Carolina Shout - PDF
Carolina Shout - PDF
Toe-tappingly wonderful stride piano style that sounds harder than it is to play.
By James P. Johnson. Arranged and edited by Bradley Sowash
James P. Johnson
Often called the “father of stride piano,” James P. Johnson is considered the most influential American pianist of the musical era between classic ragtime and jazz. He wrote many popular tunes in the 1920-30s including Carolina Shout, Snowy Morning Blues and his best-known work, The Charleston, the celebrated theme of the roaring 20’s. Variations and surprises being more the rule than the exception in his playing, Johnson paved the way for the even more heavily improvised jazz styles to follow in the evolution of American piano music.
Stride piano (aka Harlem stride) refers to a style in which the pianist’s left hand alternates low single note or octave “booms” with mid-range chord “chicks” under syncopated right-hand melodies. Johnson didn’t invent stride piano, but he extended it by mixing up the predictable boom-chick-boom-chick patterns of ragtime. Notice, for example, the boom-boom-chick-boom in measure 26 or the rapidly alternating hands beginning in measure 73.
I became interested in learning the Carolina Shout when I heard Fats Waller, Art Tatum, and Count Basie were influenced by Johnson’s music and that Duke Ellington was said to have learned to play by placing his fingers over the moving keys as his parent’s mechanical “player” piano played this tune.
While searching for a published version of Carolina Shout, I managed to locate a smudged and torn copy in the New York City library. They wouldn’t let me take it out so I copied it by hand filling in the places too worn to read. Later, I found an academic transcription but many of the details were different. Then, I listened to recordings of Johnson’s piano rolls which were also full of inconsistencies. What I learned was that, unlike ragtime, James P. Johnson’s music was never intended for literal performance.
That realization gave me the permission I needed to arrange Carolina Shout according to my own tastes and preferences. The result is an approximation of what I found in transcriptions, what I heard Johnson play, and what worked best for the way I play piano. For you, this means that there is no obligation to take every note seriously. I certainly find my hands “doing their own thing” each time I play it. Want to play single notes instead of written octaves? Want to change up right-hand syncopations, roll some chords, or add ornaments? I’m sure Johnson would have approved. About the only inviolable “rule” is to maintain a steady beat since the restless momentum of stride piano is arguably the most salient reason it’s so toe-tappingly wonderful to hear and play.