Johnson, James P.
James P. Johnson
Acknowledged as the “Grandfather of Hot Piano,” jazz pianist James P. Johnson emerged during the transitional period between ragtime—a music performed strictly from written scores—and the improvisatory and rhythmically more relaxed foundations of shout piano, or what became known as stride piano. Bringing together elements of ragtime, blues, African American religious music, and classical themes, Johnson originated a piano style that dominated New York City’s African American musical world during the early decades of the twentieth century. Though his composition “Charleston” became the anthem for the “flaming youth” of the 1920s, his musical ability extended beyond the writing of popular songs. In his 37-year career, he also wrote 19 symphonic works, scored 11 stage musicals, and contributed to numerous stage productions.
A forefather of the stride style, Johnson brought the idiom into its most complex form. Opposed to the two-beat configuration of ragtime, stride piano accentuated a more steady, loping four-four feel, exhibiting a left-hand “oom-pah” bass pattern. As Frank Kappler pointed out in the liner notes to Giants of Jazz, “The left hand is the motor in stride, providing propulsion, leaving the right to create the characteristic rhythm.” As one of stride’s greatest practitioners, Johnson “played more quickly and accurately than his peers,” commented Mike Lipskin in the notes to The Fats Waller Piano Solos. “[He] was capable of the most spontaneous improvising, with a singular anachronistic inventiveness that still amazes listeners today.”
James Price Johnson was born on February 1, 1894, in New Brunswick, New Jersey. His mother, Josephine, sang in the Methodist choir and held Saturday night dance parties, where James heard the playing of guitars, mandolins, and Jew’s harps (tiny lyre-shaped instruments held between the lips and played with a finger). With money she earned working as a maid, she bought an upright piano from her employers and soon taught herself to play popular tunes. As a small child, wrote Kappler in Giants of Jazz, Johnson “played with the pedals until he grew tall enough to reach the keyboard, then starting picking out’Little Brown Jug’ and other tunes he had heard his mother play.”
When James was eight, the Johnson family moved to a Jersey City neighborhood near a railroad stop lined with gambling houses and nightspots. Around this time, he played his first gig, earning 25 cents from a woman who invited him to play in her parlor. Told to perform with his back to the guests, Johnson entertained for several hours, playing popular tunes, hymns, and nursery
For the Record…
Born James Price Johnson, February 1, 1894, in New Brunswick, NJ; died November 17, 1955; son of William (a hardware store assistant) and Josephine (a maid; maiden name, Harrison) Johnson; married Lillie Mae Wright. Education: Attended Jersey City and New York City public schools.
Performed at house parties, c. early 1900s; during high school years played clubs and summer resorts; left high school, 1912, and became professional musician; toured the South, then established residencies at New York clubs; performed at Jungles Casino and studied under Bruno Giannini, 1913; recorded piano rolls for several companies, 1917; worked in touring show Dudley’s Smart Set, 1918; recorded first side, “Harlem Strut,” 1921; scored music for 1923 stage show Runnin’ Wild; scored music for stage show Keep Shufflin and completed extended work Yamekraw, both 1928; wrote programmatic work Harlem Symphony, 1932; periodically led own orchestra in early 1930s; performed with Fess Williams, 1936-37; collaborated with poet Lang-ston Hughes to complete blues opera De Organizer and performed in Carnegie Hall concert From Spirituals to Swing, both 1938; recorded for Blue Note, 1942-44; played Eddie Condon’s New York club, mid-1940s; worked on California production of Sugar Hill, 1949.
rhymes. Once exposed to the opulently dressed ticklers (the name given to ragtime and stride keyboardists), he decided to become a first-class pianoman.
In 1908 the Johnsons relocated to the San Juan section of New York City on Manhattan’s West Side. Attending P.S. 69, he performed in school assemblies and sang soprano in the choir under the direction of Frank Dam-rosch. Though he attended concerts of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, his main musical interest remained with the uptown cabaret pianomen.
In 1911 Johnson made his way to a 100th Street cellar club owned by an able ragtime pianist. At 2:00 each morning, the owner reportedly pulled the club’s piano to the middle of the floor and, after displaying his own talents, allowed Johnson to take over at the keyboard. “He’d let me play and hit the piano until 4:00 A.M.,” recalled Johnson, as quoted in Ragtime: Its History, Composers, and Music. “I kept my schoolbooks in the coal bin and went on to school after a little sleep.” While still a youth in short pants, the fledgling musician gained entrance to Barron Wilkins’s famed Harlem nightclub, where he marveled at the rakish clothes and finger-stylings of New Orleans piano great Jelly Roll Morton. During the summer of 1912, he took his first professional job at Far Rockaway, a resort cabaret.
Instead of returning to school that fall, Johnson landed a gig at a Jersey City nightclub owned by Freddie Doyle. Jobs at Jim Allen’s cellar club on 61st Street and the Jungles Casino followed. Licensed as a dance school, the Jungles Casino drew Southern stevedores and Gullahs (people of color living along the coast and on the sea islands of South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida) who danced so-called “Geechie dances” and unique steps like the “Metropolitan Glide.” From these dances, Johnson composed eight Charlestons, one of which would emerge as his famous stage hit.
Johnson’s first formal piano lessons came in 1913, when his friend’s mother arranged for him to study under symphonically trained Bruno Giannini, an Italian voice and music instructor. Under Giannini’s tutelage, Johnson learned harmony, counterpoint, and formal finger positions. To master his instrument, Johnson often practiced in the dark or with a sheet over the keyboard. Like earlier pianomen, he learned to “rag” the classics by imitating the string sections and incorporating melodies of such European concert masters as Franz Lizst, Edvard Grieg, and Sergei Rachmaninoff.
But Johnson soon tired of Giannini’s exercises and resumed his system of self-study, observing New York’s finest stride pianists—keyboardists like the exponent of the “backward 10th” Freddie Bryant and Richard “Abba Labba” McLean. “When you heard James P. at his best,” recalled clarinetist Garvin Bushell in Jazz from the Beginning, “you were hearing Abba Labba’s style, except that James P., who had studied, played with a little more finesse and taste.” Other musicians of great influence included flamboyant “finger-stretcher” Charles Luckeyeth (“Luckey”) Roberts, and Yiddish World War I veteran Willie “The Lion” Smith.
By 1916 Johnson had taken his place within the vanguard of New York’s finest pianomen. A year later, he entered the profitable world of recording piano rolls for Imperial, Perfection, Universal, Metro-Art, and QRS. “The piano rolls of this period,” related Scott E. Brown in James P. Johnson, “show Johnson to be a ragtime player of great proficiency. At times, his playing sounds restless as he tries to break from the rhythmic and melodic formalisms of ragtime. His [style was] becoming increasingly sophisticated, enabling him to convey the full intensity and range of expression of the shout dances.”
Upon America’s entry into World War I in 1917, Johnson contributed to President Woodrow Wilson’s preparedness campaign by composing the march fantasia Liberty. After the Allied victory, he performed in a band led by Happy Rhone and in the ensembles assembled by the Clef Club, the prestigious New York-based African American musician’s union. In 1918 Johnson and his wife, Lillie Mae Wright, worked with the all-black touring show Dudley’s Smart Set.
Sparked by the Harlem Renaissance and the popularity of African American music, Johnson’s career took off. He earned great praise within New York’s musical world. As Kappler put it in Giants of Jazz, “The roaring’20s saw the flowering of musical talent in jazz, but few, perhaps only [George] Gershwin and [Duke] Ellington, could match James P. Johnson for the quality, quantity and variety of musical output.” In 1921 Johnson recorded his first side, “Harlem Strut, “followed by the classic stride numbers “Keep off the Grass” and “Carolina Shout” —a composition which, since its first appearance on piano roll, emerged as a test piece for aspiring ticklers, including young Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington.
In 1923 Johnson traveled to England as musical director for the production of Plantation Days and scored the music for the stage show Runnin’ Wild. After opening on October 29, 1923, to generally favorable reviews, two hits emerged from Runnin’ Wild— “Old Fashioned Love” and the legendary “Charleston.” With this success, Johnson turned to writing extended stage and symphonic works. Inthe winter of 1928, he penned the score to Keep Shufflin’. Later that year, Johnson’s first extended work, Yamekraw— dedicated to Savannah, Georgia’s colorful waterfront section—was performed at Carnegie Hall. (When the producers of Keep Shufflin’ refused to allow Johnson to leave the show to perform his work Yamekraw, he had his young understudy, Fats Waller, take his place at the Carnegie Hall concert.) In 1929 Johnson directed the orchestra for St. Louis Blues— a film by blues singer Bessie Smith, who two years earlier had recorded “Preachin’ the Blues” and “Back Water Blues” backed by Johnson’s solo piano.
Aside from recording piano numbers such as the 1930 classics “Jingles” and “You Got to Be Modernistic,” Johnson spent the next decade concentrating on composing symphonic pieces and extended works. Though he sought to elevate jazz into a higher written form, economic depression and the wane of the Harlem Renaissance had devastating effects on the support and funding of his work. As Brown observed in the liner notes to Victory Stride, “Johnson applied for fellowships to support his studies, and he wrote to many conductors and musical benefactors for his pieces to be given a performance. His scrap books are filled with rejection letters.”
Nevertheless, Johnson spent the 1930s producing a number of symphonic pieces. In 1932 he wrote a four-movement programmatic work called Harlem Symphony, which was performed at the Brooklyn Museum seven years later. He also collaborated with lyricist Andy Razaf to compose the stage show Harlem Hotcha, featuring the piece “Drums—A Symphonic Poem.” In 1934 he completed a piano concerto titled Jassamine and American Symphonic Suite—St. Louis Blues, based on W. C. Handy’s 1914 blues hit. The following year he wrote Symphony in Brown.
By 1938 Johnson was collaborating with legendary black poet Langston Hughes to produce the one-act blues opera De Organizer, which received a performance at Carnegie Hall in 1940. And in December of 1938, record producer and promoter John Hammond invited Johnson to appear in the Carnegie Hall concert From Spirituals to Swing, dedicated to the memory of Bessie Smith.
Johnson led his own bands at the Elks Rendezvous and Cafe Society until he suffered a mild stroke in 1940. He spent the rest of the year relaxing with his family. Returning to music after his recuperation, he became musical director for Pinkard’s Fantasies. In 1942 and 1943 he recorded for the Blue Note label with a core group, the “Blue Note Jazzmen” —an ensemble led by Johnson, with clarinetist Edmund Hall, trumpeter Sidney DeParis, and big band trombonist Vic Dickerson. Under his leadership, Johnson and the Blue Note Jazzmen recorded the 1944 side “Victory Stride,” a 16-bar arrangement featuring Duke Ellington’s saxophonist Ben Webster. The Blue Note sessions also yielded Johnson’s first recorded version of his solo piano number “Carolina Balmoral.”
In the mid-1940s, Johnson performed at guitarist Eddie Condon’s New York Town Hall concerts. He later returned to scoring the music for theater productions, including the California production of his revue Sugar Hill. After suffering a serious stroke in 1951, he spent his remaining years bedridden at his home. On November 17, 1955, Johnson died in Queens Hospital.
Looking back on New York City’s early jazz musicians, Duke Ellington noted, as quoted in Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya, that “the king at that time was James P. Johnson.” The New Jersey-born pianist is part of a musical legacy whose strains can be heard in artists from Ellington to Thelonious Monk. His solo piano recordings still awe listeners with their profound sense of mastery. In 1987 New York’s Concordia Orchestra restored Johnson’s symphonic repertory—much of which had been lost for decades—and performed the scores at a 1992 concert at Lincoln Center. Johnson’s music will remain forever interwoven in the creative fabric of jazz music.
Giants of Jazz: James P. Johnson, Time-Life, 1981.
James P. Johnson: Snowy Morning Blues, Decca, 1991.
Victory Stride: The Symphonic Music of James P. Johnson, Music Masters, 1994.
Brown., Scott E, James P. Johnson: A Case of Mistaken Identity, Scarecrow Press and the Institute of Jazz Studies, 1986.
Bushell, Garvin, and Mark Tucker, Jazz from the Beginning, University of Michigan Press, 1990.
Hadlock, Richard, Jazz Masters of the Twenties, Da Capo, 1988.
Ragtime: Its History, Composers, and Music, edited by John Edward Hasse, Schirmer Books, 1985.
Shapiro, Nat, and Nat Hentoff, Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya: The Story of Jazz As Told by the Men Who Made It, Dover Publications, 1955.
Additional information for this profile was taken from liner notes by Scott E. Brown to Victory Stride: The Symphonic Music of James P. Johnson, 1994; notes by Frank Kappler to Giants of Jazz, 1981; and notes by Mike Lipskin to The Fats Waller Piano Solos: Turn on the Heat, 1991.
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