The A-Z of the piano

We celebrate the world's most popular instrument with a look at 26 of its greatest features

J is for Jelly Roll Morton, Joplin, and other jazz piano pioneers

Some say you can hear the earliest example of jazz piano in the last movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 111. But its real origins come from two separate American sources: the barrelhouse piano from the dawn of the 20th century in which broken-down, out-of-tune joannas in shanty-town bars imitated the rhythmic devices of the guitar; and the white man’s buoyant march rhythms (epitomised by those of Sousa) appropriated by black bordello pianists with the application of habitual syncopation, music that came to be known as ragtime.


The first great exponent was Scott Joplin whose 'Maple Leaf Rag' sold tens of thousands. He was followed by Jelly Roll Morton whose music is a fusion of ragtime and barrelhouse. James P Johnson unleashed a pounding left hand heralding a school of ‘stride’ pianists, the most famous of whom was ‘Fats’ Waller. Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith, Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines, Teddy Wilson and Mary Lou Williams all then developed styles influenced by their predecessors, but none more so than the almost-blind Art Tatum, the greatest jazz pianist of his era.