"They are really the most difficult jazz-piano styles to play," says Bross Townsend of the Harlem "stride" of James P. Johnson, Willie (The Lion) Smith and others. "It's ragtime, but it's another way of playing ragtime. I acquired the flair of playing it from my father. I used to listen to him play it when I was a child." Townsend will offer a program of stride piano today at 3 p.m. in the Palm Court of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. The concert is part of a series in the Program in Black American Culture and is free.
Born and raised in Princeton, Ky., Townsend started playing in his local Baptist church and went on to perform with Coleman Hawkins, Woody Herman, Dinah Washington and others. He has worked in the pit bands on Broadway and lectured on jazz at New York University. He currently is accompanist for vocalists Dakota Staton and Carrie Smith.
"J.P. Johnson used to do all kinds of funny things, play three against four in his left hand," says Townsend, "and the Lion played a lot of little sonatas and fugues and little countermelodies just to prove that he could do it, and then he would explode into stride."