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James Price Johnson [also known as Jimmy Johnson] (February 1, 1894November 17, 1955) was an African-American pianist and composer. With Luckey Roberts, Johnson was one of the originators of the stride style of jazz piano playing.
Johnson was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey. His family moved to New York City in 1908. His first professional engagement was at Coney Island in 1912. In 1911, while he was "still going to school in short pants", he attended Jelly Roll Morton's performance in Harlem and was inspired by the blues. Johnson and Morton represented different branches in the subsequent evolution of the ragtime of Scott Joplin, into the jazz piano of the teens and 1920's. History would prove that the Johnson school would eventually become the more influential one, as subsequent generations of jazz pianists, whether they be in the stride, swing, or bebop tradition, can trace their lineage back to James P. Johnson.
Scott Joplin, the pioneering ragtime pianist and composer, who had penned the first great hit of the genre ("Maple Leaf Rag"), and the first piece of popular sheet music to sell a million copies, had moved to New York in 1908. It was here that he died, broken, and nearly penniless, in 1917, frustrated by his unsuccessful attempts to have his last great compositional effort, the opera Treemonisha, performed. It was James P. Johnson, who grew up listening to, and playing the music of Scott Joplin, who was to become the man most responsible for the evolution of the ragtime piano of Joplin, into the earliest, and still most swinging form of piano jazz, which has become known today as Harlem Stride Piano. Joplin, in death, remained a significant influence on Johnson, who retained links to the ragtime era, by playing Joplin's rags, most notably "Maple Leaf", as well as the more modern (according to Johnson) and demanding, "Euphonic Sounds". Johnson had also been aware of Joplin's operatic efforts, as in his collection was found a copy of "A Real Slow Drag" from Treemonisha. This is of no small significance, as, in the 1930s, when, financially secure through the royalties from his compositions, Johnson was able to pursue a lifelong ambition of writing orchestral works. In this endeavor, he was inspired by, and followed in the footsteps of other pioneers from the world of popular music and jazz, such as George Gershwin, and William Grant Still, both of whom he knew and could count as colleagues.
1928 saw the premier of Johnson's rhapsody, Yamekraw, named after a black community in Savannah Georgia. William Grant Still served as the orchestrator, and Fats Waller held down the piano chair, as Johnson could not get out of the contractual obligation to conduct the orchestra for his then running hit Broadway Show, Keep Shufflin' ( written jointly with Fats). Harlem Symphony, composed during the 1930's, when Johnson, now reasonably financially secure from compositional royalties and in semi-retirement, was performed feauring Johnson at the piano, at Carnegie Hall in 1945, with Joseph Cherniavsky, previously a mainstay of the Yiddish Theatre, as the conductor. Long thought to have been lost, the orchestration of Harlem Symphony was rediscovered in the 1980's by the conductor Marin Alsop. She featured this, along with other of Johnson's classical works, such as Yamekraw, Jasmine Concerto, and Rhythm Drums at a Lincoln Center concert devoted to Johnson in 1990. These were recorded on the CD, Victory Stride(named for another Johnson composition, also on the album, and previously recorded by James P. for Blue Note in 1944), featuring maestra Alsop's Concordia Orchestra. This is described in the the article by Leslie Stifleman, Concordia's pianist. A description of the recent rediscovery and reconstruction of De Organizer, a one act opera done in collaboration with the poet Langston Hughes, is included in the discographical section below.
Besides being a jazz piano pioneer, and a most spontaneously inventive performer, Johnson composed many hit tunes: "Charleston" (which debuted in his Broadway show Runnin' Wild in 1923, although by some accounts Johnson had written it years earlier) became one of the most popular songs and arguably the definitive dance number/theme tune of the Roaring Twenties. Others are "If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight)", "You've Got to Be Modernistic", "Baby Don't Cry", "Keep off the Grass", "Old Fashioned Love", "A Porter's Love Song to a Chambermaid", "Carolina Shout", and "Snowy Morning Blues". He wrote music in many styles, including waltzes, ballet, symphonic pieces, and light opera; many other of these ambitious, long-form pieces are presumed lost. His success as a popular composer qualified Johnson as a member of ASCAP in 1926.
James Weldon Johnson, a pioneer of the African-American musical theater and renowned choral director, had this to say about Johnson's style of playing: "It was music of a kind I had never heard before... The barbaric harmonies, the audacious resolutions, often consisting of an abrupt jump from one key to another, the intricate rhythms in which the accents fell in the most unexpected places, but in which the beat was never lost, produced a most curious effect - the dexterity of his left hand in making rapid octave runs and jumps was little short of marvelous; and with his right he frequently swept half the keyboard with clean cut chromatics which he fitted in so nicely as never to fail to arouse in his listeners a sort of pleasant surprise at the accomplishment of the feat."
James P. Johnson taught Fats Waller and got him his first piano roll and recording assignments. Along with Fats Waller and Willie 'The Lion' Smith, 'The Big Three' defined the Harlem Stride piano style. "Carolina Shout" was their "Maple Leaf Rag" - the test piece that put every pianist on notice. Even Duke Ellington recorded it; ragtime infused with blues had become jazz.
Johnson recorded dozens of superb player piano roll recordings for the QRS Piano Roll Company in the 1920s and the Aeolian Company in the teens. It was during this period that he met and influenced George Gershwin, who was also a young piano-roll artist at Aeolian. He was also a strong influence on Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, and Thelonious Monk. His influence continues to this day in the work of Cyrus Chestnut, Harry Connick Jr., Mark Birnbaum and Reginald Robinson.
In addition to being a lyrical pianist with a warm, hearty sound, Johnson was also a sensitive and facile accompanist; Johnson was the favorite accompanist of Ethel Waters ( who advised a young Fletcher Henderson, with whom she recorded frequently, to study the recordings of James P. in order to get a better feeling for the blues ) and Bessie Smith, and was reportedly also the latter's favorite pianist. Ethel Waters wrote in her autobiography that working with musicians such as Johnson " ...made you want to sing until your tonsils fell out." This was indeed mutual admiration, as the surviving 4 sides, done at their only joint recording session, demonstrate. They are duets, performed by 2 artists who represented the pinnacles of their respective crafts. Even guitarist Chet Atkins credited Johnson and "stride piano" as a major influence on his early style; Atkins covered Johnson's compositions on an early solo album of his, as well as his 1979 collaboration The First Nashville Guitar Quartet.
In the late 1930s,as the Great Depression began to recede, Johnson slowly started to re-emerge on a larger public stage, both as a recording artist and a live performer. With the rise of independent, specialty jazz labels, Johnson began to record with his own and other groups first for the HRS label. He appeared at the Cafe Society Downtown, founded by the socially minded impressario, Barney Josephson, who into the 1980s, was still running his latest incarnation of a traditional jazz venue, called the Cookery, where one could hear, among others,Dick Hyman, as well as the last surviving stride pianist from the 1930s, Joe Turner. This gig would have coincided with James P's appearances at the Spirituals to Swing Concerts at Carnegie Hall in 1938, and 1939, organized by his friend, John Hammond, for whom he recorded a substantial series of solos and band sides in 1939. The associations with white liberals such as Hammond, Josephson,and Moses Asch, point to a less appreciated/documented side of Johnson; that of a black man living in a still largely segregated, racially divided society, with a resulting social consciousness which was to emerge at that time, through his collaboration with Langston Hughes, in the one act opera, De Organizer.
Seemingly at the height of his technical powers, Johnson suffered what was described as a stroke in 1940. In modern medical terminology, this was most likely more of a transient ischemic attack (aka TIA), or a milder, reversible form of stroke, as, when he returned to the public eye in the early 1940s, even though his style was clearly different, i.e. less clean and precise, his technique was still formidable, and he began to resume a very heavy schedule of performing, composing, and recording. He demonstrated his adaptability by leading several small live as well as studio groups, and performing regularly, now often with racially integrated bands led by musicians such as the guitarist Eddie Condon, trumpeters Yank Lawson and Sidney De Paris, clarinetists Sidney Bechet, Rod Cless, and Edmond Hall, for the most respected and important jazz labels of the day, including Asch, Black and White, Blue Note, Commodore, Circle, and Decca. By then, a much respected and beloved elder statesman of jazz, he was a regular guest star and featured soloist on Rudi Blesh's This is Jazz broadcasts, as well as at Eddie Condon's Town Hall concerts. Always seeking to extend the range of his compositional interests, he also did some independent study with the noted teacher of composition, Maury Deutsch, who could also count Django Reinhardt and Charlie Parker among his pupils.
As noted previously, Johnson was one of the earliest innovators of what has subsequently become known as the Harlem Stride school of jazz piano. A direct descendant of the ragtime of Scott Joplin, borrowing from it many melodic as well as harmonic devices pioneered by Joplin, the stride idiom is distinguished from ragtime by several essential characteristics:
Rhythmic: Ragtime proved to be a revolutionary new form of composed music within the western harmonic tradition, by the introduction of syncopation into the performance; that is the emphasis of traditionally less emphasized beats within the 4 beat measure i.e. whereas in European piano music it is the 1st and 3rd beats which normally get the emphasis, in ragtime, this emphasis is usually shifted to the 2nd and 4th beats of the measure. When one is raised on the former,and expecting the 1/3 emphasis, the correct performance of a piano rag produces a somewhat pleasantly surprising, disorienting, and sometimes mildly intoxicating effect. This is perhaps what many traditionalists found to be subversive: not only was this rhythm iconoclastic, but, as the music was associated with, and often composed by people of color, there was the subliminal connection to a dangerous, repressed sexuality which threatened the morals of the contemporary Victorian society.
The Stride pianists introduced a far more free-swinging rhythm into their performances than is possible to duplicate, than for instance, by merely correctly interpreting the well-worked-out and annotated ragtime compositions of Joplin and his colleagues; there is more to achieving the swinging stride effect than by merely playing notes on a printed page. A certain amount of the rhythmic subtlety that is required to play stride successfully is transcended by what can be written on the printed page. In a stride performance there must be a certain degree of anticipation of the left hand by the right hand, a form of pulling and tugging, or tension and release, where the patterns played by the right hand are interpolated within the beat generated by the left. Crudely stated and oversimplified, this is what can be said to give a correctly executed stride performance its lilt, swing, and powerful drive. It is doubtful that any amount of written description, no matter how accurate, can give a truly accurate portrayal of what it means to stride or swing. The interested reader is referred to the solo recordings of Fats Waller, or James P. Johnson, for a truly convincing demonstration of the swinging power of Stride.
Harmonic (Incorporation of elements of the Blues): A further distinguishing characteristic between ragtime, and stride, is the more frequent incorporation by the latter, of elements of the blues, as well as other more advanced harmonies than usually found in the works of even more harmonically sophisticated classic ragtime composers such as Artie Matthews, James Scott or Joseph Lamb.
Improvisation: Lastly, classic ragtime was for the most part, a composed music, based upon the European classics, as well as marches of the day. The latter, also served as the rhythmic model for the syncopation that would come to distinguish ragtime from its European influences. Individual performers can impart their own widely varying rhythmic, as well as dynamic interpretations into a performance of, for instance, a Joplin piece, even the interpolation of grace notes, or fill-ins into the standard alternating single note/cord pattern of the ragtime bass, but true improvisation in classic ragtime did occur only rarely. The final element of the true genius of pianists such as Fats Waller, and James P. Johnson, was the introduction of often well worked out rhythmic, harmonic and melodic figures into their performances, and occasionally, even spontaneous improvisitation, all still performed according to well worked out guidelines, which would preserve both the rhythmic structure, as well as the essential melody of the tune being played.Further, the rhythm and harmonies played in the right hand would have to fit logically with the beat generated by the left hand, in order to maintain the necessary degree of tension and release, and to therefore maintain the swing so generated. Improvisation in this context was not a free for all, or random or chaotic event, it would proceed in a logical sequence from its starting to ending point. It needed to have this well worked out internal logic of its own, which meshed within the larger work, especially when the stride pianists were playing behind singers, or within small bands.
In their public performances, the stride pianists would use as vehicles the well worked out variations/arrangements of either popular songs of the day ( for example "Liza" or "Tea for Two"), or especially composed test pieces within the idiom, offered by its main performers. Examples of these test pieces included Johnson's "Carolina Shout", "Keep off the Grass", and "Harlem Strut", Fats Waller's "Handful of Keys", and Willie "the Lion" Smith's "Fingerbuster". Other pianists would attempt to learn these pieces, and then offer their own interpretations, as the basis for friendly competition amongst themselves, often performed during after hour sessions that could be heard at any of the dozen or so nightclubs that could be found in Harlem at the time. James P. remained the acknowledged king of the New York jazz pianists, as his playing was consistently the the most swinging, as well as inventive, until he was dethroned c. 1933 by the recently arrived Art Tatum. In this there was indeed no disgrace, as Tatum is now by almost universal acclaim considered to be the greatest technician that jazz piano has ever known.
Johnson permanently retired from performing after a severe stroke in 1951. He died in Jamaica, New York. Perfunctory obituaries appeared in even the New York Times. The pithiest and most angry remembrance of James P. was written by his friend, the producer and impresario John Hammond, and appeared in Down Beat under the title Talents of James P. Johnson Went Unappreciated. It is reproduced in its entirety on the website of the James P. Johnson Foundation.
In spite of the fact that Johnson can arguably be considered to have been the first jazz pianist, the composer of the signature tune of the Roaring Twenties, as well as other enduring tunes, he remains largely unknown to the general public.
The noted Reed College musicologist David Schiff, has quite insightfully referred to James P. as the musical incarnation of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man . Indeed, his musical legacy is present within the body of work of his prized pupil, the more famous Thomas "Fats" Waller as well as scores of other pianists who were influenced by him, many of whom are active to this day. A partial list would include American, British, French, German, and Italian names names such as: Donald Lambert, Pat Flowers, Joe Turner, Cliff Jackson, Hank Duncan, Claude Hopkins, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Don Ewell, Johnny Guarnieri, Dick Hyman, Dick Wellstood, Ralph Sutton, Neville Dickie, Mike Lipskin, Jim Turner, Louis Mazetier, Bernd Lohtzky, Rossano Sportiello, Chris Hopkins, Olivier Lancelot, Francois Rilhac, Butch Thompson,and John Royen. No doubt, Johnson would be somewhat amused to learn, that today, a large percentage of his serious fans are highly educated individuals, many of whom have advanced degrees and doctorates in areas other than music.