Monday, October 5, 2009

New York Times: ' Raising Roof and Headstone for Pioneering Pianist' James P. Johnson

[Victory Stride: The Symphonic Music of James P. Johnson; The Concordia Orchestra; Marin Alsop, Conductor; Music Masters 67140 (1994)]
Music Review
By Ben Ratliff
Published: October 5, 2009
A definition of righteousness: about 75 people, crammed into the West Village club Smalls, watching a series of pianists play James P. Johnson on a grand piano in a benefit concert to buy a headstone for his grave. Like all the other stride-piano soloists of the teens and 1920s, Johnson has been lodged in a historical second tier, probably because he’s not known for band music and didn’t tour sufficiently. But he’s the truest passageway from pre-jazz to jazz-as-we-know-it. He was a pioneering and powerful solo pianist, a composer of short sketches (including “The Charleston,” his era-defining hit, and “Carolina Shout,” his finger-buster étude) and extended orchestral works.

Duke Ellington learned “Carolina Shout” from a piano roll and finally met Johnson at a concert in Washington in 1921. Afterward they stayed out until 10 a.m. “What I absorbed on that occasion,” Ellington wrote later, “might, I think, have constituted a whole semester in a conservatory.” He homed in on Johnson’s strong, grounding swing and sweet, splashing melodies; to link Scott Joplin and Ellington — or even Joplin and Thelonious Monk — you need to put Johnson between them. Johnson died in 1955 fairly isolated after four years of illness, and his body lies in an unmarked grave in Maspeth, Queens. The spot was found in February by Scott Brown, a Johnson scholar, and the idea was hatched for “James P. Johnson’s Last Rent Party,” a daylong blowout of Johnsonia at Smalls on Sunday, with historical talks and performances.

The day ended with five hours of solo piano — by 12 performers — and a little bit of four-hands playing. Unlike the Harlem rent parties Johnson used to play, it wasn’t remotely a competition. Though several pianists wrestled with the same material (especially the charging “Carolina Shout”), the emphasis was not on besting one another but on beneficially knocking the tunes around, treating fairly neglected music like common repertory. (Full Post) (James P. Johnson is profiled at

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