Stride Piano: A Complete Guide To The Early Jazz Style

If ragtime was the seed of jazz, then stride piano was the flower that pollinated the future of the music.

In this post, we’ll be taking a tour through some of the key figures in the development of this style of jazz and a selection of essential stride piano recordings.

Like many music forms, stride piano came about out of necessity. Around 1920, ragtime piano was losing popularity as the blues emerged onto the music scene.

To adapt and survive as musicians, ragtime pianists blended the two styles to create a new art form today known as ‘stride piano’. They played the ‘oompah’ feel associated with ragtime with their left hand while their right hand improvised on the melody.

To be more specific, the pianist would strike a bass note with his left pinky finger on beat one and ‘stride’ the keyboard to play the remaining notes, also with his left hand, on beat two. He would repeat the process playing the bass note on beat three and the chord on beat four.

While all of this is going on, he would play the melody with his right hand, often at great speed and improvisation. When you add fast tempos, quick chord changes, and intricate melodies, you can see why stride jazz sends many budding keyboardists running for the hills!

Join us as we take a look at some of the most instrumental figures in stride piano and the recordings that define this iconic style of piano playing.

James P. Johnson

Jazz historians cite Harlem, New York, as the birthplace of stride piano and hail James P. Johnson as the father of the stride style.

James was born in 1894 in New York and was influenced by ragtime great, Scott Joplin. Always the innovator, James wanted to take the Joplin style in a new direction.

By incorporating the stride technique into his ragtime compositions, James pushed the boundaries of the style into freshwaters. Johnson’s innovative style and musical genius can be heard on the recording of “You’ve Got to Be Modernistic.”

Recommended James P Johnson Song: ‘You’ve Got to Be Modernistic’

On this recording, you will hear ‘Joplin-Esque” phrasing and melodies in Johnson’s song. From there, Johnson tosses in blues phrases and complex syncopation to showcase the melody and take it beyond the limits of ragtime.

Fats Waller

Fats Waller was another significant influence and contributor to the development of stride piano.

Waller studied under James Johnson but was so gifted as a musician that they soon became peers. Although Waller only lived to be 39-years old, he is considered to be one of the most prolific and talented jazz pianists and songwriters. Today, his songs are jazz standards played all over the world by jazz musicians.

Recommended Fats Waller Song: Ain’t Misbehavin’

Now a jazz standard, this composition by Fats Waller epitomizes why he is considered one of jazz music’s best songwriters.

There are many variations of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” to listen to, and none will disappoint. Some versions keep the tempo slow, so the melody is singable, while others are lightning fast to showcase the musician’s technique and improvisational skills.

Recommended Fats Waller Song: ‘Viper’s Drag’

Another Fats Waller composition, “Viper’s Drag,” incorporates some classical motifs fused around the blues and stride piano. The song showcases Waller’s compositional skills as it weaves through various keys and tempos.


Duke Ellington

Whilst his legacy is not one of a stride pianist, Duke Ellington was a master of all things jazz piano and another notable talent in this sub-genre.

James Johnson was a powerful influence on his piano style, but instead of remaining a stride pianist like his contemporaries, Ellington continually evolved.

Duke Ellington emerged as a phenomenal big band leader, prolific songwriter, and inspiration to young jazz musicians like Thelonious Monk.

Art Tatum

Last but certainly not least is Art Tatum.

If James Johnson was the father of the stride style, then Tatum was the royal heir. His effortless yet blindingly fast technique set him on a different level than other pianists.

To this day, not many pianists can emulate Tatum’s technique and musical ability.

Even his peers knew he was beyond their capabilities. According to urban legend, Art Tatum walked into the club where Fats Waller was playing. Fats spotted Tatum and reportedly piped, “I only play the piano. Tonight, God is in the house.”

Although not an exhaustive list by any means, here are just a few vital stride piano songs to listen to and have in your library.

Recommended Art Tatum Song: ‘Tea For Two’

Art Tatum was a master musician with spellbinding technique and abilities.

No matter what recording you listen to, and there are several, notice how smooth and precise Tatum’s fingering is, especially at the breakneck speeds he performs.

Also, take in how each performance is brilliantly unique, ranging from simple phrases to robust arpeggios.


Modern Stride Piano Tips

Stride piano often looks like it’s a “man’s world,” but Judy Carmichael shatters that misconception and then some.

Count Basie dubbed her “Stride” for her ability to perform this form of music. She is an exceptional keyboardist, singer, and entertainer.

Another modern pianist of note for this genre is Martial Solal.

The French musician is well-versed in stride piano along with all other jazz forms. Not just an accomplished pianist, he is also a bandleader and veteran composer.

Stride piano opened the door for big band, bebop, cool and paved the road for artists like Count Basie, Charlie Parker, and Herbie Hancock.

Stride piano also gave us classic songs that will be standards for generations to come.

Visit our Piano Section to learn more about the greats of jazz piano or check out our Top Ten Most Iconic Jazz Piano Solos.

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