James P. Johnson

Jul 18th, 2011 | By | Category: Arts & Entertainment
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James P. Johnson 1894-1955  James P. Johnson was the finest popular pianist of his time, the seminal creator of the stride style bridging ragtime and jazz, the composer of “The Charleston,” and the creator of long-form classical works that incorporated African American motifs. His influence on every key jazz musician who followed is incalculable, as was his “soundtrack for the Roaring 20s.”

Classical and Rag

Johnson was born in 1894 in Brunswick, New Jersey. His parents had migrated from the south, bringing with them a rich dance and musical tradition. He received his initial musical training from his mother, beginning as soon as his fingers could manipulate the keys on the family’s parlor upright piano. This was followed by strict instruction in classical technique from a local teacher, Professor Bruto Giannini, who fortunately did nothing to diminish Johnson’s interest in southern-style rags and stomps. When Johnson reached 14 years of age, his family moved to New York City. There, he began lessons with ragtime piano great Eubie Blake. He played his first professional gig at age 18 in Coney Island, reportedly at a sporting house where he played continuously for two hours.

Johnson was soon a regular among the “piano professors” who performed at cabarets, bordellos, and rent parties in the San Juan Hill area of the west 60s near New York City’s famed Hell’s Kitchen. He first learned from, and then became the rising star among, such colorfully nicknamed piano “ticklers” as Abba Labba, Lucky Roberts, Willie The Lion, The Beetle, and Jack The Bear. As he became increasingly accomplished and prominent, a younger generation became protégés to him. These included a young Duke Ellington and Fats Waller who would go on to popularize the “stride” style that Johnson pioneered. This style was a bridge between its predecessor, ragtime, and its ultimate successor called jazz. It featured a two-count left hand with a great degree of improvisational freedom in the right hand, combined with polyrhythmic syncopation; and Johnson’s exceptional talent and technique lent itself to the form. In the words of black musical theater great James Weldon Johnson, “It was music of a kind I had never heard before….”

Beginning in approximately 1915 and continuing until the advent of the phonograph record in the early 1920s, Johnson became a prolific maker of hundreds of piano rolls for player pianos. Legend holds that Fats Waller learned all of Johnson’s improvisations by laying his fingers on the piano’s depressed keys as the roll operated the instrument. Johnson was the first African American staff performer for the Chicago-based QRS Company, publisher of piano rolls, in 1921, where he met and befriended George Gershwin. The two master composers would ultimately collaborate on several shows. That same year, Johnson wrote the first of some 200 songs he would compose over the course of his career. Early successes included the up-tempo “Carolina Shout” of 1921 and “The Harlem Strut,” as well as the more introspective “Blueberry Rhyme” and “Snowy Morning Blues.” In addition to his solo performing and recording career, Johnson was featured in several ensembles, and became the accompanist of choice for such blues divas as Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters. In 1922, he began making 78 rpm records, and is credited with the first recorded jazz piano solo in that format on “Bleeding Heart Blues.”

Serious Works

By this time, Johnson was considered the finest pianist on the East Coast, the exemplar of the Harlem piano style, and “The Father of Stride Piano,” nicknamed The Brute by his peers. He also continued his more formal studies including orchestral composition. By some accounts, his greatest aspiration was to compose “serious” music based on African American themes; and by all historical accounts, he was successful in this regard, although the works have largely disappeared. Composer and musicologist Gunther Schuller later cited Johnson’s long-form works as using “…basic Negro musical traditions that emulated roughly Liszt’s approach in his ‘Hungarian Rhapsodies.’” Johnson’s “Yamekraw: a Negro Rhapsody” premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1928, and was also filmed as a short starring Bessie Smith. He performed his “Piano Concerto in A-flat” with the Brooklyn Symphony, and also composed the concerto “Jassamine.” His score for the 1940 one-act opera De Organizer was set to a libretto by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, and other works included the symphonic poem “African Drums,” the string quartet “Spirit of America,” “Mississippi Moon,” “Harlem Symphony,” the “Symphonic Suite on St. Louis Blues,” and at least one ballet.

Rounding out his broad range of achievement, Johnson also composed for 16 musical shows including 1923’s Runnin’ Wild, and he continued writing popular tunes with great success. He was accepted for membership in the American Society for Composers and Authors in 1926, in which year he wrote one of his most famous and popular songs, “If I Could Be with You One Hour Tonight.” But it was “The Charleston” that remains his best-known composition. The song was probably written in 1913, and debuted with Runnin’ Wild 10 years later. The song launched the dance fad of the same name, went on to become the “soundtrack for the Roaring 20s,” and has endured as the iconographic music of that exuberant era. Johnson was also responsible for the black review Keep Shufflin’, co-written with his former student Fats Waller in 1928.

Despite ill health due to occasional strokes, Johnson continued performing in clubs with small swing groups and such collaborators as Eddie Condon through the 1940s, and recording for virtually every major label. A serious health-related episode forced him into retirement in 1951, and he died in New York on November 17, 1955. He was elected by a jazz critics poll into the Down Beat Hall of Fame in 1992, acknowledging his seminal contribution to the creation of modern music in all forms. In 1994, much of his symphonic music was found and recorded by the Concordia Orchestra and performed live in concert. His direct influence can be heard in the work of Waller, Ellington, Count Basie, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, and more contemporary players such as Erroll Garner and Thelonious Monk; but in a real sense, everybody’s fingers have followed James P. Johnson’s.


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