Judy Carmichael on Stride Piano Favorites
Today’s top jazz performers pick 10 favorite tracks by the players, singers and styles that helped define them.
When people hear me play, they often tell me, “You sure don’t look the part,” referring to their vision of a stride pianist as a Fats Waller look-alike. But I do look like a stride pianist—happy and energetic and, I like to think, full of humor. These are the things that attracted me to stride piano, a style that makes you feel better if you’re down and fantastic if you’re already in a good mood.
The recordings below are by pianists with disparate social and musical backgrounds. But they all share the humor, swing and power that makes stride appealing and timeless to everyone who hears it.
“Handful of Keys”
Thomas “Fats” Waller (Bluebird, rec. 1935)
Fats recorded this a number of times, each equally enjoyable for different reasons. This is the tune everyone (myself included) had to learn to prove they can play stride. The first time I sat in was at Eddie Condon’s in New York City, and after I told Roy Eldridge, “I’m a stride pianist,” he pointed at the piano onstage and replied, “Prove it! Go play ‘Handful of Keys.’” I’ve read that this same test was put to Ellington and Basie to prove their stride prowess.
“I Got Rhythm”
Fats Waller and His Orchestra (Victor, rec. 1938)
A spectacular example of the power, swing and joy of great stride piano. The bonus here is the interplay between Fats and Hank Duncan, competing on the two pianos. You hear Fats shouting at Hank that he’s trying to “get something from me.”
“Prince of Wales”
Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra
(Count Basie, piano) (Victor, rec. 1932)
This is the Moten band’s final session, showing the early stages of what would become known as the “Basie sound” four years before Basie would record under his own name. This is the first time I heard stride playing, and Basie was a master of it. I think he could only have developed his sophisticated, spare, abstract, unstoppably swinging style by studying stride.
Cy Walter (Apollo, rec. 1945)
Cy was a “society pianist” in New York City (and sometimes called the “Park Avenue Tatum”). He had a classical background and the harmonic knowledge and technique to prove it. His unexpected, wacky musical choices make me laugh every time I hear him. I play this track for everyone who will listen.
Art Tatum Trio (V-Disc, rec. 1945)
I love Art Tatum, but unlike many, I prefer hearing him with other musicians. “Liza,” with Slam Stewart and Tiny Grimes, is a great opportunity to hear how Tatum interacts and comps. One of my favorite recordings is a 1945 live radio broadcast of Tatum playing “Cherokee” with orchestra. He strides and makes it swing and sound natural, which is extremely difficult with Tatum’s complex playing and all the orchestral voices.
“Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”
Thelonious Monk Standards (Columbia, rec. 1967)
I love Monk’s choppy way of playing stride, which would sound terrible if anyone else did it. Many pianists play stride to show off their technique, which is not what the style is about, and Monk illustrates this with this classic recording. His playing isn’t smooth, but it is swinging and loaded with humor.
James P. Johnson (OKeh, rec. 1921)
Another classic every stride pianist has to learn to prove their chops and understanding of the style. Some pianists manage to labor their way through this, but that’s not the point. It has to have the effortless, swinging quality James P. shows here.
Getting Some Fun Out of Life (Concord, 1977)
I approached stride differently than the few people I heard doing it when I first started playing, and a musician suggested I listen to Dave Frishberg, who also had a different take. Dave claims he doesn’t play stride, but this is a wonderful example of how a great player like Dave can use stride vocabulary in a surprising way.
“California Here I Come”
Mel Powell Trio
Thigamagig (Vanguard, rec. 1954)
Mel had the technical brilliance and powerful swing of his contemporaries in this style, but his playing had a sexy edge and humor I love. His exchanges with Ruby Braff here are great.
“A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody”
George Shearing (Decca, rec. 1941)
George loved stride and started out playing in this style. He would occasionally go into stride when he knew I was in the audience, to hilarious and hip effect. Epitomizing the cheeky humor of the stride vibe, George, knowing that I was sitting in the front row, turned toward me at the Blue Note once and said, “Watch this, Judy!” and then went into a crazy stride. Mind-blowing.