Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Francis Johnson (1792-1844): African American Bugler, Band Leader & Composer

[The Music of Francis Johnson & His Contemporaries: Early 19th-Century Black Composers; Diane Monroe, Violin; The Chestnut Brass Company and Friends; Tamara Brooks, Conductor; Music Masters 7029-2-C (1990)]

Francis B. "Frank" Johnson was an African American bugler, bandleader and composer born in 1792. He is profiled in AfriClassical.com Prof. Dominique-René de Lerma of Lawrence University has made his research on Johnson available to this Website. He begins:

Francis (or Frank) Johnson was the first major bandmaster in the U.S. It has long been thought he was born in Martinique, but it is now believed he was born in Philadelphia, known there as a professional musician by 1812, probably as a violinist.”

Francis Johnson played the bugle, keyed bugle, cornet, violin and other instruments. He also composed music for band. Among the recordings of his works is The Music of Francis Johnson and His Contemporaries: Early 19th-Century Black Composers, Music Masters 7029-2-C (1990). The music is performed on original instruments by The Chestnut Brass Company and Friends, accompanied on violin by Diane Monroe and led by Tamara Brooks, Conductor. The CD includes marches and dances of the period by Johnson's four African American contemporaries in Philadelphia who also wrote band music: James Hemmenway, Isaac Hazzard, A.J.R. Conner and Edward Roland.

The liner notes for the recording begin by emphasizing the unusual nature of Francis Johnson's professional activities:

The career and musical legacy of Francis 'Frank' Johnson (1792-1844) represent one of the most singular achievements in the history of American music. In an era when full-time musicians were a rarity in the United States, Johnson fashioned a career of such variety and importance that it would be the envy of many a modern musician. Even more remarkable is that Johnson, an African-American, was able to achieve such success against a background of racial strife which worsened even as his work progressed.

Johnson was the composer of over three hundred pieces of music, the majority of which were published. He was a renowned performer on the keyed bugle and violin and led one of the best bands of his time.”

The liner notes point out that information on Francis Johnson's early life is sketchy:

“The sources of his musical training are likewise a mystery, though some of his study appears to have been with Richard Willis, an Irish keyed-bugle soloist who arrived in the United States in 1816 and assumed leadership of the West Point band in 1818.”

Dominique-René de Lerma relates the origin and early use of the instrument known as the keyed-bugle:

“The keyed bugle, which Johnson played by 1818, was patented in 1810 by Joseph Halliday, an Irish bandmaster. It was also known as the Kent bugle, named for the Duke of Kent who called for its use in the royal bands.”

Johnson was already well-established as a Philadelphia musician when his first sheet music appeared, according to the liner notes:

By 1818, the year of his first published composition, A Collection of New Cotillions, Johnson was established as a well-known musician in Philadelphia, then the national cultural center. Robert Waln, author of The Hermit in America, penned the following oft-quoted portrait of Johnson in 1819: 'In fine, he is the leader of the band at all balls, public and private; sole director of all serenades, acceptable and unacceptable; inventor-general of cotillions; to which add, a remarkable taste in distorting a sentimental, simple, and beautiful song, into a reel, jig or country-dance'."

Strategic alliances with important institutions contributed to the acceptance of Johnson's African American band by White society, as we learn from the liner notes:

Johnson's band, which probably was begun to fill a need in the Black community, shortly became popular with the more affluent White society as well. Two important, long-standing associations were formed in the early 1820s when the band became affiliated with the Philadelphia State Fencibles (militia units at the time contracted with their own bands) and with the Summer Resort at Saratoga Springs, presaging the current summer residency of the Philadelphia Orchestra. In 1824 Johnson's reputation was further enhanced when he composed much of the music for the triumphal return to Philadelphia of Revolutionary War hero General Lafayette, who was traveling the United States to great public acclaim and celebration.”

Prof. De Lerma elaborates:

A band of 20 players provided music for most of the festivities accorded General Lafayette in 1824.”

Francis Johnson's music for General Lafayette on this recording includes: Honor To The Brave: Gen. Lafayette's Grand March (3:57).

Johnson typically played the violin at dances, accompanied by a small ensemble, as Prof. De Lerma recounts:

The popular dances (performed indoors with a smaller ensemble and with Johnson as violinist) included the polka, galop, waltz, cotillion, country dance, reels, jigs, and quadrille. These were played in sets, with a pattern of repeats so, even if rather short individually, the performances became extended.

The liner notes of the CD quote from Johnson's announcement of his European trip:

“In 1837 Francis Johnson announced that he and a small contingent of his band members were departing for Europe to 'improve his musical capacity and knowledge, so as to be able in a much greater degree than formerly to contribute to the gratification of the public'."

Prof. De Lerma identifies the band members who accompanied Johnson to Europe, and notes they performed for Victoria shortly before she became Queen of England:

In November of 1837, he took William Appo (Johnson's brother-in-law), Aaron J. R. Connor, Edwin Roland, and Francis V. Seymour (if not also James Hemmmenway) to London as the first Black American musicians to visit Europe, and to the royal court at Buckingham Palace to play for Victoria (1838), soon to be crowned Queen of England.”

The liner notes summarize the activities of the musicians in Europe, and give the approximate date of their return:

“The musicians remained in Europe, acquiring music, studying continental styles and giving concerts until their return to the United States for the Christmas season of 1838.”

The liner notes recount that Johnson's band returned to Philadelphia and began giving "promenade concerts" in the French style:

Upon their return they promptly introduced Johnson's tremendously successful Promenade Concerts a la Musard, forerunners of the modern "pops" concerts. Prominent White performers were later included in these programs, some of the first interracial performances in America. In 1842 Johnson provided the music for a ball in honor of the visiting English author Charles Dickens.

Prof. De Lerma notes that Johnson subsequently toured widely in
the United States, and also visited Canada:

“His tours (1839-1844) took him as far north as Toronto, as far west as St. Louis. They also performed in Detroit, Ann Arbor, Cleveland, and Louisville.”

As free Blacks, Johnson and his band members found themselves unwelcome in Missouri, which had entered the Union as a slave state.

The liner notes tell us that Johnson and his band performed works of Haydn and Handel at social and religious gatherings of African Americans, and dedicated compositions to the fight against slavery and to the Haitian Revolution:

“Johnson remained musically active in the Black community as well, often conducting the orchestra at church concerts, including works by Haydn and Handel. His pride in, and commitment to, his race is manifest in many of his works, notably the Recognition March on the Independence Hayti and the music to the moving abolitionist song The Grave of the Slave.

Racist persecution was a fact of life during the career of Francis Johnson, as the liner notes make clear in vivid detail:

“Johnson's career was never far from the ugliest forms of racial persecution. White bands often refused to participate in parades when Johnson's band was scheduled to appear; and when the band toured to St. Louis, Missouri, its members were arraigned, fined and ordered from the state under laws prohibiting the entry of free Blacks. A particularly violent incident occurred near Pittsburgh: "At the close of the concert the mob followed Mr. Johnson and his company shouting "n____" and other opprobrious epithets, and hurling brick-bats, stones and rotten eggs in great profusion upon the unfortunate performers. One poor fellow was severely, it is feared dangerously, wounded in the head, and others were more or less hurt. No thanks to the mobocrats that life was not taken, for they hurled their missiles with murderous recklessness if not with murderous intention." The Tribune [NY], May 23, 1843.

We learn form the liner notes that a long illness near the end of his life in 1844 limited Johnson's performances but not his output of music.

Prof. De Lerma says Francis Johnson's bands continued long after his death, under the leadership of Joseph G. Anderson (1816-1873), until around the outbreak of the Civil War.

Read the full entry

Francis+Johnson" rel="tag">Francis Johnson
African+American" rel="tag">African American
Black+Bugler" rel="tag">Black Bugler
Band+Composer" rel="tag">Band Composer
Black+Composer" rel="tag">Black Composer
Band+Music" rel="tag">Band Music

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