James P. Johnson
James P. Johnson
1933 by the recently arrived Art Tatum, who is widely acknowledged by jazz critics as the most technically proficient jazz pianist of all time. Johnson's artistry, his significance in the subsequent development of jazz piano, and his large contribution to American musical theatre, are often overlooked, and as such, he has been referred to by Reed College musicologist David Schiff, as "The Invisible Pianist". Johnson was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey, United States. The proximity to New York meant that the full cosmopolitan spectrum of the city's musical experience, from bars, to cabarets, to the symphony, were at the young Johnson's disposal. In 1908 his family moved to the San Juan Hill (near where Lincoln Center stands today) section of New York City.
With perfect pitch and excellent recall he was soon able to pick out on the piano tunes that he had heard. Johnson grew up listening to the ragtime of Scott Joplin and always retained links to the ragtime era, playing and recording Joplin's "Maple Leaf", as well as the more modern (according to Johnson) and demanding, "Euphonic Sounds", both several times in the 1940s. Johnson, like Joplin, when the royalties from his compositions made him financially secure, pursued a lifelong ambition of writing orchestral works. Before 1920 Johnson had gained a reputation as a pianist on the East coast on a par with Eubie Blake and Luckey Roberts and made dozens of superb player piano roll recordings for Aeolian, Perfection (the label of the Standard Music Roll Co., Orange, NJ), Artempo (label of Bennett & White, Inc., Newark, NJ), Rythmodik, and QRS during the period from 1917–1927. During this period he met George Gershwin who was also a young piano-roll artist at Aeolian. Johnson honed his craft, playing night after night, catering to the egos and idiosyncracies of the many singers he encountered, which necessitated being able to play a song in any key. He developed into a sensitive and facile accompanist, the favorite accompanist of Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith.
Ethel Waters wrote in her autobiography that working with musicians such as, and most especially, Johnson " ...made you want to sing until your tonsils fell out". As his piano style continued to evolve, his 1921 phonograph recordings of his own compositions, Harlem Strut, Keep Off the Grass", and Carolina Shout, were ( along with the Jelly Roll Morton's Genett recordings of 1923) among the first jazz piano solos to be put onto record. These technically challenging compositions would be learned by his contemporaries, and would serve as test pieces in solo competitions, in which the New York pianists would demonstrate their mastery of the keyboard, as well as the swing, harmonies, and improvisational skills which would further distinguish the great masters of the era. The majority of his phonograph recordings of the 1920s and early 1930s were done for Black Swan (founded by Johnson friend W.C. Handy, where William Grant Still served in an A & R (Artist and Repertoire) capacity) and Columbia. In the depression era, Johnson's career slowed down somewhat.
As the opportunities to record and perform live music were limited by the harsh economic realities of the time, the cushion of a modest but steady income from his composer's royalties allowed him to devote significant time to the furtherance of his education, as well as the realization of his desire to compose "serious" orchestral music. Although by this time he was an established composer, with a significant body of work, as well as a member or ASCAP, he was nonetheless unable to secure the financial support that he sought from either the Rosenwald Foundation, or a Guggenheim Fellowship, both of which he received endorsement for from the Columbia Records executive, and long time admirer, John Hammond. The Johnson archives include the letterhead of an organization called "Friends of James P. Johnson", ostensibly founded at the time (presumably in the late 1930s) in order to promote his then idling career.
Names on the letter-head include Paul Robeson, Fats Waller, Walter White (President of the NAACP), the actress Mercedes Gilbert and Bessye Bearden, the mother of artist Romare Bearden. In the late 1930s Johnson slowly started to re-emerge with the rise of independent jazz labels and began to record, with his own and other groups, at first for the HRS label. Johnson's appearances at the Spirituals to Swing Concerts at Carnegie Hall in 1938 and 1939 were organized by his friend John Hammond, for whom he recorded a substantial series of solo and band sides in 1939. Johnson suffered a stroke (likely a transient ischemic attack) in 1940. When he returned to the public eye his style was less clean and precise though his technique was still formidable.
He began a heavy schedule of performing, composing, and recording, leading several small live and groups, now often with racially integrated bands led by musicians such as Eddie Condon, Yank Lawson, Sidney de Paris, Sidney Bechet, Rod Cless, and Edmond Hall. He recorded for jazz labels including Asch, Black and White, Blue Note, Commodore, Circle, and Decca. He was a regular guest star and featured soloist on Rudi Blesh's This is Jazz broadcasts, as well as at Eddie Condon's Town Hall concerts and studied with Maury Deutsch, who could also count Django Reinhardt and Charlie Parker among his pupils. Johnson permanently retired from performing after suffering a severe, paralyzing stroke in 1951. He died four years later in Jamaica, New York and is buried in Mt Olivet Cemetery in Maspeth, Queens.
Perfunctory obituaries appeared in even the New York Times. The pithiest and most angry remembrance of Johnson was written by his friend, the producer and impresario John Hammond. Johnson composed many hit tunes in his work for the musical theatre, including "Charleston" (which debuted in his Broadway show Runnin' Wild in 1923, although by some accounts Johnson had written it years earlier, and which became one of the most popular songs of the "Roaring Twenties"), "If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight)", "You've Got to Be Modernistic", "Don't Cry, Baby", "Keep off the Grass", "Old Fashioned Love", "A Porter's Love Song to a Chambermaid", "Carolina Shout", and "Snowy Morning Blues". He wrote waltzes, ballet, symphonic pieces and light opera; many of these extended works exist in manuscript form in various stages of completeness in the collection of Johnson's papers housed at the Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University, Newark, New Jersey. Johnson's success as a popular composer qualified him as a member of ASCAP in 1926. 1928 saw the premier of Johnson's rhapsody Yamekraw, named after a black community in Savannah, Georgia.
William Grant Still was orchestrator and Fats Waller the pianist as Johnson was contractually obliged to conduct his and Waller's hit Broadway show Keep Shufflin. Harlem Symphony, composed during the 1930s, was performed at Carnegie Hall in 1945 with Johnson at the piano and Joseph Cherniavsky as conductor. He collaborated with Langston Hughes on the one act opera, De Organizer. A fuller list of Johnson's film scores appears below. Along with Fats Waller and Willie 'The Lion' Smith, 'The Big Three', and Luckey Roberts, Johnson embodies the apex of the Harlem Stride piano style, an evolution of East Coast ragtime infused with elements of the blues.
His "Carolina Shout" was a standard test piece/ rite of passage for every contemporary pianist: Duke Ellington learned it note for note from the 1921 QRS Johnson piano roll. Johnson taught Fats Waller and got him his first piano roll and recording assignments. Eubie Blake played a somewhat less rhythmically developed style of East Coast ragtime than Roberts or Johnson, a transitional figure between classic ragtime and the hard-swinging, more harmonically advanced style of the stride pianists). Harlem Stride is distinguished from ragtime by several essential characteristics: Ragtime introduced sustained syncopation into piano music, but stride pianists built a more freely swinging rhythm into their performances, with a certain degree of anticipation of the left (bass) hand by the right (melody) hand, a form of tension and release in the patterns played by the right hand, interpolated within the beat generated by the left. Stride more frequently incorporates elements of the blues, as well as harmonies more complex than usually found in the works of classic ragtime composers.
Lastly, while ragtime was for the most part a composed music, based on European light classics such as marches, pianists such as Waller and Johnson introduced their own rhythmic, harmonic and melodic figures into their performances and, occasionally, spontaneous improvisation. This last point may seem somewhat counter-intuitive to the fan who associates jazz with a high degree of improvisation. As the contemporary ( second generation ) stride pianist Dick Wellstood has noted, in a very well done set of liner notes for the reclusive Newark, N.J. based stride pianist, Donald Lambert, most of the stride pianists of the 20's, 30's and 40's were not particularly good improvisers.
Rather, they would play their own, very well worked out, and often rehearsed variations on popular songs of the day, with very little change from one performance to another. It was in in this respect that Johnson distinguished himself from his colleagues, in that ( in his own words ), he " could think of a trick a minute ". Comparison of many of Johnson's recording's of a given tune over the years does indeed demonstrate a good degree of variation from one performance to another, characterised by respect for the melody, and reliance upon a well worked out set of melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic devices, such as repeated chords, serial thirds ( hence his admiration for Bach ), and interpolated scales, on which the improvisations were based. This same set of variations might then appear in the performance of another tune.
In public performance, stride pianists either used these well worked out variations on popular songs of the day, or pieces within the idiom specially composed by its main performers. Examples of these latter so called test pieces include Johnson's Carolina Shout, Keep Off the Grass, and Harlem Strut, Fats Waller's Handful of Keys, and Willie "the Lion' Smith's, Fingerbuster. Johnson's musical legacy is present in the body of work of the more famous Fats Waller as well as scores of other pianists who were influenced by him, such as Art Tatum, Donald Lambert, Louis Mazetier, Pat Flowers, Joe Turner, Cliff Jackson, Hank Duncan, Claude Hopkins, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Don Ewell, Johnny Guarnieri, Dick Hyman, Dick Wellstood, Ralph Sutton, Neville Dickie, Mike Lipskin, Jim Turner[disambiguation needed], Bernd Lhotzky, Chris Hopkins and Butch Thompson. When knowledgeable critics compose their " greatest of all time " lists, the jazz piano roster usually places Johnson in the company of his better known peers: Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Earl Hines and Teddy Wilson. Honors and recognitions Two Romare Bearden paintings bear the name of Johnson compositions: Carolina Shout, and Snow(y) Morning. On September 16, 1995 the U.S. Post Office issues a James P. Johnson 32 cent commemorative postage stamp. 1970 Songwriters Hall of Fame 1973 Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame 1980 Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame 2007 ASCAP Jazz Wall of Fame Unmarked since his death in 1955, his grave was re-consecrated with a headstone paid for with funds raised by an event arranged by the James P.
Johnson Foundation, Spike Wilner and Dr. Scott Brown on October 4, 2009. James P. Johnson's Last Rent Party took place at Wilner's Greenwich Village venue, Small's Jazz Club. Multiple CDs of Johnson's recordings have been reissued.
The French Chronological Classics series includes six discs devoted to Johnson. The Decca CD, Snowy Morning Blues, contains 20 sides done for the Brunswick and Decca labels, between 1930 and 1944. This CD includes an eight-tune Fats Waller Memorial set, and two solos, "Jingles", and "You've Got to be Modernistic", which demonstrate Johnson's hard swinging stride style. The LP, and CD, Father of the Stride Piano, collects some of Johnson's best recordings for the Columbia family of labels, done between 1921 and 1939.
It includes "Carolina Shout", "Worried and Lonesome Blues", and "Hungry Blues" (from De Organizer). Johnson's complete Blue Note recordings (solos, band sides in groups led by himself as well as Edmond Hall and Sidney DeParis) were issued in a collection by Mosaic Records. The largest anthology of Johnson's recordings was compiled in the Giants of Jazz series by Time-Life Music. This three-LP collection contains 40 sides recorded from 1921 to 1945, and is supplemented with extensive liner notes, including a biographical essay by Frank Kappler, and criticism of the musical selections by Dick Wellstood, and the musicologist, Willa Rouder. Many of Johnson's approximately 60 piano rolls, recorded between 1917 and 1927, have been issued on CD on the Biograph Label.
A book of musical transcriptions of Johnson's piano roll performances of his own compositions has been prepared by Dr. Robert Pinsker, to be published through the auspices of the James P. Johnson Foundation. Read more on Last.fm.
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