Did You Know? The World’s Greatest Stride Pianist Started Out on a Basement Organ Missing Half Its Keys
Stride piano, also known as Harlem stride piano, is one of the most difficult jazz piano styles to master. Stride pianists must be truly ambidextrous as their left hands leap great distances across the keys while the right handles syncopated melody lines. Both hands perform at full capacity and in nearly full independence of each other. It is incredibly difficult to master, and most pianists today who can play in this style often will have transcribed older pieces note-for-note and learned them from a score. A true stride master will tell you this is not improvisational and, as a result, is not true stride.
Given the incredible difficulty of this style, it may surprise you to learn that one of the “founding fathers” of this playing style, Willie “The Lion” Smith, actually got started playing jazz in his basement on an organ missing more than half of its keys. Smith began playing the organ sometime between the ages of six and eight, learning every song his mother could recall by ear on the instrument. It took him years, but he finally won an upright piano in a newspaper contest and began playing and practicing in earnest. He soon discovered he could make a good living playing in clubs and did so until he went to war in World War I. Smith’s nickname, “The Lion,” purportedly was a result of his bravery in the war as an artillery gunner, and he returned a decorated veteran.
After the war, Smith began working in clubs once more, developing the distinct style that would become known as stride. By the 1940s, he was touring North America and Europe, which he continued for the next three decades. Over this period of time, he developed a trademark look to go with his trademark style: a cigar and a derby hat. Smith paired this look with a flamboyant personality and was known for “taking over” a club when he performed, serving as a sort of impromptu “master of ceremonies” and engaging in “cutting contests,” a popular form of musical combat in which stride piano players would attempt increasingly complex musical performances with which the competition could not keep up.
Smith and stride great James P. Johnson, who is often called the “Father of Stride,” would prearrange this type of contest in order to help increase attendance at the “rent parties” they played in the 1920s and 1930s. These parties were hosted by the owner of the residence, who provided food, drink, and entertainment, then charged a fee for entry. The fee helped the resident pay his rent. These parties were ubiquitous in Harlem in the 1920s and played a key role in the evolution of jazz as a musical genre.
Smith continued to perform until his death in 1973 and recorded his final album less than a year prior. He was a famous composer as well as performer, and clearly had the heart and ear of a poet. He once wrote that he heard the sounds of war and, interestingly, the slaughterhouse where his stepfather worked, “on an oboe.” He added, “That’s what you hear in a symphony: destruction, war, peace, and beauty, all mixed.” Smith died a jazz legend, a long way from that near-keyless organ in his mother’s basement.