Johnson, James P(rice)

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Johnson, James P(rice)

Johnson, James P(rice), influential and talented jazz pianist, composer; b. New Brunswick, N.J., Feb. 1, 1894; d. N.Y., Nov. 17, 1955. His grandfather had fought in the Civil War; his father, William, was born in New Brunswick and was a hardware store helper and mechanic for a man named Price for whom James received his middle name. His mother’s father was half-African American, half-Native American, and had bought his freedom; his mother, Josephine Harrison, was born in Petersburg, Va., and worked as a maid. He had three older brothers and a sister, Belle (b. c. 1886).

Johnson was originally taught piano by his mother. The family moved to Jersey City, then to N.Y. He played at local rent parties during his early teens, and his first professional work was at Coney Island in summer of 1912. Subsequently, he played solo piano in various clubs in N.Y. and Atlantic City; after touring the southern vaudeville circuit, he returned to N.Y. Beginning in May 1917, he cut piano rolls (just a few months after the Original Dixieland Jazz Band made its first records; this made him one of the first jazz artists whose work was documented, and certainly the first black artist) and worked in N.Y. clubs through 1918. He again did a theater tour, then left to play a residency in Toledo, Ohio (1919). In 1921, he began his prolific recording career, and also worked as musical director for Dudley’s “Black Sensations /Smart Set” revues. He led his own Harmony Seven in N.Y. in 1922. In March 1923, he went to England with the Plantation Days show. 1923 he scored his own “Runnin’ Wild” revue, including the hits “The Charleston” and ’Old Fashioned Love.” During the 1920s, he did many recording sessions with bands and accompanied singers such as Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters. By then, he was firmly established as a successful composer, having also written “If I Could Be with You,” “Carolina Shout,” and other tunes.

For the rest of his life, he devoted a great deal of his time to composing. He worked in “Keep Shuffiin’” with Fats Waller in 1928, and premiered his extended work “Yamekraw” at Carnegie Hall in July—W. C. Handy conducted and Fats Waller played the piano part while reportedly Johnson played that night at “Keep Shuff-lin’.” In 1929, he directed the orchestra for Bessie Smith’s film St. Louis Blues (but he is not seen on-screen). During the 1930s, he concentrated on composing, writing his “Symphony Harlem” in 1932 (of which only the second movement survives), his piano concerto “Jazz-A-Mine” in 1934 (of which only the piano version of the second movement was published and survives), another symphony (lost), and several works for the stage, including the one-act work De Organizer in collaboration with the famous poet Langston Hughes; unfortunately, the score has been lost. He did, however, regularly lead his own orchestra during the early 1930s, also played occasionally in other bands (“Fess” Williams, 1936-37, for one). In 1939, Johnson began playing again regularly: he did a solo spot at Cafe Society (August), played for Swingin’ the Dream show (November), and led his own band at Cafe Society (December). In 1940 he led at Elks’ Rendezvous and Cafe Society, N.Y, until taken ill in summer of 1940. He returned to music the following year as musical director for Pinkard’s Fantasies. He was with Wild Bill Da vison in Boston (early 1943), then led his own band and solos in N.Y. (1944). He took part in Eddie Condon’s New York Town Hall concerts and was also was featured as solo artist-composer at Carnegie Hall, including a complete performance of the “Harlem Symphony” (1945). He led at the Pied Piper (1945), and played at Eddie Condon’s Club (1946) until suffering a stroke in October of that year. He was active again in spring 1947; in 1949, he worked in a Calif, production of his revue “Sugar Hill,” and also played occasionally with the Albert Nicholas Quartet. He then returned to N.Y. and continued working until suffering a severe stroke in 1951; he was an invalid for the rest of his life. A benefit was held for him at Town Hall on Sept. 28, 1953, featuring Ellington, Basie, Calloway, and Hampton. He remained at his home for three years, but spent his last days in Queens Hospital.


Yamecraw for Soloists, Chorus, and Orch. (1928); Harlem Symphony (1932); Jasmine (Jazz-O-Mine), Concerto forPiano and Orch. (1935); De Organizer (folk opera; n.d.). Musical Comedies:Runniri Wild (1923); Sugar Hill (1948). Piano Pieces:Caprice Rag (1914); Harlem Strut (1917); Carolina Shout (1925); Snowy Morning Blues (1927); You’ve Got to Be Modernistic (1930); Fascination (1939). songs:“Old-Fashioned Love” (1923); “Charleston” (1923); “If I Could Be with You” (1926). Also operettas, ballets, and film music.


“Carolina Shout” (1917); Rare Piano Roll Solos, Vol. 1 (1917); Rare Piano Roll Solos, Vol. 2 (1918); James P. Johnson & Perry Bradford (1921); Watch Me Go (1921); “Yamekraw” and Other Selections (1921); Snowy Morning Blues (1930); Rent Party Piano (1943); The Original James P. Johnson 1942-1945 (1943); Ain’tcha Got Music (1944); Jazz Band Ball (1944); James P. Johnson Plays Fats Waller Favorites (1944); The Daddy of the Piano (1950); Stomps, Rags and Blues (1951); Rent Party (1953); Early Harlem Piano, Vol. 2 (1954); Backwater Blues (1955); Harlem Rent Party (1955).


S. E. Brown, A Case of Mistaken Identity: The Life and Music ofj. P. J. (Metuchen N.J., London; 1986); F. H. Trolle, j. P. j.: Father of Stride Piano (Netherlands; 1981).

—John Chilton/Lewis Porter/Nicolas Slonimsky

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Johnson, James P(rice)

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