Saturday, April 2, 2011

James P. Johnson's 'Yamekraw: A Negro Rhapsody, orchestrated by William Grant Still' on Naxos 8.559647 (2011)

[Jazz Nocturne - American Concertos of the Jazz Age; Hot Springs Music Festival Symphony Orchestra; Richard Rosenberg, conductor; Naxos 8.559647 (2011)]

James Price Johnson (1894-1955) is profiled at, which employs the research of Prof. Dominique-René de Lerma of Lawrence University Conservatory, and focuses on his classical works. William Grant Still (1895-1978) arranged Johnson's Yamekraw: A Negro Rhapsody, and is also profiled at, which features a complete Works List by Prof. De Lerma.

James P. Johnson, a highly influential African-American jazz pianist who also wrote popular songs and composed classical works, was the founder of the stride piano idiom, a crucial figure in the transition from ragtime to jazz. Growing up in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Johnson studied classical and ragtime piano techniques, and by his late teens he was performing in saloons, in dance halls, and at parties in a black community near Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan.”

"Johnson’s symphonic works, according to composer Gunther Schuller, use 'basic Negro musical traditions that emulated roughly Liszt’s approach in his Hungarian rhapsodies'. Clearly inspired by the success of his frienItalicd George Gershwin’s 1924 composition, A Rhapsody in Blue, Johnson created his own composition of similar format and scale in 1927 as his first large-scale semi-classical composition.” “The foreword to the first publication of Yamekraw describes the intent of the work as 'A genuine Negro treatise on spiritual, syncopated and "blue" melodies by James P. Johnson, expressing the religious fervor and happy moods of the natives of Yamekraw, a Negro settlement situated on the outskirts of Savannah, Georgia.'

"Yamekraw: A Negro Rhapsody was first performed at a concert produced by the 'Father of the Blues' W.C. Handy, at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1928. Unfortunately, Johnson was not released from his duties as conductor of the musical Keep Shufflin’ that evening, so his protégé Thomas 'Fats' Waller played the piano solo part at the concert. The piece was quite successful—it was used as the soundtrack of a 1930 Vitaphone motion picture short subject also entitled Yamekraw, and as the overture to Orson Welles’ production of “Macbeth” later in the 1930s, and was recorded in abbreviated versions several times. This success inspired Johnson’s further efforts in the jazz-classical fusion area, such as his Harlem Symphony (1932), a symphonic version of W.C. Handy’s St Louis Blues (1937), and his concerto Jazz A’ Mine (1934). Furthermore, William Grant Still, who arranged the orchestral parts for that concert, was evidently inspired by the piece’s success to go on to create his own compositions for full orchestra, such as his Afro- American Symphony (1931). This disc marks the première recording of the complete, final orchestral version of the work. As one of the first successful large-scale musical works by an African-American composer, Yamekraw thus played an important rôle in the development of American music in the twentieth century.”

Bob McQuiston
“The program begins with a selection by James P. Johnson (1894–1955), who was the father of stride piano and wrote the ever popular Charleston (1925). His Yamekraw: A Negro Rhapsody (1927) for piano with an orchestral accompaniment by American composer William Grant Still (1895–1978) is presented in its complete final form (WPR). Incidentally it was Johnson’s protégé pianist Fats Waller (1904–1943) who gave the premiere.

“Incorporating spirituals and blues melodies, it’s a musical picture of the Yamekraw Negro community outside Savannah, Georgia. You’ll find yourself totally captivated by this brilliantly orchestrated, thoroughly engaging piece. It’s full of toe-tapping tunes, and anticipates the boogie-woogie fad of the 1940s and 50s [track-1, beginning at 06:48].”

No comments: