Interview: Helen Merrill (Part 4) - JazzWax

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February 05, 2009


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Agustín Pérez

Thanks for this very long and in depth interview with Helen Merrill, who happens to be one of my favorite jazz singers. Despite the technical flaws that Larry Kart pointed out in another comment, her velvet voice and her very personal approach to singing have always appealed to me.

Regarding your comments on Earl Hines and Teddy Wilson being "stride piano" players, they certainly were not. In fact, both Wilson's and Hines' pianism always swung, and specially Earl Hines always had an incredible independence of hands, but their approach to jazz piano was more linear than the "orchestral" approach of the early stride masters (James P. Johnson, Willie The Lion Smith -who was the least "strider" and most impressionist of them all-, Donald Lambert, Luckey Roberts or Fats Waller).I'm not saying they could not play stride (as Art Tatum, Billy Taylor and even Thelonious Monk could), but they were not stride pianists, that's for sure!

As for the video of their duo performance you posted in the first part of this interview (Berlin Piano Jazz Workshop 1965, which I strongly recommend) they certainly are not striding, this is, they are not playing those left hand patterns, which consisted in alternating tenths, eights or single notes (though these last two were already ragtime devices) in the lower register of the piano on beats one and three and middle-register chords on beats two and four, creating that oom-pah swinging effect. The long distance between them (even two octaves) makes the "stride".

Best regards,
Agustín Pérez

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  • Marc Myers writes regularly for The Wall Street Journal and is author of "Anatomy of 55 More Songs," "Anatomy of a Song," "Rock Concert: An Oral History" and "Why Jazz Happened." Founded in 2007, JazzWax has won three Jazz Journalists Association awards.
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