's tail, indigenous mostly to the Mid-Atlantic states of North America.) The opening chord progression was, I am guessing, in standard use well before Ory took it on. Scott Joplin
used the first ten bars of this same progression in Searchlight Rag
, which you will hear briefly in the final chorus of this performance.
In spite of all the success that Ory's iconic piece had enjoyed since its initial recording, it was pointed out to him more than two decades after it was recorded that he should be receiving royalties, and never saw a penny from it. Friends helped him to locate the current publisher, as the original publisher, Walter Melrose, had sold the tune off some time before 1947. Their office looked up the information on the tune, and then wrote Ory an $8,000 check in short order. He continued to receive royalties from that point forward. However, Muskrat Ramble was famously purloined on two occasions. In 1950 lyricist Ray Gilbert added words to the tune and had it published without Ory's consent (it had not been in print before that time). In a controversial challenge with ASCAP that is still considered unfair by some, Gilbert was awarded a 33% credit in 1956 for all sanctioned performances of the tune, both vocal and instrumental, retroactive to 1950, due to the "added value" of his lyrics. Then in 1965, singer Joe McDonald used the tune for his I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag ("It's one, two, three, what are we fightin' for..."), performed at the famous Woodstock gathering in 1969 with his group, Country Joe and the Fish. Babette Ory, Edward's daughter from his second marriage, sued McDonald in 2001 based on a 1999 recording of the piece, but lost that suit since it was determined that she and her late father had already known of the original hijacking of the tune by McDonald, and had waited more than three decades to bring suit. McDonald not only won, but was awarded recovery attorney's fees from the Ory family. In spite of the storied history, no matter the title, Muskrat Ramble is still performed somewhere in the world almost every day, and virtually no traditional jazz band is missing this from their repertoire. A piano reduction of such a dynamic band piece is always challenging, so I have simply tried to keep the requisite improvised choruses to a minimum for the sake of avoiding monotony given the limited timbre possibilities of the piano. My son, Alex Edwards, joins me on the drums in this 2006 recording.
Thomas "Fats" Waller
(M), Andy Razaf and Joe Davis (L) - 1927/1934/1937
was one of an extraordinary series of cuts from 1934 in which Waller, now clearly in his prime, struts his stuff as both player and composer. Melding elements of both stride and boogie-woogie, he managed a visual picture which aptly fits the title of the piece. Surprisingly Waller was not the first to record the piece, which surfaced in 1927 in performances by Stanley "Fess" Williams
, Doc Cook's
orchestra, and Louis Armstrong
. Recorded on RCA Victor with other late 1934 masterpieces like Clothes Line Ballet
and the sultry Viper's Drag
, Alligator Crawl
nearly instantly became a Waller favorite and has remained so through the 21st Century. One of the challenges often presented, but not often met, is putting a piece like this down on paper so the consumer can also read it. There were just too many variations and tricks in Waller's playing, plus variances between performances of a piece, to really get a consistent take that would also be palatable to the average pianist. However, for many the sheet music becomes simply a template upon which they can build a good performance of their own. I have taken this approach using the original instrumental sheet published in late 1934, taking some cues from the 11/16/1934 recording, and adding in some elements of my own in the repeats along with an introduction. Note that the interludes between sections are not in the music, nor is the coda. The difficult retrofit of lyrics in 1937 did not enhance the piece, but did sell some more sheets. For clarity - attributions of this piece dating to 1924 when Waller was 20 stem from one incorrect publication stating that date for a piano roll, and have proliferated over the years. The Library of Congress shows the first mention of it in 1927 when it was initially recorded by Williams and Armstrong, negating the earlier date. It also may have existed as a piece called House Party Stomp
as early as late 1925, but verification of this has been difficult. In any case, this Alligator certainly has crawled along fine since its revamped 1934 appearance by Waller.
St. James Infirmary Blues
Traditional - Transcribed by Joe Primrose - 1928
This tragically-themed piece was hanging out in New Orleans and the American South in general many years before Primrose transcribed his published version in the late 1920s. However, the original St. James Infirmary referred to in the song actually existed in London centuries ago, not in Storyville where some had thought. The song also was a derivation of an old English folk song called The Unfortunate Rake
. The verses included for this performance of the somber piece are among the most common, although some have also found their way into others blues pieces of the 1900s to 1920s and vice-versa. Note that in the funereal verses that the early traditions of jazz players as part of the procession are quite apparent, including being buried in a manner that suggests a solid standing, and having the second line, usually made up of the extended family and the hired band, first mourning, then celebrating the life just ended. St. James Infirmary
is rarely played in a funeral line, as most bands to this day tend to favor the more appropriate Just a Closer Walk with Thee
or Didn't He Ramble
Basin Street Blues
Spencer Williams (verse by Glenn Miller and Jack Teagarden) - 1928
Spencer managed to make a significant mark on the jazz age with a few of his numbers. His biggest hits were Everybody Loves My Baby
and the follow-up, I've Found a New Baby
. His most durable and recorded piece, however, is Basin Street Blues
. Every traditional jazz artist from Louis Armstrong
to Harry Connick Jr.
, has touched on this song at some point. The introductory verse was added soon after the chorus was written, and starts with a counterpoint between the vocalist/soloist and the accompaniment, meshing nicely in the last measures. Then the chorus follows a very smooth chord progression that was copied many times during the swing era of the 1930s and 1940s. Being a simple song with only a single verse and chorus, it is carried as much or more by improvisational choruses than by the vocal line. The verse was reportedly written by future bandleaders Glenn Miller
and Jack Teagarden
, something that was never denied by Williams. Louis Armstrong's
1928 recording of Basin Street
does not include the verse, but virtually all subsequent recordings do, further supporting this claim. I step a little bit outside of the traditional jazz box here and interject some jazz licks inspired by artists like Dave Brubeck
and Art Tatum
A Handful of Keys
Thomas Wright "Fats" Waller
Until March of 1929, Fats Waller was a virtual unknown. He had been doing some recording for the Victor Company in Camden, NJ, but much of his early volume of work was on the organ. Recognizing a musician with outstanding rhythm and talent, James P. Johnson
mentored Waller and help to wean him of the organ and onto the piano. Organists usually depend on their left foot for bass notes, so the right hand is not as rhythmically adept at the stride piano patterns if they don't also play piano. Waller's left hand was admittedly below par when he started with Johnson, but when he burst onto the scene with his initial series of piano recordings for Victor, and a number of piano rolls as well, he instantly drew recognition and a large fan base. A Handful of Keys
starts out as a musical challenge, and grows in intensity and scope as it moves through. The primary theme is a simple scale pattern with a few improvisations worked around it. The second iteration features more of the left hand bass octave melody in the first sixteen measures. Of note on all of his recordings of this piece is the drive with which he launches into the B section. I have attempted to recreate this here. Believe me, the title is very indicative of the content.
Stompin' 'Em Down
Hill was the son of a pastor from Little Rock, Arkansas, who was trained in the classics and liturgical music. However, he caught the jazz bug in his youth, and to his parents' dismay set out on the road at age 16 to join a band and make popular music performance his career. After some years of struggle Alex found his niche in stride piano and jazz band arrangements. At 23 years of age he recorded this tantalizingly hot number, almost at the same time as his slightly older peer Thomas "Fats" Waller
was setting a new paradigm with his Handful of Keys
. He had the potential to be in the same place musically as Waller, and indeed did play and compose with the stride master (including I'm Crazy 'Bout My Baby
in 1935), but Hill preferred leading a jazz orchestra over solo piano performance. His consistently fine work helped to pave the way for other Negro arrangers, such as Fletcher Henderson
who had been doing similar work. After several years of constant engagements around New York Alex contracted tuberculosis and died at age 31 in his native Little Rock. An attempt has been made here to recreate the essence of his original performance with a few extra licks thrown in.
Thomas "Fats" Waller
and Harry Brooks (M) and Andy Razaf (L) - 1929
In August of what would become an extraordinary year for 25-year-old Fats Waller, and his second solo recording session of that year for RCA Victor records, he laid down what would be one of his two most popular songs ever, Ain't Misbehavin'
(the other being Honeysuckle Rose
). Written in a veritable hurry for the score for the show Connie's Hot Chocolates
, this standout tune continually demonstrated not only his outstanding rhythmic skills, but humorous performance demeanor as well. While critics did not think so much of this song that was repeated several times during the show, audiences consistently loved it. Both the shows and his series of 1929 recordings opened the door for more recordings and, most importantly, radio appearances. In fact, this song became a hit for virtually anybody who performed it. The rarely heard verse to Ain't Misbehavin'
, included here, helps to add depth to any pianistic performance of the tune. As Fats said, "Ain't misbehavin', and I ain't
I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling
Thomas "Fats" Waller
and Harry Link (M) and Billy Rose (L) - 1929
This is another beautiful piece from Waller's very prolific year of 1929. Instead of Waller's usual trusty and capable lyrical partner Andy Razaf
, this song had the advantage of Billy Rose's
respected name as lyricist, bolstered by a recording and even a short film done by Rose's then-wife, Fanny Brice
. Rose was widely known for his witty comedy lyrics, but turned in a fine romantic ballad lyric for this tune. The melody for this is very appealing as there is the "feeling of falling" in both the verse and the chorus. Both start out with a downward chord progression from the first chord, providing continuity between the two. It should be noted that Waller rarely recorded vocal versions of his serious songs, wisely reserving his singing voice and witticisms for pieces that would benefit greatest from it.
(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue
Thomas "Fats" Waller
and Harry Brooks (M) and Andy Razaf (L) - 1929
One of the most haunting pieces written by Waller, this beautiful lament is also a very poignant look at the social stigmas that were omnipresent for Black Americans in the 1920s and 1930s. Included in the show Connie's Hot Chocolates
, which was largely financially backed by noted gangster Dutch Schultz
(b. Arthur Flegenheimer), the lyrical content of the song was strongly
suggested to Razaf by Schultz. He thought it would be humorous to have a scene in which a black girl woke up in a white bed inside totally white room, having had her man stolen by a light-skinned gal. Razaf went a step further and created a beautiful social commentary. Both musically and lyrically, it conveys a multitude of messages. The feeling of forlorn that comes from being alone can be interpreted in the context of a failed romance, marriage, or being outcast because of skin color. Even the title has at least two meanings: black skin and blue demeanor, or emotionally black and blue from the virtual poundings of discrimination. In spite of the obvious risk that Razaf took, the song was such a hit that the show made money, and Schultz couldn't find anything negative about that. The musical content of this song is very similar to the chorus of Ain't Misbehavin'
, which explains the inclusion of the latter in the middle of this arrangement.
Thomas "Fats" Waller
(M) and Andy Razaf (L) - 1929
In 1924, Andy Razaf had tried his hand at writing both lyrics and
music for a song, which he rarely did, and created a different version of Honeysuckle Rose
. He revived it with lyrical alterations while hurriedly working on a new musical with Waller called Load of Coal
. In fact, since he had trouble keeping Waller's in one place long enough to write the songs, they ended up completing this one over the telephone. Honeysuckle Rose
actually took a few years to become a true jazz standard, likely because the earliest recordings of it were either half-hearted or too fast to be appealing. Still, this is one of the few songs that any group of jazz musicians can sit down and play with no discussion whatsoever, and all start in the same key - that of F
, of course. One of the most interesting early jam sessions of this piece was recorded at the 1938 concert of the Benny Goodman Orchestra
at Carnegie Hall, and featured no less than Count Basie, Freddie Green, Gene Krupa, Lester Young, Harry James,
and Goodman himself in a fifteen-minute tour-de-force. It likely that Fats likely played this song nearly every day for the last dozen years of his life, due to the public demand for it. The secret to its longevity? KISS. K
tupid. It is ultimately a non-complex, repetitive and easy to remember melody, but one that does not bore the listener or the performer, and allows all kinds of latitude for improvisation. This version is based on a compilation of many performance styles found throughout Waller's recorded legacy.
Black Panther - A Rhythmic Ensemble
Richard DuPage - 1933
Dick DuPage was to music in the mid-20th century what a character actor often is to TV and movies. You don't know them specifically, but you are aware of them as they are frequently at the periphery of the action. A Kansas City native, DuPage was musically trained as a pianist and arranger, and started writing in the late 1920s. Much of his work is known to jazz lovers as an arranger, including a stint as staff composer/arranger on New York City's WOR for radio dramas, as well as a film composer. His skill at composing the background and bridge music to set up or underscore the emotions of the listeners was highly regarded. He later was also valuable as a historian, having worked with many of the greats when jazz was still new. This piece is one of his forays into 1930s hot jazz, and is a piano reduction of the original which was recorded by Bert Lown and His Orchestra
the year of its release. There are some elements of Ellington style in here, and some of the darker side of Waller as well. Only one 32 bar section of this short work is repeated, so that's where the most variations from the score occur in this performance. The ending is also rather cryptic, and just trails off. While this Black Panther
is hardly militant, it is certainly stealthily dangerous in any musical regard.
The Mule Walk or Mule Walk Stomp
James Price Johnson
- 1938 (c. 1913)
It is difficult to pinpoint a composition date for this rompin' stompin' tune, but it is likely that Johnson had been playing it many years before he recorded it in 1939. According to the folio Harlem Stride Piano Solos
, Johnson composed it based on a number of country and square dances while working at The Jungles Casino
around 1913. While it may not have been as developed as is heard by his recording in 1939, The Mule Walk
was certainly a prototype of stride piano, which had yet to develop. The beauty of this composition lies in the absolute simplicity of the A section, which hinges around two repeated notes. Add some attitude, and you've got a rent party ice breaker. The B section is more typical Johnson, similar to Carolina Shout
and Harlem Strut
in years to come, or perhaps adjusted after their composition to fit that mold. The trio is again simple, but more melodic than the rest of the piece. By the time this was first committed to acetate (or vinyl), Johnson was more heavily engaged in composing symphonic works, but renewed fame in the 1940s put him and his music back into the nightclubs playing for a new generation of stride enthusiasts. The number of variations on the A section included in this performance provide only a sampling of some of the best that have been recorded over the years.
John W. Schaum - 1945
This little ditty is not found in the conventional repertoire of sheet music, but rather on page 29 of Volume D of the John W. Schaum Piano Course (the Orange Book). It is a very simple tune, but great to expand upon, as I can't help but do here. I play it as written the first time through (one refrain), then start into the improvisation. This is actually a "Boogie-Woogie" as opposed to "Boogie". The former, which developed in the early 1920s, features a more static bass line, usually chords played above a bass note that moves only with chord changes, or every other measure or so. Honky Tonk Train
is an example of Boogie. Boogie-Woogie features a walking bass or moving bass pattern, and has a much more aggressive left hand. Bobcat Boogie
falls more into this category. I had so much fun with this that I'm planning on moving next to the March of the Lions
on page 33. I'll let you know how I do with it!
Bill's Boogie-Woogie Blues
Bill Edwards - 2005
While I have primarily been a ragtime performer and composer throughout my teen and adult life, I also have indulged in a variety of genres, including classical (my initial training), pop (I grew up on Elton John, Billy Joel and The Beatles), jazz (standards and improvisational) and even a bit of boogie-woogie now and then. This piece was an improvisational one-take effort while I was doing my Honky-Tonk album, and it just gelled for me somehow. It is a slow boogie blues pattern, not the more traditional barrelhouse style, but not unlike the slow blues played by some of the masters of genre from the 1930s to 1950s. I throw in a couple of unexpected non-traditional chords in a couple of the iterations for variety, but for the most part this was just inspired by the desire to expand my recorded repertoire. Unfortunately, one of the my microphones had cut out as I was recording, so the subsequent track is in mono. Then again, so were the originals back before stereo was even a commercial viability. If you like slow grinding blues you might not hate this. If you don't, try it anyhow. You never know!
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