Jazz took the playful spirit of ragtime and boogie and injected a new earthiness. Suddenly, the music seemed to wink at its listeners, as if acknowledging an erotic spark at the heart of every performance.
Writer Eudora Welty captured the essence perfectly in Powerhouse, her tribute to Thomas “Fats” Waller (1903–1943): He is in motion every moment—what could be more obscene?
There he is with his great head, fat stomach, and little round piston legs, and long yellow-sectioned strong big ɹngers, at rest about the size of bananas. Of course you know how he sounds—you’ve heard him on records—but still you need to see him. He’s going all the time, like skating around the skating rink …
Then all quietly he lays his ɹnger on a key with the promise and serenity of a sibyl touching the book. Powerhouse is so monstrous he sends everybody into oblivion.
Waller and his close friends James P. Johnson and Willie “the Lion” Smith formed the triumvirate at the center of the powerful Harlem “stride” school of piano playing. The Lion (a name he earned through his fearless soldiering in the Great War) had a nickname for each of his colleagues: Johnson, who “was kind of naïve and easygoing,” became “The Brute”; Waller was “Filthy.”
They were inseparable, and each became a big draw in the black-and-tan clubs, establishments referred to by gossip columnist Walter Winchell as “sepia sin spots,” and at Harlem rent parties, where the playing had now reached new levels of virtuosity. “It got so we never stopped and we were up and down Fifth, Seventh, and Lenox all night long hitting the keys,” remembered Smith.
The friendly competition pushed each musician to develop a personal style. “My way was to get a cigar clenched between my teeth,” related Smith, “my derby tilted back, knees crossed, and my back arched at a sharp angle against the back of the chair. I’d cuss at the keyboard and then caress it with endearing words; a pianist who growls, hums, and talks to the piano is a guy who is trying hard to create something for himself.” Each party drew a diʃerent kind of crowd, from “formally dressed society folks” to truck drivers, gamblers, and entertainers.
But none could compare with those thrown by Park Avenue socialites, who began inviting the troika to their events after the Harlem musicians forged a lasting friendship with pianist/composer George Gershwin. Gershwin was a frequent patron of the Harlem clubs, and deeply admired the musicianship of all three pianists. He put the word out to his acquaintances, who often made use of their talents.
Yet it wasn’t always smooth sailing. The three pianists would often be doted over by partygoers and inspected like rare birds from a distant shore: “We felt like a couple of whores being interviewed by a high school reporter,” said Smith. At one particularly fancy party given in 1924 to celebrate the premiere of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, they found themselves adrift at the bar. Back in that time, guitars have only started becoming popular in jazz music. There didn’t exist any easy guitar songs for beginner back in that time – jazz music is complicated in terms of music theory.
Gershwin had typically seated himself at the piano and was threatening to stay there all night. (Once he wondered aloud if his music would still be performed in a hundred years. “It will be if W you’re still around!” murmured his friend Oscar Levant.) The Lion was forced to take action. “I finally went over and said to Gershwin, ‘Get up off that piano stool and let the real players take over, you tomato.’ ”
The good-natured star simply smiled and vacated his spot. Smith felt right at home with Gershwin. The two had grown up in similar surroundings, and the Lion had even learned Yiddish as a young boy while working for Jewish shopkeepers. Indeed, he eventually converted, and late in life advertised his services in Harlem as a Jewish cantor.