What a delight this book is! It’s not an introduction to the subject but a feast for gourmets who already have a taste for the cooking of James P., Fats, the Lion and many of the other pianists along the road from ragtime to swing. The book is deceptive; the chapters trace the careers and recordings of the many protagonists in an almost desultory style, with many a delightful side trip, and it takes a while to realize that a coherent overall view is being slowly filled in. Early chapters move through subjects important to the evolution of stride, like tap dancing and early minstrel banjo music, and later ones detail the way stride players like Bill Basie let the style go in order to make the swing rhythm section a more cohesive unit. The crucial impact of Earl Hines is noted; even though Hines was the first pianist whose left hand wasn’t locked into the patterns that give the style its name, stride influenced him and he influenced subsequent striders. Another chapter traces the influence of stride on Ellington’s arranging style. Even Monk’s highly personal use of the style is noted, in terms that are generally quite even-handed. The fact that there are also several transcriptions will tickle ambitious ticklers.
This would be a great book even without its overall cohesiveness. There is an enormous amount of out-of-the-way information (the fact that the tune title “That’s A-Plenty” was a reference to the earlier “Too Much Mustard” is a favorite tidbit). There are wonderful anecdotes, like the story of Art Tatum cutting Johnson and Waller in a piano battle, which led to a call for reinforcements in the person of Donald “The Lamb” Lambert, who came, listened to Tatum and pronounced, “A person has to excuse you, seeing that you don’t see so well. Move over. I’ll show you how it’s done.” And he did.
Even the appendices (including lists of compositions by Waller, Smith and Lucky Roberts) are a gas. Information about recordings is extensive, though without any claim to completeness. I was surprised that there was no reference to the Cliff Jackson LP on Retrieval, and assume that a few other obscurities may have slipped through the cracks, but given the hundreds of invaluable tips for record hunters here, no one should mind the odd omission.
I hated to finish the text, but plan many an edifying return.