Scott Joplin...Earl Hines...Art Tatum...
Teddy Wilson...Bud Powell...Nat "King" Cole...
Thelonious Monk...Oscar Peterson...Bill Evans...
Marion McPartland...Dave Bruebeck...Amahd Jahmal...


According to John Mehegan...noted teacher of jazz...piano improvisation led the way from 1900 to the present for the structure of Jazz. The birth of jazz really happened in the '20s as a culmination of music styles beginning about 1900. From 1900 to mid 1920's the styles were: RAGTIME, MINSTREL, VAUDEVILLE, BARREL HOUSE and NOVELTY.

The most important musician in this period was undoubtably Scott Joplin.

Joplin didn't create Ragtime but he was the first to write and publish it. It was a hit in both the U.S.A. and Europe. The syncopated right hand linked with the heavy octave-chord, octave-chord left hand was a perfect foundation for future improvisation.

Scott Joplin (1868-1917) (Excerpt taken from Ragtime, Its History, Composers, and Music by John Edward Haase)

Scott Joplin, once lost to obscurity, has finally found his place in the sun and been accorded his rightful position as one of the first truly American composers. He was one of the nation's music pioneers, for he was the first to develop fully that pianistic form which could be considered the initial American art form, the piano rag.

On the one hand, it is amazing that it took such a long time for the genius of this black composer to be recognized; on the other, his recent rise from obscurity symbolizes the prevailing attitudes of our past and present society. The continuing interest in Joplin is clearly based on the fact that the musical world has finally come to realize the uniqueness of his contributions to music. (1) From The Black Perspective in Music, Spring 1975; pp. 45-52;

Joplin composed and published over 60 pieces including 41 piano rags and other songs, marches, a ballet, and two operas: "A Guest Of Honor (c1899)" and "Treemonisha" (1911). His big hit was the classic "Maple leaf Rag" In 1911 Joplin suffered a nervous breakdown. In 1916 he was "admitted" to a mental hospital where he died 4-1-1917, from pneumonia.

Click here listen to Maple Leaf Rag

Other greats during this period were

1920 to 1930

Ossip Gabrilowitsch, the renowned classical improvisor of the early twentieth century, once commented that no man could hope to subdue the piano, but he added, that if it is approached with great affection and humility, it sometimes gives back small moments of truth.

Earl Hines(1903-1983) experienced those moments of truth and is now recognized as the first modern jazz pianist. He developed a style of rhythms, accents and chord structures, in the mid Twenties, that was then considered unusual.

Earl Hines was an influential pianist and bandleader who helped launch the careers of Dizzie Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Sarah Vaughn, and Billy Eckstine.

Hines' started playing professionally around 1921 in Pittsburgh. In 1923 Hines moved to Chicago where...in 1926... he he met Louis Armstrong at the local musician's union hall and the two became friends. It was the melodic improvisations of Louis Armstrong (on trumpet) that inspired Hines to free his right hand from the traditional mannerisms of ragtime and develop a new style. That style was essentially to create new melodies to fit the standard chords.

Hines dropped out of the Jazz scene in the early 1950's but staged a major comeback in 1964 that lasted through the rest of his career. Among his famous compositions are "Rosetta," "Piano Man," A Monday Date" and "Boogie Woogie on the St. Louis Blues."

Click here for Hines' St. Louis Blues Boogie.

Other greats during the 1920's were:

1930 to 1940

Art Tatum, (1909-1956) who came from a musical family, began studying and performing music at an early age. His piano teacher, Overton G. Rainey, encouraged him to use his talents pursuing a career in classical music as a concert pianist. However, Tatum, who was a follower of James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, decided to enter the field of Jazz . Johnson and Waller were the originators of the left-hand Stride method...the beginning of Swing

At the age of 18 Tatum began his professional career playing interludes on a Toledo radio station. He moved to New York in 1932. Tatum was well known for his competitive Jam sessions with other top pianists of the day.

Tatum was a pre-bop player whose rhythm was rooted in stride and swing. Because of his training in Classical music, he could run right-hand scales at an almost unbelievable pace. He became known as the Piano Players "Player" by his peers. Tatum had a great influence on Jazz because of his melodic and harmonic improvisations.

Teddy Wilson:Nov.24,1912-July 31,1986.
Wilson and Tatum utilized the innovations of the Harlem school which were particlarly applicable to the left-hand structure. The first organization of the "Scale-Tone Tenth System" was developed by Wilson. A "Tenth" is a displaced third (of a chord) played an octave higher. The left hand span is ten notes not rolled or broken.

The system connected two root position chords with long bass lines rich in harmonic implication...of a more complicated nature than that employed by contemporary pianists.(John Mehegan:1964)

Wilson had the distinction of being a member of the first interracial ensemble to perform in puplic when he was hired by Benny Goodman...along with Lionel Hampton for his small combo which also included drummer Gene Krupa.

Click here for Tatums' "Aint Misbehavin".

Other greats during the 1930's were:

1940-1950...THE BEBOP PERIOD

From "Swing and Early Progresive Piano Styles":John Mehegan said..."Wilson (Teddy) was primarily concerned with form and architecture; Tatum with an incredible content of new ideas and feelings which were to pave the way for succeeding developments. Both Wilson and Tatum carried the evolution of swing-bass through probably a century of classical harmony idioms only to hear the entire ediface topple before their ears under the smashing assault of Bud Powell, Nat Cole and Thelonious Monk. (1964)

Earl "Bud" Powell (1924 - 1966) Pianist, Composer Bud Powell ( page at Warner Bros. JazzSpace ) "I wish [be-bop] had been given a name more in keeping with the seriousness of purpose." - Earl Bud Powell "Powell is one of the key figures in the creation of the music that came to be known as bebop, and at his best he was a pianist of unrivaled brilliance. His unique style was an amalgam of his own favourite piano players - Billy Kyle, Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines and Art Tatum.

His total emotional commitment, at times quite ferocious, with an unrelenting sense of urgency, most particularly on the up-tempo numbers, comes through on every recording he ever made, so much so that the listener cannot remain indifferent." - Mike Baillie

Nat "King" Cole.
Born 3/17/1917 in Montgomery, AL- Died 2/15/1965 in Santa Monica, CA

Nat King Cole had two overlapping careers. He was one of the truly great swing pianists, inspired by Earl Hines and having a big influence on Oscar Peterson. And he was a superb pop ballad singer whose great commercial success in that field unfortunately resulted in him greatly de-emphasizing his piano after 1949. Nat Cole grew up in Chicago and by the time he was 12 he was playing organ and singing in church. After making his recording debut with Eddie Cole's Solid Swingers in 1936, he left Chicago and settled in Los Angeles where he put together a trio with guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Wesley Prince and eventually settled in for a long residency in Hollywood.

By the time the Trio had its first opportunity to record for Decca, in December 1940, Nat King Cole had begun singing. "Sweet Lorraine" resulted from that session and the Trio soon became quite popular. In future years Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson and Ahmad Jamal would all form piano/guitar/bass combos inspired by Cole's group.

Nat Cole recorded a great deal of exciting jazz during the 1940s. However his career changed permanently in early 1950 with the recording of "Mona Lisa" which became a number one hit. Suddenly Nat King Cole became famous to the nonjazz public as a singer, and many new fans never realized that he also played piano! During the 1950s and '60s he mostly recorded pop ballads although there were a few exceptions (including 1956's After Midnight album) and he never lost his ability to play stimulating jazz.

The world mourned Nat King Cole's death from lung cancer in early 1965 at age 47. ~ Scott Yanow,(abridged) All-Music Guide.

From:"All-Music Guide" Thelonious Sphere Monk Born 10/10/1917 in Rocky Mount, NC Died 2/17/1982 in Weehawken, NJ

The most important jazz musicians are the ones who are successful in creating their own original world of music with its own rules, logic and surprises. Thelonious Monk, who was criticized by observers who failed to listen to his music on its own terms, suffered through a decade of neglect before he was suddenly acclaimed as a genius.

Thelonious Monk grew up in New York, started playing piano when he was around five and had his first job touring as an accompanist to an evangelist. He was inspired by the Harlem stride pianists ( James P. Johnson was a neighbor) and vestiges of that idiom can be heard in his later unaccompanied solos. However when he was playing in the house band of Minton's Playhouse during 1940-43, Monk was searching for his own individual style.

The 1945-54 period was very difficult for Thelonious Monk. Because he left a lot of space in his rhythmic solos and had an unusual technique, many people thought that he was an inferior pianist. His compositions were so advanced that the lazier bebop players (although not Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker) assumed that he was crazy. And Thelonious Monk's name, appearance (he liked funny hats) and personality (an occasionally uncommunicative introvert) helped to brand him as some kind of nut.

In 1973 he suddenly retired. Monk was suffering from mental illness. Some of Thelonious Monk's songs became standards early on, most notably "'Round Midnight," "Straight No Chaser," "52nd Street Theme" and "Blue Monk,". ( Scott Yanow, All-Music Guide...abridged)

Other greats of the 1940's...

1950's and '60's
The Bebop Styles...New Improvisations.

Oscar Emmanuel Peterson (1925- ) born in Montreal, Quebec began playing trumpet and piano at age five, but abandoned the trumpet at age seven.He formed his first trio in 1947, which began weekly radio broadcasts from Montreal's Alberta Lounge. In 1949 he met jazz impresario Norman Granz, who became his manager. Granz brought Peterson to the United States for a 1949 concert in Carnegie Hall, followed by two tours with Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic.

Peterson launched a new trio in 1953 with American bassist Ray Brown and American guitarist Herb Ellis. Ellis left the trio in 1959 and was replaced by a drummer, Ed Thigpen. This trio lasted until 1965.

Peterson has won seven Grammy awards (1974, 1975, 1978, 1979, and 2 in 1990, 1991). He was greatly influenced by Nat "King" Cole, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, and Charlie Parker.

Bill Evans (Aug. 16,1929-Sept. 15, 1980)
"I believe in things that are developed through hard work. I always like people who have developed long and hard, especially through introspection and a lot of dedication. I think what they arrive at is usually a much deeper and more beautiful thing than the person who seems to have that ability and fluidity from the beginning. I say this because it's a good message to give to young talents who feel as I used to." - Bill Evans excerpted from Contemporary Keyboard, January 1981

William John Evans was born August 16, 1929, in Plainfield, New Jersey. Bill's father, of Welsh descent,  grew up in Philadelphia. His mother, whose maiden name was Siroka, was of Russian heritage.

  Bill had an older brother, Harry Evans Jr,. Both sons were encouraged to pursue music in spite of the fact that neither parent played an instrument. Since Harry was studying piano, the younger Bill was encouraged to take up the violin. When Harry's piano teacher came to the house to give lessons, Bill would stand by out of sight and listen. When the lesson was finished, Bill would go to the piano and play what he had heard, not yet knowing how to read a note of music. It became apparent that Bill would also need piano lessons and the violin was put in the closet. 

In addition to playing his brother's classical repertoire by ear, Bill would improvise at the piano, often imitating the dance and big band music he heard on the radio. Although Bill Evans never overcame his problem with drug addiction...and died at a relatively young age...his contribution to progressive jazz will never be forgotten.

MARIAN McPARTLAND:b. Marian Margaret Turner, 20 March 1920, Windsor, Berkshire, England. Prior to World War II, McPartland played British music halls as a member of a four-piano group led by Billy Mayer. While touring with ENSA (the British equivalent of America's USO), she met and married the great trumpet player Jimmy McPartland.

At the end of the war she went to the USA with her husband, quickly establishing a reputation in her own right. During the late 40s and throughout the following decade, she worked steadily, usually leading a trio, holding down several long residencies, notably an eight-year spell at the Hickory House.

During the 60s and 70s she developed a long-lasting interest in education, established her own recording company, Halcyon Records, performed extensively in clubs and at festivals and also began parallel careers as a writer and broadcaster on jazz.

A very gifted pianist, rhythmically near-perfect and with a seemingly endless capacity for intelligent improvising, her long-running radio show, Piano Jazz, has helped establish her as one of the best-known jazz artists in America. Although relatively little known in the country of her birth, McPartland continues to prove herself to be one of the outstanding pianists in jazz.

A collection of her articles on jazz, "All in Good Time," was published in 1987. Much of her career is devoted to education. McPartland believes that PIANO JAZZ provides the perfect forum for reaching out to both the jazz aficionado and the novice. She also tirelessly travels the country giving lectures, master classes and concerts for colleges and universities.

b. David Warren Brubeck, 6 December 1920, Concord, California, USA. Initially taught piano by his mother, Brubeck showed an immediate flair for the instrument, and was performing with local professional jazz groups throughout northern California at the age of 15 while still at high school.

Enrolling at the College of the Pacific in Stockton, California, as a veterinary major, he transferred to the music conservatory at the suggestion of his college advisor. His involvement in jazz continued by establishing a 12-piece band, but most of his time was spent in the study of theory and composition.

After he graduated from Pacific, Brubeck decided to continue his formal classical training. His studying was interrupted by military service in World War II. Returning from Europe in 1946, he went to Mills College as a graduate student under the tutorship of Darius Milhaud, and at about this time he formed his first serious jazz group - the Jazz Workshop Ensemble, an eight-piece unit that recorded some sessions, the results of which were issued three years later on Fantasy Records as the Dave Brubeck Octet. Always seeing himself primarily as a composer rather than a pianist, Brubeck, in his own solos, tended to rely too much on his ability to work in complex time-signatures (often two at once). His work in the field of composition has produced over 300 pieces, including several jazz standards such as the magnificent 'Blue Rondo A La Turk', as well as 'In Your Own Sweet Way' and 'The Duke'.

b. Fritz Jones, (a.k.a. Ahmad Jamal) 2 July 1930, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. A professional pianist from before his teenage years, Jamal (who changed his name in the early 50s) managed to break through to a wider audience than most jazz artists. His trio work produced many excellent recordings and his accompanists included Israel Crosby.

The most influential of his advocates was Miles Davis, who recognized Jamal's interesting rhythmic concepts as being something which he could incorporate into his own work. Jamal worked extensively in the USA throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s, usually in trio format but occasionally with larger backing for record dates, and also appeared with Gary Burton.

Jamal is an important figure among mainstream pianists and their post-bop successors, mainly as a result of the indirect influence he has had through Davis. A lyrical, gently swinging musician, Jamal's playing is a constant delight.

Other greats of the 1950's and'60's:

...AND THE BEAT GOES ON. Although this site emphasizes the history of traditional jazz the piano artists of the past 20 years keep contributing to the language of IMPROVISATION.
The list includes:


Sign My Guestbook Guestbook by GuestWorld View My Guestbook

get this gear!