The History of Jazz cannot make any claim any sort of hierarchy of instruments has ever been established. However, it is true that certain instruments took more of the spotlight in certain periods of time. During the era of New Orleans (1900-1929) the trumpet took on a predominant role, followed closely by the clarinet. Later, during the Swing Era, from 1935 on, the tenor saxophone began to acquire a growing importance within the bands and by the forties, tenor sax had become the king of the instruments.
While it cannot be said that the piano had its own periods, it is a fact that over the entire history of the popular music of African-Americans, it has been a constant presence of undeniable importance.
Even before the appearance of Jazz proper as instrumental music, compositions for piano known as Ragtime had a vast number of performers. The interpretations of those piano players, who were overwhelmingly black or creole, had already laid down the rhythmic pulse that would define jazz music. This instrument always had deep roots in the blues, the epitome of musical expression of the African-American community of the time. This was especially true within what was known as “urban blues”, where the was piano constant presence both as a solo instrument and an instrument of accompaniment. It was out of those settings that arose one of the most characteristic styles of jazz piano: boogie woogie, a style that was again marked by the dynamism of the left hand, and that would lead to many modern rhythms such as that of Rock and Roll.
In the 1920s, New York City’s Harlem borough saw the birth of the stride piano style playing, which was likewise characterized by continually bouncing movements of the player’s left hand.
Many individual piano playing styles were created by performers of particular charisma and personality, such as Jelly Roll Morton, Earl Hines, James P. Johnson, Willie The Lion Smith, Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Milt Buckner (creator of the block chords style), Avery Parrish, Nat King Cole, Erroll Garner, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson, Ray Bryant, Ahmad Jamal, and so many, many more. Each and every one had an influence on the many pianists of note who have arisen in each of the successive periods, right through to today.
The presence of the piano was also important in big band jazz and some of its most famous band leaders were magnificent piano players who directed their ensembles from behind the keyboard: Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, Count Basie, etc.
In the days before the radio and the gramophone, there was a slogan advertising pianos that asked: What Is A Home Without Piano! We could ask: What Is Jazz Without Piano!
Ricard Gili, Fundació Catalana Jazz Clàssic