Monday, February 1, 2010

James P. 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)]

The African American composer and pianist James Price Johnson was born on Feb. 1, 1894 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He is profiled at His biography is James P. Johnson: A Case of Mistaken Identity by Scott E. Brown. Brown also wrote the liner notes for the CD Victory Stride: The Symphonic Music of James P. Johnson, Music Masters 67140 (1994). Pianist Leslie Stifelman and The Concordia Orchestra are led by Marin Alsop, conductor. Dr. Dominique-René de Lerma of Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin has specialized in Black composers for four decades, and has made his research available to this website.

In his liner notes for Victory Stride, Scott E. Brown points out that James P. Johnson was called the Father of Stride Piano. Brown also emphasize the importance of James P. Johnson's Carolina Shout, saying it " considered by many to be the first recorded jazz piano solo (1921)." Scott Brown continues: "As a composer, he scored all or part of at least 16 musical revues during the 1920s. Out of his 1923 Broadway production Runnin' Wild came the tune and dance most closely associated with the entire decade, the 'Charleston.'”

Prof. Dominique-René de Lerma 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. Dr. De Lerma relates that Johnson's music studies with Bruto Giannini were followed by piano lessons from Eubie Blake. He continues: "Toward the end of the 1920s, Johnson began devoting time to the study of orchestration, counterpoint, and harmony." Prof. De Lerma explains that Yamekraw was written to celebrate an African American community in Georgia. He also provides details of the work's orchestration and premiere: "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."

In February 2009, shortly after Johnson's birthday, The New York times reported that a film on the composer's career was being shown in New York:
Murray Roth’s 'Yamekraw' (Tuesday and Wednesday), a one-reel vision of African-American history, based on James P. Johnson’s composition and filmed in 1930 at Warner Brothers’ Brooklyn studios.On Oct. 5, 2009 AfriClassical posted: "New York Times: 'Raising Roof and Headstone for Pioneering Pianist' James P. Johnson." Ben Ratliff wrote: "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."

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hello - nice article!

I just wanted to say that thanks to our efforts at Smalls Jazz Club that there is now a tombstone on the site of James P. Johnson's grave. Thanks to all of the musicians and fans that showed up to pay respects!

Spike Wilner
Smalls Jazz Club