Celebrating James P. Johnson Father of Harlem Stride piano, American songwriter and overlooked African-American composer
Johnson was a major force in creating
Stride piano and a composer of American popular standards.
He collaborated with the cream of African-American writers, composers and overachievers of the Harlem Renaissance and early jazz.
James P. conceived a broader palette for jazz, composing orchestral music far ahead of his
The accompanying extended audio clips explore Johnson’s life and career in detail with musical examples. Adding intimacy, actor Peter Coyote reads Johnson’s recollections. Johnson expert Mark Borowsky traces Johnson story, sharing insights gleaned from a lifetime studying this overlooked American genius.
The Harlem Stride piano style of James Price Johnson (1894-1955) transformed Ragtime into Jazz. He laid the cornerstone of jazz piano before 1920, influencing Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Art Tatum and Thelonious Monk. An absolute master of the keyboard with perfect pitch, James P. is recognized as the foremost proponent of Harlem Stride piano. His protege Fats Waller recalled learning more in his first afternoon with Johnson than the previous 10 years.
As a band player and accompanist to singers, he was in great demand for sessions during the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s. A list of his collaborators reads like a who’s who of Jazz and Blues: Bessie Smith (her favorite piano accompanist), Ethel Watters, King Oliver, Sidney Bechet and Eddie Condon.
He exemplified the larger-than-life flamboyant persona of the era’s piano professors only superficially. Johnson was a sober, disciplined, middle-class, church-going family man. He cut some 55 piano rolls for a half-dozen companies -- the finest of their kind. His “Charleston” became the signature tune of the Roaring Twenties. Johnson recorded hundreds of sides for the most important labels of his time confirm his exceptional composing, arranging and pianistic skills equal to the masters of any musical tradition.
James P. Johnson should have been hailed as one of the greatest composers, jazz musicians and song writers of his era. Yet despite his achievements, he remains almost unknown to general audiences.
Special guests, actor and jazz fan PETER COYOTE, and Mark Borowsky of the James P. Johnson Foundation help to bring this musical genius to life.
Pt. 1 - Celebrating James P. Johnson Guest narrator, Peter Coyote
JAMES_P_JOHNSON 1A.mp3 LIZA -- James P. Johnson, piano, 1945 MEDLEY: CHARLESTON -- Dick Hyman and Jazz Band, 1976 LIZA -- James P. Johnson, piano, 1945 CD SF-40812 HUNGRY BLUES -- James P. Johnson Orch., Anna Robinson, vocal DRUMS: SYMPHONIC POEM -- Concordia Orchestra, 1994 JUNGLE DRUMS -- James P. Johnson, piano, 1945 CD SF-40812 CAROLINA SHOUT -- James P. Johnson, piano roll, 1921 CHARLESTON -- James P. Johnson, piano roll, 1925 WOMAN BLUES -- James P. Johnson, piano, 1945 THE DREAM -- James P. Johnson, piano, 1945 OLD FASHIONED LOVE -- James P Johnson Quartet 1939 SNOWY MORNING BLUES -- Dick Hyman w/Ruby Braff, 1976 DAINTYNESS RAG -- James P. Johnson, piano, 1945
JAMES_P_JOHNSON 1B.mp3 A PORTERS LOVE SONG TO A CHAMBER MAID -- Fats Waller & his Rhythm, 1934 KEEP MOVIN’ -- James P. Johnson, piano, 1945 ECCENTRICITY -- James P. Johnson, 1921 VICTORY STRIDE -- Concordia Orchestra, 1994 VICTORY STRIDE -- James P. Johnson’s Blue Note Jazzmen, 1944 YAMEKRAW -- Marcus Roberts, piano; Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, 1996 JUST BEFORE DAYBREAK -- Dick Hyman w/Ruby Braff, 1976
When he was 14, Johnson’s family moved to the tough San Juan Hill neighborhood of New York on Manhattan Island (located about where Lincoln Center stands today). Nearby was The Jungles -- a rowdy entertainment district and nexus of musical currents where young James hung out. He would soon be playing for dancers at the famed Jungles Casino where he composed “The Charleston.”
According to Johnson, The Jungles contained the finest collection of ivory ticklers anywhere, who had developed a unique ragtime piano style heard nowhere else. These piano professionals were flamboyant characters drawn by jobs in the plentiful cabarets, theaters and entertainment houses of New York City. Each had a distinctive personal style and bag of tricks, each competing to outdo the others in technique, personal flair and swagger.
Though Ragtime was the dominant musical form, Johnson heard popular songs, folk and rural music, ethnic dances from the Southeastern United States and remnants of West African ring-shout dances. Importantly, The Jungles wasn’t far from the “legitimate” music of Carnegie Hall, New York Philharmonic and the top vaudeville palaces of the land. Said Johnson:
“The ragtime player had to . . . get orchestral effects, sound harmonies, and all the techniques of European concert pianists who were playing their music all over the city. New York ‘ticklers’ developed the orchestral piano -- full, round, big, widespread chords in tenths, a heavy bass moving against the right hand.”
Young James flourished in this rich stew of influences, developing his own piano style. He began a professional career in the Summer of 1912 -- at a rickety cabaret just off the beach in Far Rockaway, Queens.
Pt. 2 - Celebrating James P. Johnson Guest commentator, Mark Borowsky
JAMES_P_JOHNSON 2A.mp3 WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED LOVE -- Solo 1930 YOU'VE GOT TO BE MODERNISTIC -- solo Jan 30,1930 CAN'T BE BOTHERED WITH NO SHEIK -- vocal by Rosa Henderson, 1931 THE GATHERING -- Queens home of Fats Waller c. 1937 LIZA -- Queens home of Fats Waller c. 1937 I'VE FOUND A NEW BABY -- Fats Waller STOP IT JOE -- Rosetta Crawford vocal w/ James P. Johnson's Hep Cats WHO -- Frankie Newton and His Orchestra, 1939 SUNDAY -- Don Ewell, piano
JAMES_P_JOHNSON 2B.mp3 HUNGRY BLUES -- James P. Johnson and his Orchestra, 1939 OLD FASHIONED LOVE (excerpt) -- Carnegie Hall, 1939 CAROLINA SHOUT -- Spirituals to Swing, Carnegie Hall, 1938 BLUEBERRY RHYME -- 1939 IF DREAMS COME TRUE -- James P. Johnson, 1939 A FLAT DREAM -- James P. Johnson, 1939
Unlike Ragtime piano from which it evolved, Stride was both a written and improvised form, transmitted aurally. The term ‘stride’ derives from the left-hand bass line – which ‘strides’ from a low note an octave or two below middle-C to a chord near middle-C. Stride was generally played much faster than Ragtime piano, Johnson often produced dizzying cascades of notes at lightning speed and unsurpassed accuracy.
"Mama's Blues" was one of Johnson's earliest published songs.
Curiously, it’s the right-hand figures that create the characteristic rhythmic signatures and swing of Stride by pushing or pulling on the rhythms of the left-hand, utilizing a wide range of pianistic devices -- some from the classical genre. Like Johnson, many of these keyboard artists didn’t need to see their fingers while playing. They could easily converse with friends and fans while performing, or they played separate melodies simultaneous with the left and right hands. Transitioning from Ragtime, Johnson perfected and epitomized the Stride style and technique. He conveyed it directly to his protégé Fats Waller who became the best-known practitioner of Harlem Stride, developing his own distinctive techniques. Pianist Art Tatum advanced the style further, adding dazzling arpeggios, ornamental runs and a more sophisticated harmonic vocabulary.
By 1920 Johnson’s “Carolina Shout” was a jazz piano staple; mastering it was a requirement for any aspiring stride musician. Johnson developed a vast reputation, becoming stylish and affluent thanks to his piano roll and sheet music income.
Johnson developed a vast reputation, becoming affluent and stylish thanks to royalties from sales of his piano rolls and sheet music. Cultivating the flashy couture expected of his profession, he developed a wardrobe of about 25 suits, 15 pairs of custom-made shoes, two dozen silk shirts, silk handkerchiefs and a gold or silver-knobbed cane.
To be taken seriously any piano professional needed a specific set of ostentatious accessories. A dramatic silk-lined overcoat was integral to the performative presentation of a modern major piano professor. Removed with a flourish, it was placed with great ceremony to display the radiant silk lining:
“We used to wear . . . a coat like a coachman’s -- blue double-breasted fitted to the waist and with long skirts. We’d wear a light pearl-grey Homburg hat set at a rakish angle, then a white silk muffler and a white silk handkerchief.”
Pt. 3 - Celebrating James P. Johnson Guest commentator Mark Borowsky
JAMES_P_JOHNSON 3A.mp3 KEEP OFF THE GRASS -- Dick Hyman solo piano, 1973 KEEP OFF THE GRASS -- James P. Johnson, solo, 1921 CAROLINA SHOUT -- James P. Johnson, solo, 1921 BACKWATER BLUES -- Bessie Smith, 1927 LOCK AND KEY -- Bessie Smith, 1927 MY HANDY MAN -- Ethel Waters & James P. Johnson, 1928 GUESS WHO’S IN TOWN -- Ethel Waters & James P. Johnson, 1928 OH, MR. MITCHELL -- Clara Smith acc. James P. Johnson, 1929 WHERE IS MY MAN? -- Clara Smith acc. James P. Johnson, 1929 FRISCO RIDER -- Don Ewell, 1957
JAMES_P_JOHNSON 3B.mp3 CAPRICE RAG -- James P. Johnson solo, 1943 GUT STOMP -- James P. Johnson solo, 1941 BLUE NOTE BOOGIE -- Edmond Hall’s Blue Note Jazzmen, 1943 WHEN I GROW TOO OLD TO DREAM -- Yank Lawson Jazz Band, 1943 I KNOW THAT YOU KNOW -- Rod Cless Quartet, 1944 JUST YOU JUST ME -- Eddie Condon and his Orchestra, 1946
James P. Johnson was one of the grand geniuses of American music – in multiple dimensions. He wrote 230 popular songs. Several, like “Old Fashioned Love,” became American standards.
His creative partners were the cream of African American cultural overachievers -- pianist and impresario Eubie Blake, tunesmith and publisher W.C. Handy and composer William Grant Still. With Langston Hughes, poet-laureate of the Harlem Renaissance, he wrote a one-act blues opera.
Johnson created, wrote or collaborated on more than a dozen Black musicals and stage revues that were landmarks of African American theater: Keep Shufflin’, Messin’ Around, Swingin’ the Dream, Shuffle Along and Meet Miss Jones. His greatest theatrical success was “Runnin’ Wild” (1923), producing two of his most durable hits -- “The Charleston” and “(If I Could Be with You) One Hour Tonight” -- providing him lifelong income.
Not yet satisfied, Johnson sought training in classical piano technique, music theory, harmony, counterpoint and orchestration. He wrote concertos, suites, symphonies and tone poems -- composing 19 orchestral works altogether. Some were played at Carnegie Hall as early as 1928. Others were never performed nor published during his lifetime.
Widely respected among his musical peers, by the mid-1930s Johnson was vigorously engaged in performing, recording, radio appearances, songwriting and arranging. He recorded some 400 tunes as a piano soloist, accompanist, bandleader or sideman. Johnson was featured in New York City at Café Society Downtown and John Hammond’s Spirituals to Swing concerts at Carnegie Hall in 1938 and ’39.
In the early 1940s Johnson suffered a mild stroke (most likely a transient ischemic attack), the first of several. Nonetheless, he continued working a heavy schedule performing, recording, leading combos, enjoying some measure of recognition -- and fleeting national fame.
The death of his protégé and dear friend Fats Waller in 1943 severely depressed Johnson. He went into quiet mourning for several months, before recording eight Waller tunes for Decca in 1944.
During the late 1940s in New York City James P. was featured in high profile concerts at Carnegie and Town Hall. He appeared at prestigious jazz clubs and was a regular feature on Rudi Blesh’s radio show. Toward the latter half of the ‘40s he was paired up with Dixielanders or New Orleans veterans for recording sessions and radio or television broadcasts with Eddie Condon.
It’s clear that Johnson tried to fuse jazz with traditional European classical music, seeking over and over again to create a blend. At first he borrowed or adapted classical themes and motifs:
“From listening to classical records and concerts, I would learn concert effects and build them into blues and rags. . . . I’d make an abrupt change like I heard Beethoven do in a sonata. Once, I used Liszt’s ‘Rigoletto’ concert paraphrase as an introduction to a stomp.”
In 1932, Johnson completed his “Harlem Symphony.” Another, “Symphony in Brown” was copyrighted but never published. "Jassamine Concerto" and "American Symphonic Suite" followed, receiving a smattering of publication and performance.
He originally penned the dramatic symphonic poem “Drums” for the 1932 show, Harlem Hotcha. It was later orchestrated as a tone poem, “Those Jungle Drums,” with lyrics by Langston Hughes. Lost for 40 years, the score was recently restored and recorded.
Yamekraw was probably Johnson’s most ambitious and successful symphonic work.
“Yamekraw: A Negro Rhapsody”
Yamekraw was a creative achievement blending 20th Century African American idioms and the classical piano concerto. A rhapsody-concerto for piano and orchestra, the full-scale score was arranged by African American composer William Grant Still. It was dedicated to and named for Yamecraw, a picturesque waterfront district on the outskirts of Savannah, Georgia.
Exuberant and visionary, this is Johnson’s most ambitious and successful work fusing symphony orchestra with Jazz, Blues, stomps and Gospel themes. The first composition of its kind by an African American composer, it premiered just a few years after Rhapsody in Blue by his good friend George Gershwin.
Yamekraw was performed twice in Carnegie Hall, debuting with Fats Waller soloist in 1928. Johnson performed it in 1945 for a program featuring several of his symphonic works. He waxed a masterful solo piano rendition on four 78 rpm record sides in 1944; more recently it was recorded by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with soloist Marcus Roberts (Sony Classical SK 68488).
For decades Johnson wrote to conductors and patrons seeking sponsorship for performance of his other large scores and extended works. Sadly, he received only rejections.
Honoring Forgotten Genius
A paralyzing stroke in 1951 ended Johnson’s performing career. His passing in 1955 was little noted. Yet, James has not been wholly forgotten. America has slowly come to recognize his vast talents. Johnson was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970 and ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) in 2007. His personal papers and scrapbooks are preserved in the Rutgers University Libraries.
After decades of research, several of his reconstructed symphonic works were premiered and recorded in the 1990s. And it’s fitting that just about 100 years after Johnson’s birth his portrait appeared on a United States Postage stamp, part of a set with nine other jazz greats in 1995.
James P. Johnson’s musical genius was incubated and nurtured in a rich American melting pot. His effervescent keyboard style, pioneering Black musical theater and American songs were at the foundations of jazz and popular music, propelling early jazz and African American culture into the modern era.
Great thanks to Mark Borowsky for his insights and expert interpretation of Johnson’s music heard above.
Sources and further reading:
James P. Johnson, Giants of Jazz, liner notes booklet, Kappler, Frank, Time Life Books, 1981
Black Bottom Stomp: Eight Masters of Ragtime and Early Jazz, Jasen, David A. and Jones, Gene, Routledge, 2002
James P. Johnson: A Case of Mistaken Identity, Brown, Scott E., Scarecrow Press, 1992