“It’s very difficult for me to dislike an artist. No matter what he’s creating, the fact that he’s experiencing the joy of creation makes me feel like we’re in a brotherhood of some kind… we’re in it together.”
“The strongest thing that any human being has going is their own integrity and their own heart. As soon as you start veering away from that, the solidity that you need in order to be able to stand up for what you believe in and deliver what’s really inside, it’s just not going to be there.”
It started in the early years of the 20th century, with the coming-together of several musical strands. A crucial one was the vocal tradition of plantation work songs, spirituals, and the blues. The 12-bar blues fueled the fundamentals of the hard-driving boogie-woogie piano style. Other key elements that turned jazz from a quirky local hybrid into a worldwide craze were brass bands, the adapted classical music of New Orleans’ French-educated Creole population, and ragtime piano.
Ragtime was an African-American makeover of European waltz and march themes, syncopated or “ragged” so that the beat of the right-hand melody fell between the steadily marching pulse of the left rather than on top of it. The effect was to create what Scott Joplin – the “King of Ragtime” – described as “weird and intoxicating”.
With the exception of players like Thelonious Monk or Art Tatum, piano players don’t quite have the name recognition of their horn playing counterparts. All the same, these ivory ticklers play an equally essential role in jazz. One of the most significant innovations in the early history of jazz music was the dramatic transformation of piano playing that took place as jazz migrated from New Orleans to Chicago to New York, the capital of ragtime.
In 1920, as the 25-year old fad of ragtime was beginning to wane and the blues was becoming the new craze, New York’s jazz pianist began to blend blues and ragtime. The sound that resulted from that fusion was dense and loud, and came to be called “stride” piano.
The place where the synthesis took place might actually have been Atlantic City. Before World War I that was the city where pianists from all over the country converged during the summer to entertain the guests of the various establishments of the red-light district.
Pianists who performed in Atlantic City included Eubie Black from Baltimore (from 1906), Luckey Roberts from Philadelphia, Willie “The Lion” Smith and James Johnson (1914) from New York.
When the summer season was over, most of these pianists would move to Harlem, the black ghetto of New York, where an entire subculture of night-clubs for black people was booming. In the 1920s, following the vogue of blues music, Harlem was invaded by the white tourists, who came to check out the exotic music of the blacks. So those clubs (and their performers) began to cater to a white audience.
Their authentic black-piano experience (and innovation) moved to the “rent parties”, i.e. parties meant to raise money to pay rent, that became extremely popular after the end of World War II among poor black tenants of Harlem. Those were the years when “stride” piano came into its own.
Philadelphia-born Charles Roberts “Luckey” was in many ways the “founder” of the New York school of pianists. He was the first Harlem pianist to be published (Junk Man Rag, 1913) and recorded (october 1916). His most famous and difficult tune was Ripples of the Nile(1912), reworked as Moon Light Cocktail (may 1942) for Glenn Miller. He also composed classical music: a three-movement Spanish Suite (1939), and the “miniature syncopated rhapsody” for piano and orchestra Whistlin’ Pete (1941).
Jazz music appropriated the instruments that were popular in the community, such as the brass bands of New Orleans. New York (and particularly Harlem, which was rapidly becoming a black ghetto) did not have a musical culture based on brass bands but rather one based on the piano, an instrument that had become extremely popular everywhere during the first decade, and even so in the big cities of the Northeast.
Of course, ragtime was the main driver for piano sales in New York. Ragtime pianist and composer Eubie Blake best represents the link between ragtime and “stride”.
The latter was a style that developed in response to the need of providing both rhythm and melody: the left hand was in charge of the beat, but it was allowed to “stride” all over the keyboard to enliven the piece, while the right hand improvised difficult melodic figures.
Stride piano produced an “orchestral” sound, the sound of pianists who could not afford a backing band. Despite the brisk pace and the syncopation, stride piano was also important in providing the foundations to bring jazz and classical music. These pianists were aware of and intrigued by the European musical tradition.
Kansas City bandleader Count Basie played piano like a bluesier – and more tightly edited – Waller, while Ohio’s Art Tatum resembled a faster and more torrentially virtuosic one. Tatum, who was active between the late 1920s and 1957, is widely regarded as the most technically complete jazz pianist ever. He has few peers, including the recently departed Canadian legend Oscar Peterson, the Jamaican pianist Monty Alexander, and the most formidable yet relaxed virtuoso, Errol Garner. Bebop, a more intense, technical and harmonically subtle approach, turned everything in jazz on its head in the early 1940s.
By 1960 rock had displaced jazz’s dominance of pop. Jazz hit back by adopting rock and funk rhythms – particularly in Hammond organ bands led by virtuosi including bop-pianist-turned-organ-blaster Jimmy Smith. Jazz’s admission of the Hammond, with its what-the-hell, sound-generating openness, opened the genre up to Moog synthesisers, computer music and more.
Herbie Hancock began playing Fender’s chiming Rhodes keyboard on Miles Davis records in the late 1960s, and the instrument – with exponents such as Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul – dominated the jazz-rock style throughout the 1970s.
Let’s investigate now the top 6 jazz pianists of all time:
6. Oscar Peterson
Born in Montreal, Canada on August 15, 1925, Oscar Peterson was a famous jazz pianist in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. He moved to the U.S. in 1949 and appeared at Carnegie Hall and began touring with Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic troupe. He teamed up with some of the best jazz musicians at the time. His recordings won eight Grammy Awards. He performed publically until 2006 and died one year later.
5. Bud Powell
You can be sure that Bud Powell was the pinnacle of bebop pianists. Everybody who plays modern jazz piano is either influenced by him or by someone else who studied his playing. If you want to learn more abut bebop, listen to saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Pianist Thelonious Monk was another great creator of the bebop style, although he chose to go in a unique stylistic direction.
4. Keith Jarrett
Keith Jarrett’s most unique contribution to jazz may perhaps be his improvised solo concerts. His trio playing, as you can see in this video, is more of an example of how a pianist can create a highly personal expression within the mainstream jazz tradition. Jarrett‘s playing is a favorite of very many musicians, including myself. If you like this video, be sure to check out his solo playing also.
3. Chick Corea
Chick literally has it all. He has an amazing ability to mix post bop sounds with latin rhythms, clusters, incredible chord voicings, a virtuosic control of harmony and substitutions. Every time I see Chick live he brings something new to the table. Interestingly, Chick is yet another legendary jazz musician who early in his career worked with Miles Davis.
2. Bill Evans
Bill Evans completely revolutionized the jazz piano world with his signature style. He was able to combine his early 20th century classical influences (Debussy, Ravel, Bartok) with an incredibly swinging bebop style. Bill was also one of the first jazz piano players to start using rootless chord voicings in their left hand.
This gave the bass player a lot more freedom to create more interesting lines and improvisations. Bill’s playing was hugely influential on so many jazz pianists including modern greats like Brad Mehldau, Fred Hersch, and Joanne Brackeen.
1. Thelonious Monk
The best way to describe Thelonious Monk would be to say that if Picasso’s work was musical, it would sound like Monk. The first time I heard it was in a record shop in Bristol while hunting for new sounds. I found his to be so angular, like tiny piano mazes, in which you lose yourself without realizing.
I was freaked out. It’s minimalist and child-like, but deceptively so, because underneath is a raw complexity which you only get after several listening. Since my peers were listening to pop, Monk was a private pleasure. Black culture in the middle of Wiltshire: that’s what I experienced behind closed doors.
Thank you for reading this article about the top jazz pianists of all time. Do not forget to read our next one will be about the top jazz drummers of all time.