Vail Jazz: The lion of jazz
Inside the Vail Jazz Festival
The piano style known as “stride” first appeared during World War I, becoming extremely popular in the ’20s and ’30s. Stride can be traced to ragtime music, one of the precursors of jazz made famous by composer Scott Joplin and pianist “Jelly Roll” Morton. As stride began to evolve from ragtime, the early players began to add improvisation, blue notes and swing rhythms, elements not found in ragtime. In stride, the player’s left hand generally plays a four-beat pattern with a bass note or 10th interval on the first and third beats and a chord on the second and fourth beats, while the right hand plays melodies, riffs and often lines that are contrapuntal in nature, adding a classical flare to the music. The name “stride” comes from the pianist’s left-hand striding up and down the keyboard.
James P. Johnson, a resident of Harlem, is credited with being the Father of Stride and while the music developed in several eastern cities, it ultimately became known as Harlem Stride. Johnson, “Fats” Waller and Luckey Roberts are credited with developing stride along with the legendary William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff Smith. Born in 1893, “Willie” was an African-American that claimed that his birth father, Frank Bertholoff, was Jewish and that a wealthy Jewish family encouraged him to take Hebrew lessons, leading him to his bar mitzvah at the age of 13.
Known as “The Lion,” he was one of the greatest stride players ever and a flamboyant performer. He was famous for wearing a bowler hat with a cigar stub clinched in his mouth, smoke drifting upwards, as he leaned back from the piano and played with a “roar.”
Johnson is credited by some for giving Smith the moniker, “The Lion,” because he had a very domineering attitude at the piano. However, at various times, Smith told a different story. He claimed that during World War I, as a member of “a negro brigade,” he volunteered to move to the front and earned his nickname because a senior officer “told everyone (that he) … was a lion with a gun … (and the) name stuck.”
Smith also claimed a third version of the genesis of his nickname. He explained that as a Jew he not only had celebrated his bar mitzvah, but he could speak Hebrew and Yiddish fluently and that he had studied to be a cantor. He was quoted as saying, “a cantor’s job is mostly music. Naturally, I was great … so great that the rest of the class called me the Lion of Judea.”
In fact, he did work as a Hebrew cantor for a black Jewish congregation in Harlem and he carried a business card with his name on it, the title “Hebrew Cantor,” and other pertinent information on the front of the card. On the back of the card, the same information was included, but it was written in Hebrew.
Whatever the truth about the origin of his nickname, there is no doubt that Willie “The Lion” Smith was one of the greatest stride piano players of all time.
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival each summer and an annual Winter Jazz Series, both of which feature internationally renowned artists. In addition, Vail Jazz presents educational programs throughout the year with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’s performances and educational programs are presented free of charge. This column is readapted from the original archived edition, republished to commemorate Vail Jazz’s 25th Anniversary season in 2019. For information about upcoming performances, visit http://www.vailjazz.org.