Tuesday, January 29, 2008

James Price Johnson, African American Composer & Stride Pianist Born Feb. 1, 1894

[Victory Stride: The Symphonic Music of James P. Johnson; The Concordia Orchestra; Marin Alsop, Conductor; Music Masters 67140 (1994)]

Co-author of The Charleston, stride pianist and composer of jazz and classical music

The James P. Johnson Foundation maintains a website with numerous resources including Talents of James P. Johnson Went Unappreciated, an obituary by John Hammond in Down Beat Magazine, December 28, 1955, http://www.jamespjohnson.org

The African American composer and pianist James Price Johnson, profiled at AfriClassical.com, was born on Feb. 1, 1894 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Dr. Dominique-René de Lerma, Professor of Music at Lawrence University, wrote the liner notes for the CD Got the Saint-Louis Blues: Classical Music in the Jazz Age, Clarion CLR907 (2004), which includes a performance of Johnson's Yamekraw: A Negro Rhapsody (15:49) by pianist Paul Shaw and the VocalEssence Ensemble conducted by Philip Brunelle. Prof. De Lerma recounts: “At a very early age, James Price Johnson (1894-1955) began piano lessons, first under the highly disciplined instruction of Bruno Gianinni, and later in New York City with Eubie Blake.”

Johnson first won public recognition as a jazz composer and pianist, as the Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music relates: “In jazz he was the foremost exponent of the stride piano style, and his composition Carolina Shout, recorded in 1921, became the test piece for younger musicians. From 1921 he accompanied blues singers, including recordings (1927-30) and the film St. Louis Blues with Bessie Smith. In musical theater, Cecil Mack and he wrote Runnin' Wild, and their hit song The Charleston started that dance craze (1923)."

Pianist Leslie Stifelman and The Concordia Orchestra, conducted by Marin Alsop, have explored Johnson's symphonic works on a CD, Victory Stride: The Symphonic Music of James P. Johnson, Music Masters 67140 (1994).

The liner notes were written by Scott E. Brown, author of the biography
James P. Johnson: A Case of Mistaken Identity, from Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc. (1986). Brown describes Johnson as "an astounding musician" who was called "the Father of Stride Piano", an intermediate style between ragtime and jazz.

Among Johnson's students, Brown recounts, were Fats Waller and Duke Ellington. Johnson also wrote all or part of 16 musicals during the 1920s. Brown writes that when the Depression ended the era of The Charleston, Johnson resumed his music studies: “Moving his family to the then-fashionable neighborhood of Jamaica, Long Island, he undertook serious private study of music theory, harmony, composition, counterpoint, instrumentation, and orchestration.” “Despite little recognition and limited encouragement, James P Johnson would write two symphonies, a piano and a clarinet concerto, two ballets, two one-act operas and a number of sonatas, suites, tone poems and a string quartet.”

Prof. De Lerma explains the origin of Johnson's Yamekraw: A Negro Rhapsody, “Written in celebration of a black community on the outskirts of Savannah, Yamekraw: A Negro Rhapsody (1927) was first performed by Fats Waller in a Carnegie Hall concert organized by William C. Handy. It seems most likely that Johnson's relative inexperience in orchestral writing prompted him to ask William Grant Still to rework the score in 1928.” Dr. De Lerma adds: “His first stroke in 1940 did not prevent him from presenting a concert of his own works at Carnegie Hall in 1944, but a much more serious stroke occurred in 1951, confining him to bed until his death.”

James Price Johnson died in New York City on Nov. 17, 1955.

James+Johnson" rel="tag">James Johnson
Black+Composer" rel="tag">Black Composer
stride+piano" rel="tag">stride piano
The+Charleston" rel="tag">The Charleston
African+American" rel="tag">African American
symphonic+composer" rel="tag">symphonic composer

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