Program : 
W.C., James P. and Bessie: The Geography of Jazz

W. C. Handy with his 1918 Memphis Orchestra: Handy is center rear, holding trumpet. Public domain.

We think of New Orleans as the birthplace of jazz. But in the early 1900s, before anyone used the word "jazz," fresh, new forms of distinctly American music were in the air. Lilting strains of ragtime, haunting blues melodies and hot syncopated music came out of places as far away from New Orleans, New Jersey, Georgia and Tennessee.  


You could hear jazz flavor in the music of blues shouters in traveling tent shows down south, from "piano ticklers" in bar rooms up north, from street corner guitarists in Dallas, and occasionally in big-city concert halls when groups like James Reese Europe's Orchestra were on the bill.


This week Riverwalk Jazz takes a look at three early masters of American music. All three were born in the late 1800s, and they all left an indelible stamp on jazz. They've been revered and studied by generations of jazz musicians, but none of them came out of New Orleans, the traditional cradle of jazz.


W. C. Handy in the 1930s. Photo courtesy Britannica.

Born in 1873 in Florence, Alabama, W.C. Handy belongs to the first generation of African-Americans in the South after the days of slavery. He came from a middle class family that believed in the value of education. His father was a preacher, and though Handy received classical music training in the European tradition, his roots ran deep in the music of the Black church.


Handy was a young man traveling the back roads of Mississippi as a bandleader when he fell in love with the blues he heard being played by ordinary black people in the countryside. Handy went on to devote his life to composing, collecting, orchestrating and publishing blues melodies, many of which have since become jazz standards.


In 1912 thousands of white people heard genuine 12-bar blues for the first time when they bought the sheet music of Handy's own composition, "Memphis Blues" and played it for themselves. Songwriter Noble Sissle said that the New York dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle invented their famous dance craze, the "fox trot," after hearing Handy's "Memphis Blues."


In 1917, the same year that a white band from New Orleans, The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, had a huge hit with the first jazz recording, W. C. Handy moved to New York City. By then he'd written and published his most successful songs, including "Memphis Blues," "Beale Street Blues," and "St. Louis Blues."


Bessie Smith came from Blue Goose Hollow in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and rose to stardom as the highest paid black entertainer of the day. Born in 1895, Bessie grew up in a one-room wooden shack. She was an orphan before she was ten years old.


Bessie Smith. Courtesy IIP Digital.

If history gave W.C. Handy the title "Father of the Blues," it was a savvy concert promoter who dubbed Bessie Smith the "Empress of the Blues." Bessie didn't have the advantage of formal musical training like Handy, but she more than made up for it with her charisma and her ability to get the hard truth of the blues across in her songs.


Bessie's brand of blues singing sprang directly from the Southern soil and ripened at an early age by the hard life she lived. Those who heard her perform said she had her style in place by the time she was 18 years old. She learned her stuff as a street performer, singing and dancing for tips in front of saloons as her brother Andrew played guitar.


Bessie Smith embodied the blues that W.C. Handy sought to collect and compose, but Bessie owed one of her greatest successes to Handy. Her recording of Handy's "St. Louis Blues" is considered by most critics to be one of the finest recordings of the 20th century.


James P. Johnson was born in 1891 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He made hundreds of ragtime piano rolls and solo piano recordings, then spent his later life writing classical pieces. Jazz pianists as stylistically different as Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk credit James P. as a major influence on their work.


As a teenager James P. honed his skills on the piano by hanging out in sporting houses and cabarets, learning the latest tricks from piano "ticklers." He mastered ragtime and learned how to make it swing. The new "East Coast" or "Harlem stride" jazz piano style that Johnson created drew on rags, blues and his training in European classical piano techniques. Johnson's younger followers in this style were Willie "the Lion" Smith and Fats Waller.


James P. Johnson. Courtesy songbook1.wordpress.

So why do they call James P. Johnson's style of piano playing "stride"? The name comes from the way the left hand jumps between single deep bass notes—way down on the left end of the keyboard—and chords in the middle of the keyboard. Jazz historian Marshall Stearns said of Johnson's playing, "It was as if Franz Liszt had discovered ragtime."


James P. Johnson was a man of many "firsts." In 1917 he was the first African-American artist to cut a piano roll. In 1921 he made the first jazz solo piano recording on disc, his own composition, "Harlem Strut." His hit tune, "The Charleston," inspired one of the biggest dance crazes of all time, and it is still synonymous with the Jazz Age.


James P. Johnson composed many "serious" pieces for the concert hall, including his most famous—"Yamekraw," performed at Carnegie Hall in 1928 with Fats Waller at the piano.



Photo credit for home page teaser image: Bessie Smith sings W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues." Image courtesy