James P. Johnson: Keep Off the Grass


Keep Off the Grass



Harlem Stride Piano 1921-1929 (Jazz Archives 111)

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James P. Johnson (piano).

Composed by James P. Johnson


Recorded: New York, October 18, 1921


Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

They called him the father of stride piano, the king of the Harlem rent party.

In terms of keyboard geography, the space between the "oom" and the "pah" is always very far in James P's left hand. This piece is also quite fast; few other jazz pieces from this era are as brisk. Everything considered, "Keep Off the Grass" is fearsomely difficult to play.

Part of the real Harlem stride style is how single notes do not dominate the melody; instead, constant constellations of double notes (and sometimes chords) brassily sing on top. The first strain of "Keep Off the Grass" has a mysterious chromatic "thumb line" (the lower note of the dyads and chords) that, if isolated, would be quite Monkish in nature.

The last (and most improvised) strain is composed of falling diminished chords. After nearly a century of increasingly advanced jazz harmony, it is hard to hear them as provocative today. In 1921, though, I'm pretty sure James P. would have meant those chain sequences of diminished chords to mean uncertainty and perhaps even sadness: the tear beneath the smile.

Reviewer: Ethan Iverson

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