A cutting contest was a musical battle between various stride piano players from the 1920s to 1940s, and to a lesser extent in improvisation contests on other jazz instruments during the swing era. A vestige remains of cutting contests, in the "trading" of segments of a tune in jazz improvising.
Up to the present time, the expression cutting in jazz is sometimes used, somewhat facetiously, to claim the technical mastery or superiority of a new musician. That an emerging player cuts Herbie Hancock or Oscar Peterson suggests that he is either unusually facile, or promises to be highly influential.
Cutting contests first had a more earnest meaning only among pianists, and later existed for their own sake. In the beginning, to "cut" another piano player meant to replace him at his job by outperforming him. This more serious rivalry ended by the 1920s, because pianists began to acquire more stable engagements, and basic ragtime and "fast shout" piano evolved into improvised stride. The word "stride" piano began to be used in the 1920s.
With time, cutting came to mean victory at a pre-arranged contest. The contests were usually held at "rent parties" in the homes of locals of Harlem, in which entrance money was used to pay off the rent. In this they have much in common with the later emerging rap battles.
Famous contestants include James P. Johnson and his greatest rival Willie "The Lion" Smith. Johnson and Smith had so much respect for each other that their contests usually ended in a draw, and neither usually "cut" into the other's play.
The cutting contests continued into the 1940s, when stride pianist Art Tatum would usually win, beating out such notable pianists as Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson, Count Basie, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Albert Ammons, Harry Gibson, Pete Johnson, Marlowe, Clarence Prophet, and Claude Hopkins.
Cutting contests also took place between blues musicians.
- Harry The Hipster Autobiography
- Farley, Christopher John. "Memphis Minnie and the Cutting Contest". In Guralnik P, Santelli R, George-Warren H, Farley C.J. (ed.)(2003). Martin Scorsese presents the Blues. New York: Armistad, p. 198
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