James P. Johnson  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

James Price Johnson (February 1 1894November 17 1955) was an African-American pianist and composer. With Luckey Roberts, Johnson was one of the originators of the stride style of jazz piano playing.

Legacy

Composer

Johnson composed many hit tunes in his work for the musical theatre, including "Charleston" (which debuted in his Broadway show Runnin' Wild in 1923, although by some accounts Johnson had written it years earlier, and which became one of the most popular songs of the "Roaring Twenties"), "If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight)", "You've Got to Be Modernistic", "Don't Cry, Baby", "Keep off the Grass", "Old Fashioned Love", "A Porter's Love Song to a Chambermaid", "Carolina Shout", and "Snowy Morning Blues". He wrote waltzes, ballet, symphonic pieces and light opera; many of these extended works exist in manuscript form in various stages of completeness in the collection of Johnson's papers housed at the Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University, Newark, New Jersey. Johnson's success as a popular composer qualified him as a member of ASCAP in 1926.

1928 saw the premier of Johnson's rhapsody Yamekraw, named after a black community in Savannah, Georgia. William Grant Still was orchestrator and Fats Waller the pianist as Johnson was contractually obliged to conduct his and Waller's hit Broadway show Keep Shufflin. Harlem Symphony, composed during the 1930s, was performed at Carnegie Hall in 1945 with Johnson at the piano and Joseph Cherniavsky as conductor. He collaborated with Langston Hughes on the one-act opera, De Organizer. A fuller list of Johnson's film scores appears below.

Pianist

Along with Fats Waller and Willie 'The Lion' Smith ('The Big Three'), and Luckey Roberts, Johnson embodies the Harlem Stride piano style, an evolution of East Coast ragtime infused with elements of the blues. His "Carolina Shout" was a standard test piece and rite of passage for every contemporary pianist: Duke Ellington learned it note for note from the 1921 QRS Johnson piano roll. Johnson taught Fats Waller and got him his first piano roll and recording assignments.

Harlem Stride is distinguished from ragtime by several essential characteristics: ragtime introduced sustained syncopation into piano music, but stride pianists built a more freely swinging rhythm into their performances, with a certain degree of anticipation of the left (bass) hand by the right (melody) hand, a form of tension and release in the patterns played by the right hand, interpolated within the beat generated by the left. Stride more frequently incorporates elements of the blues, as well as harmonies more complex than usually found in the works of classic ragtime composers. Lastly, while ragtime was for the most part a composed music, based on European light classics such as marches, pianists such as Waller and Johnson introduced their own rhythmic, harmonic and melodic figures into their performances and, occasionally, spontaneous improvisation. As the second generation stride pianist Dick Wellstood noted, in liner notes for the stride pianist Donald Lambert, most of the stride pianists of the 1920s, 30s and 40s were not particularly good improvisers. Rather, they would play their own, very well worked out, and often rehearsed variations on popular songs of the day, with very little change from one performance to another. It was in this respect that Johnson distinguished himself from his colleagues, in that (in his own words), he "could think of a trick a minute". Comparison of many of Johnson's recordings of a given tune over the years demonstrates variation from one performance to another, characterised by respect for the melody, and reliance upon a worked out set of melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic devices, such as repeated chords, serial thirds (hence his admiration for Bach), and interpolated scales, on which the improvisations were based. This same set of variations might then appear in the performance of another tune.

Johnson's musical legacy is present in the body of work of the more famous Fats Waller as well as scores of other pianists who were influenced by him, such as Art Tatum, Donald Lambert, Louis Mazetier, Pat Flowers, Cliff Jackson, Hank Duncan, Claude Hopkins, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Don Ewell, Johnny Guarnieri, Dick Hyman, Dick Wellstood, Ralph Sutton, Joe Turner, Neville Dickie, Mike Lipskin, and Butch Thompson.





Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "James P. Johnson" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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