The Jazz.com Blog
June 03, 2009 · 8 comments
Ethan Iverson has spurred an interesting web debate on how well younger musicians know the jazz tradition. He recently chided participants in a piano master class, when none of them were familiar with James P. Johnson's "Carolina Shout."
James P. Johnson (artwork by Suzanne Cerny)
Chris Donnelly, one of the pianists involved in the master class, offers his defense here—insisting that nobody is talking about James P. Johnson these days. Blame the broader culture and the jazz community, not the young musicians.
Hand it to Chris, he not only published his defense and rebuttal to Iverson on the web, but even submitted it in Iverson's recent "write a jazz blog" competition. Ethan counters with a spirited defense of "Carolina Shout." Not wanting to miss out on a good fight, Peter Hum jumped into the battle with his own commentary. He writes: "I don't see demonstrating one's ability to play James P. Johnson or stride in general as required proof of a true relationship with the jazz piano tradition."
Iverson is not convinced. He denies "that James P. Johnson's name is that obscure. I've found his name to be inescapable." He goes on to cite chapter and verse, defending Johnson's importance.
I have to side with Iverson on this matter, yet I also note that the contemporary culture does not make much room for people like James P. Johnson. Serious jazz pianists, of any generation, should know this music, but I am not surprised that they don't.
I recently tried to find my CD of James P. Johnson's concert music (he wrote a number of extended works of quasi-classical proportions), and failed to locate it in the maze of compact disks and books that passes for my home; when I went to the web to order a new copy I learned it was out of print. This was really the only decent collection of Johnson's concert works, and it was sobering to learn that it was out of stock and only available from specialty dealers. What hypocrisy, when our nation celebrates "Black Music Month" (which started on Monday, by the way), yet no one cares to keep the music in print! Can you spell L-I-P S-E-R-V-I-C-E?
But "Carolina Shout" is a different matter entirely. It is easy to find, and exerted much more influence on jazz than any of Johnson's concert works. This particular piece was the composition every stride piano player needed to learn (almost as a rite of passage) back in the days of Harlem rent parties. In a way, it was the jazz studies program before there were jazz studies programs. Thus, there is more than a little irony involved when jazz piano students today don't know about it.
If a player only plans to learn one stride piano piece, this would be the one. By the same token, if you don't know "Carolina Shout," it suggests that you don't have any real conception of piano jazz before bebop, because it would be hard not to run into this song during even the most cursory exploration of pre-WWII jazz keyboard music. Duke learned "Carolina Shout." Monk learned "Carolina Shout." Jarrett learned "Carolina Shout" (and played it as an encore at his recent Carnegie Hall concert).
Yet I would suggest that the ignorance of James P. Johnson among younger musicians is a symptom of a larger problem (which I outlined in a recent column): namely that jazz fans these days don't want to listen to recordings made before the advent of high fidelity sound. If the CD was recorded in 1957 or after, they will check it out. But anything earlier . . . forget it!
In a world that pays more attention to the recording quality than the quality of the music, we lose James P. Johnson, "Carolina Shout," and a lot else.
P.S. For a good introduction to stride piano, check out Ethan Iverson's "guest" dozens on the subject here.
This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia