Jacob Lawrence - Brownstones

Stride piano was born in the rent parties and cutting contests found in the brownstone apartments of uptown Manhattan — in a section where the cultural elite espoused the merits of a black renaissance; the section was Harlem.

This style of piano, also known as East Coast ragtime, was an extension of the classically-derived genre of the Midwest, but was perhaps more boisterous and lively (reflecting the city from which it was spawned). The progenitors, James P. Johnson, Willie “The Lion” Smith and Fats Waller captured the sound of an orchestra within the span of 88 keys. It required a virtuosic display, but unlike its predecessor, included improvisation.

It was the 1920s and millions of southern blacks migrated to northern cities like New York for a chance of economic stability and to escape the horrific culture of the Jim Crow South. Living in the over-priced apartments necessitated a means to procure rent money. Many tenants held informal gatherings where friends and family would pay to dance, eat and listen to competing pianists try to out-play each other on Tin Pan Alley tunes. The pianist would stride his left hand from the bottom of the keyboard with a single note up to its mid-range to play a chord — all-the-while, improvising syncopated melodic lines that created such a joyful noise!

Here’s what it may have sounded like:

(Thomas “Fats” Waller, Handful of Keys, 3/1/1929, Camden, New Jersey)

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