What causes a piano tune to tap your feet? The answer may be the well- known song title “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing”, or in the comment that if you need to ask then you don’t understand the question!
Musical syncopation has at least four varieties: suspension, evennote, off- beat and anticipated bass. Each is slightly different but adds a bounce to the tune which can be readily identified if not completely or readily understood. Playing rhythm ( or syncopated) piano is not easy and it was Victoria Wood who discovered that, much though she wanted too, she could never emulate her piano hero, Fats Waller, because her hands simply weren’t big enough to cover the chords required.
Who first played rhythm piano? Scott Joplin has a claim as we can tell from the early piano roll on the accompanying CD ( see overleaf) when his ragtime style caused a sensation at the turn of the 20th century. However, it was during the Twenties and Thirties when it really came to the fore with the birth of what we now call classic or traditional jazz, when a strong piano rhythm accompaniment was often used to make a piece swing more. Would Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Tchaikovsky have approved? Probably because they knew how to write a good melody but the idea of a new syncopated tempo, which gave rise to piano genres such as stride,
barrelhouse and boogie- woogie, had yet to be invented.
Even piano geniuses like Jelly Roll Morton and Billy Mayerl were essentially one step away from true syncopation because their style, brilliant though it was, tended to embellish the tune rather than complement it. Nevertheless, it didn’t stop them using the expression, as do many modern pianists who run their nimble fingers up and down the ivories at an astonishing rate, but depart so much from the original melody that the rhythm gets lost in the translation. Billy Mayerl’s fingers were so quick they were even filmed in slow motion!
On the CD opposite we cover the bouncy rhythmic style best expressed by Fats Waller, a larger than life character but whose gymnastics on the keyboard have never been bettered. Russ Conway ( see Evergreen, Autumn 2016), is still remembered but lesser names also knew how to play swing piano, especially Charlie Kunz whose gentle but melodic playing never fails to make one’s feet tap in time to the tune. In many cases the rhythmic accompaniment also enhances the piano playing by a huge amount, especially wth Charlie.
Ivor Moreton and Dave Kaye were members of Harry Roy’s band who made many recordings on their own while Rawicz and Landauer were showmen rather than swing
pianists but had an uncanny liaison even when playing back to back, playing anything and everything. Pat Dodd and Cecil Norman came together on the long- running BBC Light Programme Music While You Work ( see Evergreen, Spring 2004), on which they always received a good reception.
George Gershwin’s legend lives on as a composer if not for his piano playing but he also knew how to handle the keys in grand rhythmic style. Patricia Rossborough trained as a classical concert pianist before being seduced by swing, while Winifred Atwell also trained as a classical pianist, referring to her honky- tonk instrument as her “other piano”. Of the remaining pianists Eddie Carroll, Arthur Young, Billy Thorburn and Ian Stewart were all band leaders while Peggy Dell is best remembered as a popular Irish singer with Roy Fox.
Fats Waller’s huge hands spanned more than an octave.
Charlie Kunz was one of the best and most popular rhythm pianists.