Hall JohnsonSep 13th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Arts & Entertainment
1888-1970 Hall Johnson was a virtuoso violinist, composer, and musical director in New York and Hollywood. He was the founder of an acclaimed black choir that set the standard for the performance of African American spirituals.
Steeped in Music
Johnson was born on March 12, 1888, in Athens, Georgia, the son of William Decker Johnson, a minister, and Alice Virginia Sansom, a former slave. His childhood was steeped in music, beginning with the African American spirituals his mother and grandmother sang to him from birth. He later recalled that his abiding passion for the violin was ignited after he attended a recital by the concert violinist Joseph Henry Douglass, a grandson of Frederick Douglass. When Johnson was subsequently given his first violin at age 14, he taught himself to play.
Athens was home to a large, prosperous African American middle class, with excellent schools, and Johnson did well. He graduated from preparatory school in 1903, and then moved on to Allen University in Columbia, South Carolina, where his father had recently been named president. In 1908, Johnson switched his studies to the University of Pennsylvania. After receiving his college degree in 1912, Johnson returned to Athens to marry his sweetheart, Celeste Corpening.
The couple moved to New York in 1914, and Johnson immersed himself in the world of the Harlem Renaissance. He gained a reputation as an excellent music teacher, and played violin in the orchestras of several Broadway productions, performing behind great entertainers such as Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle, and Josephine Baker. He found additional work in more than one dance band, including a stint touring the United States with a group known as the Southern Syncopated Orchestra. Along with blues and popular pieces, the repertoire of the orchestra included works rooted in the black American folk tradition, and Johnson saw how deeply this music resonated with audiences.
Johnson was equally committed to classical music. In 1923, he took the seat of violinist in a chamber music group he helped form called the Negro String Quartet. The group performed pieces across a wide spectrum from the standard classical canon to contemporary pieces by African Americans. Earning considerable critical acclaim, the quartet was invited to accompany Marian Anderson and tenor Roland Hayes at Carnegie Hall. Although Johnson was singled out by critics as an especially fine musician, he continually strived to raise the level of his performances by studying under master teachers at the Julliard School of Music. But he had never forgotten the impact of the African American spirituals, and his primary goal was to bring that tradition to audiences in all its originality, unfiltered by European American musical sensibilities, and fully capturing its deep emotions and sensibilities.
A Giant Step
Johnson took a considerable step toward this goal in 1925 when he assembled a group of black singers he called the Harlem Jubilee Singers, soon to be renamed the Hall Johnson Choir. The group was small, with only eight singers, and its first venues were modest Harlem churches. Before long, however, Johnson’s choir could be heard on local New York radio, then in music halls and auditoriums of steadily increasing importance. In 1927, Johnson and his singers were asked to perform at the funeral of the legendary entertainer Florence Mills, and in 1930, they entered the national stage when they were featured in the Broadway production, Green Pastures. Johnson was the music director, writing original compositions and arranging traditional spirituals. The show had a good run with 640 performances over two years. By the time it closed, Johnson’s reputation as an important composer and musician was firmly established.
Johnson produced his own Broadway musical in 1933, Run Little Chillun, a production he called a folk opera. It enjoyed a moderately successful run of four months. Meanwhile, he found himself pulled from the stages of New York to the screens of Hollywood. In 1937, his music and chorus were featured in the classic Frank Capra film, Lost Horizon. In 1943, Johnson became music director for the groundbreaking and controversial all-black musical, Cabin in the Sky, where he worked with a cast of legends that included Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Lena Horne.
Over his lifetime, Johnson was a consummate breaker of barriers, and not just between White and Black or between the world of churches and the world of mass entertainment. While surrounded by the glitz and glitter of Hollywood, he carried out a seminal study of the history of African American music. In bringing new life to black spirituals, he used his classical training and musical ability to create pieces of surprising sophistication. Throughout his life, the breadth and depth of Johnson’s musical expertise were frequent sources of admiration. He was an African American director of a black choir who was not only a renowned classical musician but also an expert interpreter of German lieder, a practice taught to him by his father, the minister of an African Methodist Episcopal church in Georgia.
As the Hall Johnson Choir continued to earn widespread fame, it was invited to perform throughout the United States and Europe. Between tours, Johnson would put together new groups, both in Hollywood and in New York. Perhaps the largest was the Festival Negro Chorus, a 300-member ensemble he put together in 1946 to perform his original composition, “The Son of Man.” Johnson’s career continued well into the 1960s with his choirs performing nationally and internationally, and he himself earning numerous accolades and honors. He was still at the helm of his choir and as creatively energetic as ever when he turned 80 in 1968. But just two years later, on April 30, 1970, Johnson died when a fire broke out in his New York apartment building. Marian Anderson delivered his eulogy, and in honor of his work with motion pictures, he was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1975.