The Jazz.com Blog
October 06, 2009 · 5 comments
I can't remember the last time pre-WW2 jazz created such a buzz. But the Last Rent Party is the talk of the town. And the money went to a good cause: a headstone for the magisterial stride pianist and composer James P. Johnson. Tim Wilkins was on hand and reports below. T.G.
"James P.'s Last Rent Party" is what Michael "Spike" Wilner chose to call the marathon jam session he organized at Smalls, the underground club he runs in New York's Greenwich Village, to honor piano pioneer James P. Johnson on Sunday. Wilner assembled the nation's best stride professors, including Dick Hyman, Ethan Iverson, Ted Rosenthal and a half-dozen others, including the mighty "Terror of San Francisco," Mike Lipskin. This all-star team played for nearly nine hours so the James P. Johnson Foundation can buy a tombstone for the stride master's grave in Queens, which is, shockingly, unmarked.
"We tried to create a cutting-session atmosphere," Wilner told me before his set. "I'm just going to try to walk away with dignity!"
This may have been an incredible concentration of piano prowess in a tiny room, but it otherwise bore little resemblance to the rowdy Harlem rent parties where James P. earned his stripes. Thanks to Mayor Bloomberg's smoking ban, I even brought my sixteen-month-old daughter, Emma, who got hooked on stride's bouncing groove. There were plenty of piano sharpies on hand, studying every note, who ranged in age from their teens into their nineties: one or two could remember hearing James P. himself play in the forties.
While an atmosphere of mutual affection and bonhomie prevailed, there was still enough friendly tension in the air to keep the performers on their toes: during the first sets I sat next to Iverson, who listened intently, then snuck out around 4 p.m. and went around the corner to the Village Vanguard, where he borrowed the house piano to warm up.
Iverson's set was one of the marathon's many highlights: he played "Theme in Two Voices," a piece he discovered only days before in the archives of Rutgers University's Institute for Jazz Studies in Newark. He also played thoroughly deconstructed versions of Johnson's "Old-Fashioned Love" and "The Charleston."
Iverson extended Johnson's revolutionary use of cross-rhythms, which helped ragtime become jazz, by creating asymmetric note flows with his left hand. These groupings only occasionally coincided with recognizable snatches of melody he spun out with his right. He then bounced the melody into his left hand, setting up an uncommon counterpoint which slowly gathered steam as the voices converged: first, the familiar bounce of stride bass appeared, which he then locked into a celebratory, immediately recognizable explosion of The Charleston's main theme, which is perhaps the best-loved and remembered strain of the Jazz Age.
Some played Johnson's compositions, such as his notorious finger-buster "Carolina Shout," "Steeplechase Rag," "Jingles" and "You've Got To Be Modernistic," while others preferred their own compositions or those of Johnson's contemporaries and disciples, such as Luckey Roberts, Thomas "Fats" Waller and Duke Ellington. Interpretations ranged from the soulful (Aaron Diehl) to postmodern (Iverson), elegiac (Conal Fowkes), playful (Lipskin) and ultra-kinetic (Wilner). All displayed the virtuosity and skill associated with Johnson's style.
Hyman and Rosenthal closed out the evening with a breathtaking suite of four-hand arrangements, including a medley of hits from his 1923 Broadway show, Runnin' Wild, and Hyman's own lyrical interpretation of Johnson's "Liza."
The inspiration for this event came earlier this year when Scott Brown, James P.'s biographer, discovered the pianist was buried in an unmarked grave in the Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Maspeth, Queens. He brought this to the attention of members of New York's circle of hard-core stride enthusiasts, which includes Wilner, Terry Waldo and Ehud Asherie. They quickly enlisted the help of others, including Iverson, and set a plan in motion.
"Everyone was just amazed and shocked that an artist of that stature and magnitude would be completely forgotten," Wilner told me. "We were pretty much appalled." There is a kind of stride renaissance underway in New York, thanks largely to the efforts of younger pianists like Wilner and Waldo, who for several years hosted weekly "cutting sessions" at a sister club of Smalls, Fat Cat, on Sunday afternoons.
Brown also tracked down James P.'s grandson, Barry Glover. It turns out Glover had created a non-profit to honor James P.'s life and music, and donated a treasure trove of manuscripts to the IJS. He was delighted in the young pianists' interest, and invited them to not only raise money for a headstone, but also to help draw greater attention to James P.'s legacy. Together, they hatched the plan for Sunday night's "Rent Party," which Glover hopes will become an annual event for the Foundation.
"Keep Off The Grass!" is what Wilner jokingly suggested the tombstone should read, citing one of James P.'s best-known compositions. While the stone will most likely bear a more dignified inscription, it will hopefully serve as a small step towards wider appreciation of Johnson, whose innovations were essential to the emergence of jazz itself, and so deserve to be recognized beyond the inner circle of jazz pianists who have long acknowledged him as a founding master of their craft.
This blog entry posted by Tim Wilkins