Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Roots of Jazz: James P. 'Johnson’s work gave the gift of a new piano style to other New York jazz stars'

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

James P. Johnson (1894-1955) is profiled at, which focuses on his classical works such as Yamekraw: A Negro Rhapsody. A post in The Roots of Jazz highlights his role in the creation of that genre:

Tuesday, October 26, 2010
The social landscape of 1920s New York for blacks offered a distinct opportunity: the Harlem Renaissance, a milieu of new black culture, art, literature, and music, but also representative of a divide between the black upper and lower classes living in Harlem, the largest black population in the nation. In Ted Gioia’s History of Jazz, he points out that 'Jazz was very much a part of this second Harlem – more at home here than in the 'other' Harlem of high culture and higher aspirations. True, the Harlem Renaissance created an ideology, a cultural context for jazz. But the Harlem of rent parties and underground economies created music (94, emphasis added). It was this cultural context that New York possessed and Chicago lacked – although Chicago’s South Side had a thriving jazz scene, the eyes of the nation and the world were set on New York. Whether or not the literary elite of Harlem liked it, lower class Harlem, including jazz, was a crucial part of their Renaissance.

“Before Harlem, the largest black community in New York was San Juan Hill, and sure enough, the history of jazz is tied to this location as well. This is also something Chicago lacked: an older foundation of black musicians who created this cultural context in New York early on. As Professor Stewart pointed out in lecture, James P. Johnson and his predecessors had been making music even before New Orleans jazz took hold, developing the famous stride piano style that would be crucial to the growth of jazz when it reached New York (Oct 21). Using the piano, Johnson was able 'to bridge [the] gap between highbrow and lowbrow' in black culture, as the piano was both 'a calling card of lowbrow nightlife' as well as 'a symbol of middle-class prosperity' (Gioia, 95-6). Johnson’s work gave the gift of a new piano style to other New York jazz stars such as Willie 'the Lion' Smith, Thomas 'Fats' Waller, Art Tatum, and more, making stride piano the true musical landmark of New York jazz.

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