Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Johnson, James P. (James Price)

James P. Johnson was one of the originators of jazz piano. Experimenting in Harlem in the teens and twenties, he expanded ragtime’s rigid forms to accommodate more complex harmonies and rhythmic ideas. These innovations, combined with his technical virtuosity at the keyboard, helped create a new style of playing called “stride.”

Johnson was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1894, the youngest of William H. and Josephine Harrison Johnson’s five children. Josephine, an active church choir member, began to teach him piano around age four.

Josephine was born in Petersburg, Virginia, and James P. would later say it was through her that he came to hear the ring shouts, square dances, and cotillions that were popular in the South. Johnson spoke about these influences later in life, stating that many of his compositions were based on the dance figures he witnessed as a child.

In 1908, the Johnson family moved to New York City's San Juan Hill, an African-American neighborhood where the Lincoln Center arts complex now stands. In high school, James P. was active as both a pianist and vocalist, and began to frequent nightclubs, absorbing the musical ideas and lifestyle of a cabaret pianist.

Johnson began his professional career in 1912, playing in bars, theaters, and dance halls throughout the city. Rent parties provided another means for employment, and it was in the parlors of private homes that many now-legendary battles took place between Johnson and other pianists in the emergent stride style, including Thomas "Fats" Waller, who studied with Johnson, and Willie "The Lion" Smith.

Rent parties, where tenants would provide entertainment and pass a hat to raise their rent at the end of the month, often doubled as fund-raising events for churches, political campaigns, and were an important way for Harlem’s African-Americans to organize and offer each other mutual support.

In 1916, Johnson recorded his first piano rolls for the Aeolian Company. Between 1916 and 1918, his compositional and recorded output included "Caprice Rag," "Steeplechase Rag," and "Carolina Shout," and set the foundations for stride technique. These early recordings featured a melodic style much in line with ragtime, but were also characterized by a stronger rhythmic feeling that Johnson would later fully develop.

This was particularly true with regard to left-hand rhythms found on Johnson's 1921 recording of "Carolina Shout." Here, Johnson utilized rolled tenths and backbeating to disrupt the more predictable 'oom-pah' rhythmic pattern. At this time, Johnson also became known for his playing with blues singers such as Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters.

In 1917, he married Lillie Mae Wright, a singer and dancer. Wright accompanied him on his first tour with a musical revue, Salem Tutt Whitney's and J. Homer Tutt's Smart Set, from late 1918 through early 1919. Over the next few years, Johnson contributed compositions to several musicals and revues, and achieved his first commercial success in 1923 with Runnin' Wild. This show featured Johnson's most famous song, "Charleston," that introduced the dance of the same name. Johnson also contributed compositions to Keep Shufflin,' which featured Fats Waller, and Shuffle Along of 1930.

Beginning in 1927, Johnson turned his attention to more ambitious works with Yamekraw: A Negro Rhapsody. Originally composed for solo piano, Yamekraw was orchestrated by William Grant Still and premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1928 in a concert organized by W. C. Handy.

By 1940, Yamekraw was featured in several short films, a ballet, and as an overture to Orson Welles's production of Macbeth for the Roosevelt Administration’s Works Progress Administration. This and compositions including Harlem Symphoyn and Symphony in Brown marked an attempt by Johnson to integrate aspects of African-American popular music with the Western art tradition. They were also a response to similar efforts by George Gershwin and Paul Whiteman, which enjoyed greater commercial success.

During the 1930s, Johnson continued to work in musical theater and nightclubs, though less frequently than before. This changed, however, when he was invited to participate in the "Spirituals to Swing" concerts organized by producer John Hammond at New York’s Carnegie Hall in December 1938 and 1939.

These performances, as well as renewed interest in early jazz, led to a comeback for Johnson. He performed regularly throughout the 1940s, including working with author Langston Hughes on The Organizer in 1940. Subtitled "A Blues Opera in One Act," The Organizer focused on the unionization efforts of Southern sharecroppers and espoused racial equality.

Johnson suffered the first of a series of strokes in 1940, but continued to compose and perform until 1951. He died on November 17, 1955.

Johnson's legacy as a composer in many genres has only recently started to receive the full recognition it deserves. Together with fellow Harlem pianists Eubie Blake, Willie “The Lion” Smith and Thomas “Fats” Waller, Johnson’s experiments blazed a trail for future pianists, and his early recordings contributed to the rise in popularity of the style.

Major songs:

"Caprice Rag" (1917)

"Steeplechase Rag" (1917)

"Carolina Shout" (1918)

"Charleston" (1923)

"Old-Fashioned Love" (1923)

"If I Could Be With You" (1926)

"Snowy Morning Blues" (1927)

"You've Got To Be Modernistic" (1930)

Major works: Yamekraw: Negro Rhapsody (1927)

Harlem Symphony (1932)

Symphony in Brown (1935)

Musical theater: Plantation Days (1922)

Runnin' Wild (1923)

Keep Shufflin' (1928)

Messin' Around (1929)

Shuffle Along of 1930 (1930)

The Organizer (1940)

On Film: St. Louis Blues (1929)

Yamekraw (ca. 1930)

Stormy Weather (1943)

Bibliography:

Brown, Scott E. 1986. James P. Johnson: A Case of Mistaken Identity. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press and the Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University.

Davin, Tom. 1959 and 1960. "Conversations with James P. Johnson." Jazz Review June-September; March/April.

Hadlock, Richard. 1988. Jazz Masters of the Twenties. New York: Da Capo Press.

Hammond, John. 1955. "Talents of James P. Johnson Went Unappreciated." Down Beat December 28: 12.

Hoefer, George. 1954: "James P. Johnson Dies, But Leaves Large Legacy." Down Beat May 5: 6.

Howland, John. 2006. "Jazz Rhapsodies in Black and White: James P. Johnson's Yamekraw." American Music 24:445-509.

Pease, Sharon A. 1953. "Johnson, Now Ailing, Sustained by Royalties." LDown Beat May 20: 20.

Scivales, Riccardo, ed. 1990. Harlem Stride Piano Solos. Bedford Hills, NY: Ekay Music.

Discography:

Snowy Morning Blues. James P. Johnson. GRD-604 Decca Jazz.

Contributor: Scott Carter