Preview to the Jazz Party column: Meet Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith
Preview to the Jazz Party
The piano style known as “stride” first appeared during World War I, becoming extremely popular in the 1920s 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 who claimed his birth father, Frank Bertholoff, was Jewish and that a wealthy Jewish family encouraged him to take Hebrew lessons, leading him to become Bar Mitzvahed at the age of 13.
Known as “The Lion,” he was one of the greatest stride players ever and a flamboyant performer, famous for wearing a bowler hat with a cigar stub clinched in his mouth.
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, claiming 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 superior officer “told everyone (he) … was a lion with a gun … (and the) name stuck.”
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Smith also claimed a third version of the genesis of his nickname. He explained that as a Jew, he not only had been Bar Mitzvahed, 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 was a cantor for a black Jewish congregation in Harlem, and he carried a business card with the title. On the back of the card, the same information 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.
Every year, Vail Jazz presents a series of performances that not only entertain our audiences, but also provides them with the opportunity to get an insider’s look at jazz. This year over Labor Day Weekend, the great jazz pianist Shelly Berg will present a truly unique performance — “The Multi-Media History of Stride and Boogie Woogie Piano” — that will provide an exploration of a remarkable chapter in the history of jazz. Using a big screen, Berg will demonstrate how this very rhythmically and technically challenging music is played. He will combine narrative with videos of classic performances, including one by The Lion, so the audience can gain insight into what made the legendary players so great and why stride and boogie are enjoyed today.
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of The Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Now in its 19th year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz music, culminating with the Labor Day weekend Vail Jazz Party. Visit vailjazz.org for more information.