Stride piano, according to Dick Wellstood

"I would like to say, first, that I don't like the term "stride" any more than I like the term "jazz". When I was a kid the old-timers used to call stride piano "shout piano", an agreeably expressive description, and when once I mentioned stride to Eubie Blake, he replied, "My God, what won't they call ragtime next?" Terms, terms. Terms make music into a bundle of objects - a box of stride, a pound of Baroque -. [Donald] Lambert played music, not "stride", just as Bach wrote music, not "Baroque". Musicians make music, which critics later label, as if to fit it into so many jelly jars. Bastards.

Having demurred thus, may I say that stride is indeed a sort of ragtime, looser than Joplin's "classic rag", but sharing with it the marchlike structures and oom-pah bass. Conventional wisdom has it that striding is largely a matter of playing a heavy oom-pah in the left hand, but conventional wisdom is mistaken, as usual. Franz Liszt, Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, Erroll Garner and Pauline Alpert all monger a good many oom-pahs, and, whatever their other many virtues, none of them play stride.

To begin with, stride playing requires a certain characteristic rhythmic articulation, for the nature of which I can only refer you to recordings by such as Eubie Blake, Luckey Roberts, James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, Willie "The Lion" Smith and Donald Lambert. The feel of stride is a kind of soft-shoe 12/8 rather than the 8/8 of ragtime, and though the left hand plays oom-pahs, the total feeling is frequently an accented four-beat rather than the two-beat you might expect. For instance, the drummer Jo Jones once told me that when Basie played stride he would play a soft four on his bass drum, accenting, however, the first and third beats. This would be perfect. A straight four is too confining; a simple two makes you seasick. At any rate, the characteristic rhythms of stride are provided by the right hand, not the left. It is possible to play an otherwise impeccable stride bass and ruin it by playing inappropiate right hand patterns. By pulling and tugging at the rhythms of the left, the right hand provides the swing.

Now, if the right hand is to be able to do this, the left hand must be, not only quasi-metronomic, but also totally in charge. The propulsion, what musicians nowadays call the "time", must always be in the left hand. This is what Eubie Blake means when he says, "The left hand is very important in ragtime". To a non-performer, the lefthand dominance probably seems either unimportant or self-evident, but it is the crux of a successful stride performance. If, in the heat of the battle, the time switches to the right hand (because perhaps of a series of heavily accented figures), leaving the left hand merely to wag, then the momentum goes out of the window. The left hand must always be the boss and leave the right hand free to use whatever vocalized inflections the player desieres.

Stride bass is not just any old oom-pah, either. The bass note, the "oom", should be in the register of the string bass, a full two octaves or more below middle C - an octave or so lower than was used by Joplin or Morton. And the "pah" chord is usually voiced around middle C - one or two inversions higher than Joplin or Morton (here, as elsewhere, I'm referring strictly to [Donald] Lambert-style fast stride and am also generalizing wildly, of course). Moreover, the bass note is ideally a single note, not an octave, except in certain emphatic passages. The use of an octave would shorten the stretch between bass note and chord, and it is this wide stretch that gives stride its full sound. The wide stretch means that the player can activate the overtones of the piano by pedalling technicques unusable by Joplin or Morton, the denser texture of whose playing would have been unbearably muddied by the sophisticated pedalling of, say, Waller.

Stride bass lines move in scalar patterns, too. Ragtime stuck largely to roots and fifths, with most of the scalar motion in the tenor parts but stride pianists, having more room in the bass, can walk up and down scales in a way that is very difficult in the shorter span of the earlier pianists.

One can also use in the left hand what pianists called in my youth "back beats", where one disrupts the rhythm temporarily by playing oom-pah, oom-pah, oom-oom-pah, oom-pah, oom-oom-pah, and so on. With luck it comes out even, without sounding like one of Leonard Bernstein's early works.

To stride is to have patience, not to be in a hurry to get things over with. Lambert could play pieces in which the melody would allow a harmonic change perhaps only every four bars, requiring his left hand to pump patiently away for what seems like hours. And the late Ben Webster was an ardent stride pianist, whose pet piece was a version of "East Side, West Side" in long meter with lots of left hand, to with: (East!)-oom-pah, oom-pah, (Side!)-pah, oom-pah, oom-pah, oom-pah, (West!)-pah, oom-pah, oom-pah, oom-pah, (Side!)-pah, oom-pah, oom-pah, oom-pah, and so on, ad infinitum, ad wolgast. Fantastic patience!

If all this sounds rather difficult and complicated, you may be sure that it is. In a world full of pianists who can rattle off fast oom-pahs or Chick Corea solo transcriptions or the Elliot Carter Sonata, there are perhaps only a dozen who can play stride convincingly at any length and with the proper energy (...)"

Dick Wellstood [liner notes from "Donald Lambert - Recorded 1959-1961" on Storyville]

(bold letters are mine, intelligent and acid sense of humour is Wellstood's)

3 comentarios:

  1. Wellcome, myth Agux. Remember, if you want be a great blogger, you must say goodbye to your sacred wife and to your innocent childrens. Good luck.

  2. Hola Agustín, ¿hay la posibilidad de que esta entrada del Stride se traduzca al castellano, para que los no bilingües nos podamos enterar de lo que se dice?

    Me ha gustado mucho la entrada del fanfarrón 'Lion' Smith, la crítica de la época sí que era superficial... y muy subjetiva, ¿no te parece?

    Un saludo.

  3. Gracias, Coleman. Algunas entradas vendrán en ambos idiomas y otras sólo en uno. De todas formas, no te preocupes, que pronto habrá más sobre la técnica del stride, y en castellano.

    Un saludo,