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Piano Styles—Ragtime to Boogie-Woogie

Chapter Summary

The Birth of Ragtime

Ragtime is said to have originated in Sedalia, Missouri. Ragtime, a solo style of piano playing, is considered to be outside the jazz tradition because it is composed before it is performed and involves no improvisation. However, the music, with its use of syncopation, does have an “improvisatory feel.” Ragtime displays a definite separation of the hands at the piano. The left hand played both bass and chords and the right hand the melodic parts.

The general public first became aware of ragtime during a series of world’s fairs held in Chicago, Omaha, Buffalo, and other cities. Ragtime flourished for over twenty years and players were both black and white.

Scott Joplin (1868–1917) was the most prolific composer of ragtime music. Known as the “King of Ragtime,” Joplin composed about 600 rags and published around 50 of them. He also composed a symphony and 2 operas.

The best-known ragtime piano player is Jelly Roll Morton (1890–1941). Morton claims that he originated jazz in 1902 as well as ragtime, swing, and other jazz styles. Although his boasting falls short of the truth, Morton’s contribution to jazz is nonetheless considerable. He formed his own orchestra, Jelly Roll Morton and His Red Hot Peppers, and was an ideal ragtime bandleader. Morton was an excellent piano player, a creative and knowledgeable arranger, and a fair singer. In Jelly Roll Morton, we see for the first time in jazz that the personality of a performing musician is more important than the material contributed by the composer.

Ragtime and Dixieland Merge

Two important changes resulted from the blending of these styles. First, the basic melodic concept of the rags was changed. The first melody became the verse, the second and third melodies were omitted and the fourth became a repeated chorus and the basis for improvisation. Second, the rhythmic accentuation to the rags was carried over into Dixieland jazz. Here, the rhythm changed form a flat four to a two-four rhythm.

Ragtime Lives On

Ragtime is still played today and recordings are available from several sources. These include recordings of ragtime played today on a tack piano, repressing of old master recordings, and original recordings by old-timers like Eubie Blake.

Stride Piano

There are three basic differences between stride piano playing and ragtime. First, stride players were not at all concerned with ragtime form and played popular tunes of the day. Second, original ragtime was a composed music. Stride players were often very proficient improvisers and used this in their performance. Third, the feeling of stride music was intense. Stride pianists played faster and with much more drive than the relaxed players of ragtime.

James P. Johnson (1891–1955), considered to be the “father of stride piano,” was the most famous stride pianist. He composed the famous tune Charleston. Thomas “Fats” Waller (1904–1943) also made important contributions to the Stride piano style. He was a student of James P. Johnson and is considered the most entertaining and exciting stride piano player. Stride pianist Art Tatum (1909–1956) is commonly believed to be the most versatile piano player in the history of jazz. The pianist, who was almost completely blind, introduced advanced harmonies into jazz. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences awarded him a posthumous Grammy in 1974.


Boogie-woogie is another piano style important in the evolution of jazz and came into prominence as early as the 1930s. The rhythm is based on playing eight beats to the bar. The most identifying feature is the eight beats to a bar that are played as an ostinato. Ostinato is a melodic figure that recurs throughout the music in the bass part.

There are two distinct methods of boogie-woogie playing. In the first, the left hand plays full, moving chords. In the second, the left hand plays a walking bass line, outlining chords in a melodic fashion. In both, the right hand is kept free for melodic interpretation or improvisation. Boogie-woogie has been called “8 over 4.” The main feature of this style is rhythmic virtuosity.

The left and right hand operate so independently that boogie-woogie often sounds as if it is performed by two pianists instead of one. Boogie-woogie was usually played by untrained pianists, many of whom could not read music. These players simply listened and developed a full style of playing.


The boogie-woogie piano style developed from a guitar technique used in mining, logging, and turpentine camps. The technique used three guitars. The first guitar picked out an improvised melody, the second guitar played the chords, and the third guitar played the bass line. To imitate three guitars at one time, piano players had to develop a very full style. The right hand played the melodic improvisation while the left hand substituted for the other two guitars.

Later Developments

Boogie-woogie laid the groundwork for some later musical styles both inside and outside of jazz. The left-hand rhythm of boogie-woogie is similar to the “shuffle rhythm” used later by rhythm-and-blues artists and early rock songwriters like Jim Croce (Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown). Boogie-woogie appeared again during the revival of swing in the late 1990s presented by artists such as Brian Setzer (The Dirty Boogie).

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