Our favourite four-year-old mule is now walking again and we can’t think of any better way to celebrate than a modest tribute to the song that gives title to this blog.
By the spring of 1913, James P. Johnson was playing at the Jungles Casino, a cellar on 62nd Street, in the neighbourhood called The Jungles, the Negro section of Hell’s Kitchen and one of the toughest places in NY. The Jungles Casino was officially a dancing school called “Drake’s Dancing Class”, since it was very hard for coloured people to get a dance-hall license.
He described the venue as “a cellar, without fixings. The furnace, coal, and ashes were still there behind a partition. The coal bin was handy for guests to stash their liquor in case the cops dropped in. There were dancing classes alright, but there were no teachers. The “pupils” danced sets, two-steps, waltzes, schottisches, and “The Metropolitan Glide”, a new step”.
JPJ played for those dances but, instead of playing straight, he broke into a rag in certain places and the younger dancers – mostly from Charleston, South Carolina, and other places in the South – screamed when he “got good to them with a bit of rag in the dance music now and then”, “hollering and screaming until they were cooked”.
That’s how Mule Walk was composed, as breakdown music for such wild and comical dance sets, the more solid and groovy the better. JPJ assimilated those old-country dance tunes and translated them into his own pianistic language, which would result in the foundation of stride piano. In this sense, Mule Walk, Gut Stomp and Carolina Shout, all of them composed in the same period, must be considered a prototype of the stride piano style. However, it is safe to assume that he must have played Mule Walk differently then and in his three recordings from the late 30s and early 40s.
Copyrighted on February 1940 by Bregman, Vocco & Conn, Mule Walk is a three-section composition in B flat with an infectious rhythm that perfectly suits JPJ’s energetic piano playing. Some ragtime player stated a few years ago that Mule Walk is “one of the most prominent examples of stride writing using minimal melodic elements and lots of rhythm”. But a seasoned listener will come to the conclusion that this is not a “primitive” composition, neither are any of JPJ’s performances of the tune. His playing is always enhanced by a fine sense of dynamics and a crystal-clear touch that always draw a melodic quality from the piano, and yet his extraordinary technique and conception in no way inhibit feeling.
Every stride piano player may have a different composition considered as “the most difficult one” but, unquestionably, Mule Walk is one of the toughest. But, in Mike Lipskin’s words, “the big challenge is probably not so much a particular piece, but how to work within the style, keeping it fresh, inventive and how to maintain a left hand smoothness and relaxation”. A stellar example would be JPJ's Blue Note recording of Mule Walk.
Regarding improvisation on Mule Walk and other stride chestnuts, Grant Simpson comments that “the vehicles I use to solo on are usually standards. When it comes to Carolina Shout or Mule Walk, I find it incredibly difficult to take that tune as only a "frame work" to work within. I can do it as an exercise, but would never want to perform it that way. It's not that I can't, but for some reason it doesn't "feel right" or "sound right" to me. Probably because, when improvising, we are left with two basic choices: harmonic or melodic. I think JPJ dealt with this if you listen to his versions of said Carolina Shout and then listen to If Dreams Come True. I believe the difference is that Carolina Shout, Mule Walk or Keep Off The Gras are primarily harmonically structured. Their ingredients are primarily chordal in structure - even the melodies. When you try to truly improvise on those, you are somewhat restricted to staying within that structure or the piece no longer stays in true stride tradition. When I began to bare down on stride as the fundamental foundation of my playing, I had to change the way I improvised on some tunes. Not standards in which I still keep stride components happening, but the right hand solos are basically clarinet type of lines.”