James Price Johnson (February 1, 1894 – November 17, 1955), simply known as James P. Johnson and nicknamed “The Brute,” is an African-American pianist and composer generally considered the father of the "Harlem Stride" piano style.
Johnson remains as an all-time great of jazz piano. His stride style was characterized by a powerful left hand playing a steady beat that was, at the same time, filled with intricate rhythmic complexities. Less entertaining than his protégé, Fats Waller and not a singer himself, Johnson brought a seriousness to his piano performance that he was able to combine with great musical flamboyance. Johnson was also typical of many early, notably black, jazz musicians’ yearning to create art beyond the limits of the entertainment industry. Due to the circumstances of his time, that wish remained partly unfulfilled.
Johnson was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey. His family moved to New York City in 1908. Johnson studied classical music as a child and performed as a boy soprano. He also studied ragtime, the music form that would lead to the stride style he was to champion. His first professional engagement was at Coney Island, in 1912.
Johnson's tune, "Charleston" (which debuted in the Broadway show Runnin' Wild in 1923, although by some accounts Johnson had written it years earlier), became one of the most popular tunes and arguably the definitive dance number of the Roaring 1920s. Surprisingly, Johnson never recorded it himself. His other hits included "You've Got to Be Modernistic," "Keep off the Grass," "Old Fashioned Love," "A Porter's Love Song to a Chambermaid," "Carolina Shout," "If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight)," and "Snowy Morning Blues."
Johnson served as mentor to Fats Waller. He was also an influence on other stars of the first magnitude, such as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Art Tatum, and even Thelonious Monk. These pianists would elaborate highly personal styles of playing and composing, while maintaining strong roots in the stride style. James P. Johnson was a sensitive accompanist; Johnson often recorded with Bessie Smith, and was reportedly her favorite pianist.
Beginning in the 1930s, Johnson was intermittently incapacitated by several strokes. When he returned to active performing in the early 1940s, he demonstrated his adaptability by leading a small swing group and performing regularly with Eddie Condon. He also did some studying and composing in these last few years, with Maury Deutsch.
Johnson permanently retired from performing after a severe stroke in 1951. He died in Jamaica, New York.
Stride is probably the most significant single piano style in classic jazz. Though a number of piano greats, from "Jelly Roll” Morton and Earl “Fatha” Hines, to Teddy Wilson played in a different style, none of them formed a consistent school comparable to that of stride. This distinctive technique was originated in Harlem in or around 1919, by Luckey Roberts and Johnson. It was partially influenced by ragtime but, as a jazz piano idiom, it features improvisation, blue notes, and swing rhythms, which its predecessor did not. The practitioners of this style were mislabeled ticklers but practiced a very full jazz piano style that made use of classical devices. Thus, stride piano was at the same time a highly sophisticated style demanding considerable professional training, and a very creative, improvisational way of playing that could mesmerize listeners by the strong swing it generated. It therefore became very popular in the 1920s and 1930s and even beyond. Stride also contributed to establish piano as the stable foundation for bands.
In stride, the pianist's left hand may play a four-beat pulse with a bass note or tenth interval on the first and third beats, and a chord on the second and fourth beats, or an interrupted bass with 3 single notes and then a chord; while the right hand plays melodies and chords. The over simplistic name "stride" comes from the "striding" left-hand movement. Pedal technique further varies the left hand sound. Stride is one of the most difficult styles of jazz piano playing, takes years to master, and is often confused with other jazz piano where the left hand alternates. Originally, pianists would play a full several minute piece in the idiom, though later on elements of stride would be incorporated into the playing of a variety of jazz pianists. Stride was played with many variations along the melodic line, with understanding of multiple tension and release as a must.
Among the stride pianists, James P. Johnson ranks at the top. Luckey Roberts, his senior by a few years, is considered the co-founder of the style. He was also considered second to none in terms of his pianistic abilities. But, probably due to his comfortable financial situation, Roberts unfortunately recorded very little and remains mostly a legend. Instead, the two other classic representatives of the style next to Johnson are considered to be Willie “The Lion” Smith and Thomas “Fats” Waller.
Each of these pianists mastered the intricacies of the stride idiom to perfection, and each was able to produce a powerful swing. The “Lion” had a particular poetic touch that notably impressed Duke Ellington, who wrote and performed a “Portrait of the Lion” (1939) in his honor. Smith also remained relatively unrecorded and reached international fame rather late in life through gems such as “Echoes of Spring” and “Conversations on Park Avenue,” as well as live recordings until shortly before his death. In Paris, in 1959, he recorded “Reminiscing the Piano Greats,” in which he paid tribute to some of the lesser-known stride pianists, including Ford Dabney and Bob Hawkins. Other notable representatives of the style include Joe Turner (not the singer), Donald Lambert, and bandleader Claude Hopkins. A number of mostly white pianists have since taken up the legacy of the Harlem greats. Among the first and best known are Ralph Sutton and Dick Wellstood. Today, stride is played as a reminiscence of the past, much like New Orleans jazz.
The power of Johnson’s left hand could compete with that of Waller, but his touch was slightly harder and more incisive, producing a sensation of incredible swing intensity on fast numbers. Johnson’s style was also very complex rhythmically, making full use of the many features of the stride style, well beyond the simple back and forth of the left hand. In the subtlety of his variations, he was perhaps only equaled by Willie “The Lion” Smith.
James Weldon Johnson, a pioneer of the African-American musical theater, had this to say about Johnson's style of playing: "It was music of a kind I had never heard before… The barbaric harmonies, the audacious resolutions, often consisting of an abrupt jump from one key to another, the intricate rhythms in which the accents fell in the most unexpected places, but in which the beat was never lost, produced a most curious effect, and to, the player—the dexterity of his left hand in making rapid octave runs and jumps was nothing short of marvelous; and with his right he frequently swept half the keyboard with clean cut chromatics which he fitted in so nicely as never to fail to arouse in his listeners a sort of pleasant surprise at the accomplishment of the feat."
On slow numbers, mostly blues, such as “Weeping Blues,” “Worried and Lonesome Blues,” and the well-known “Snowy Morning Blues,” all his own compositions, his right hand would play simple but extremely poetic lines that gave a feeling of deep nostalgia and contrasted with the deep chords of his left hand. In the early 1920s, Johnson had produced some of the most beautiful piano solos ever recorded. His 1921, “Carolina Shout” is generally considered the oldest existing jazz piano solo. Besides his solos, Johnson also left many piano rolls.
In addition to his well-known jazz compositions, Johnson also wrote music in many other styles, including waltzes, ballet, symphonic pieces, and light opera; many of these ambitious, long-form pieces are presumed lost. In recent years, some have been unexpectedly recovered, notably his 1927 symphonic work “Yamekraw—A Negro Rhapsody.” Johnson was inspired to write this piece after listening to his friend George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” produced in 1924. First performed at Carnegie Hall in 1928, Yamekraw is in many ways reminiscent of Gershwin’s rhapsody. The difference is that it was soon all but forgotten. It was finally performed again by a symphony orchestra in 2002, and was well received. Johnson also produced an opera, De Organizer with African-American poet Langston Hughes.
Since much of this music is either lost or forgotten, it is difficult to make a definitive judgment on Johnson’s status as a composer of music other than that belonging strictly to the jazz idiom. But his status in the world of music is beyond question.
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