Tuesday, 7 July 2020

FROM JOPLIN TO JACKSON: A BRIEF HISTORY OF DUELING PIANOS*

Not many people are aware of this little tidbit. One of the most enjoyable, exciting, and overall fun, types of live entertainment is dueling pianos. It’s a niche entertainment sector, which is unfortunate because it’s a modern cabaret show that combines music, comedy, and audience participation in a way that gives everyone a good time.

Going to a "dueling piano" show doesn’t have to be a special occasion (although it’s a great reason to celebrate!); there are a lot of dueling piano bars in New York City that feature nightly shows featuring some of the country’s best dueling pianists. But where and how exactly did this uniquely American form of entertainment start?

Dueling Pianos Goes Back to the Turn of the Century

The idea of two pianists playing at the same time came around the same time as ragtime music, another unique American style of music that was pioneered by early African-American musicians back in the 19th century (particularly Scott Joplin). Ragtime is a musical style defined by its syncopated melody (i.e. a type of melody in which strong beats are made weaker and weak beats made stronger) that’s accompanied by an accent musical piece. It was the dominant style of music in popular culture  in the 1890s to the early 1910’s, kind of like their version of EDM. *This is a partnership post.

Ragtime laid the foundation for many elements of jazz, particularly in the field of piano-based improvisation. Because of its ‘syncopated’ melody, ragtime became well-known for its "ragged," jaunty, and hasty melodic lines. This meant that ragtime players needed not only a technical mastery of musical scales, but their hands also had to be physically nimble; at its peak, ragtime became less about playing notes and more about creating a syncopated melody as fast as possible.

Because of its high-energy and fast-paced style, ragtime became the choice music for most cabaret and vaudeville performances. Eventually, pianists would go head-to-head and play pieces of ragtime "licks and runs" (i.e. a set of notes that’s played in quick succession) in a bid to outplay their competitor.

By the end of the 1910s, ragtime had evolved into the earliest forms of jazz. But the enduring appeal of dueling pianos remained. The famous New Orleans bar Pat O’Brien, a modest house of music and liquor, became the first bar to host dueling piano competitions as part of their regular programming in 1933, complete with a dedicated fan base, a duel-specific room and stage, and of course, regular musicians who would participate in these competitions.


Dueling Pianos in the 21st Century

Pat O’Brien may have been the first bar to make dueling pianos a thing. But they certainly weren’t the last, with many bars across the country hosting their own dueling piano competitions. Eventually, however, the competitive part of dueling pianos gradually gave way to both musicians complementing each persons licks with their own runs and vice-versa.

Eventually, the modern version of dueling pianos, which involves two expert musicians creating beautiful music together with input from the audience (as well as some snarky comedy in between) took form in a piano bar called Alley Cats in Dallas, Texas.

Today, there are hundreds, potentially thousands, of dueling piano bars and pianists all across the country and the world; more than a handful of them in New York City alone. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience that can’t be replicated by your regular karaoke night and one that shouldn’t be missed when you’re in the greatest city on Earth.

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