Classic James P. Johnson Sessions (#262)

Mosaic Records Limited Edition Box Set


Classic James P. Johnson Sessions (#262)
Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Earl Hines, Art Tatum, Willie “The Lion” Smith and , of course, Fats Waller, knew about James P. Johnson, regarding him not only as their musical father but also as the “greatest pianist in jazz.” Later, even modernists like Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell would admit to his influence. - Bob Hilbert, liner notes for Mosaic Records MD4-109
Limited Edition: 5,000 copies

6 CDs -  $102.00


Eclipsed, Forgotten But Starting Now—

Revered As A True Original

He wrote "Charleston." You know, that song you hear anytime you ever see anyone dancing the Charleston.

He was Bessie Smith's and Ethel Waters' favorite accompanist, with a particular knack for throwing in beguiling fills he conceived in the moment, much to the singers' delight.

He was a surrogate father and teacher to Fats Waller. Try getting any notice for yourself after taking that showman under your wing!

But first and foremost, James P. Johnson was one of the most important, if not THE most important, stride pianists, a style that developed in New York in the 1920s and the first music that sounds like what we call jazz. It was more rhythmically complex than anything before it. More harmonically challenging. More exuberant and crafty. Stride was also more than the music. It was a challenge to the musicians who gathered at Harlem cutting contests determined to conquer its intricacies, and to conquer each other. And because of its invitation to create and improvise, it was a platform at last for self-expression.

Johnson also wrote popular and theatrical music, symphonies, concertos, ballets, operas, plus a wide number of smaller pieces like sonatas and a string quartet. In fact, his wide interests and talents gave reason for some to call him a jazz sell-out, and discount his contributions. For decades, Johnson was all but forgotten.

Mosaic, The Antidote to "Forgotten!"

Mosaic first presented James P. Johnson in the record company's earliest years, that focused on the six sessions he recorded for Blue Note. (That set is sold out, and never to be released again.) But there has never been a comprehensive set that chronicles James P. Johnson's contributions to jazz from the beginning of his career, almost from the beginning of jazz itself. Until now.

"Classic James P. Johnson Sessions 1921- 1943" compiles all the sessions led by Johnson originally released on OKeh, Columbia, Bluebird, Victor, Signature, Pathe and Vocalion, plus sideman sessions where he solos significantly or contributes something noteworthy. On six CDs, it shines the light on every facet of his talent, including his stunning work with blues singers such as Bessie Smith, Lavinia Turner, Ethel Waters, Ida Cox and more.

James P. Johnson was fortunate to come along at a time when music was in transition, born into a family that encouraged his musical gifts.

The Birth of Stride

He was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey, in 1894, and as a child learned his first simple piano songs from his mother. A later move to New York exposed him to real musicians and to formal classical training, which Johnson pursued for decades into his adult life.

Willie "The Lion" Smith. Ragtime was popular. Johnson added his influences. As a boy, he used to watch from the top of the stairs as his mother and her Southern relations performed "ring shouts" in the living room. He added some of those distinctive rhythms. Also, he incorporated what he called "concert effects," a technique that employed a lot more of the piano than ragtime used, to fill out the sound and make it more orchestral.

A word or two on the distinction between ragtime and stride, to underscore what every player in jazz owes to Johnson:

Ragtime vs. Stride

Ragtime was earlier. It was primarily a repertoire of songs composed, learned, and performed. Ragtime's broken, ragged rhythm pointed to future musical innovations that would be called jazz because syncopation was at the heart of it, but ragtime was neat and tidy, and the piano needed to be freed before jazz could develop.

Stride was that next important step. It was louder and faster, more aggressive. Still largely a piano music, stride used the whole keyboard, not just the middle four octaves, as performers "walked" up and down the keys with the left hand. There was still that "oom-pah" bass line, derived from black march music and layered with counter rhythms, typical of music from African roots. But stride was less controlled and less structured than ragtime - more jazz-like - in all ways. If ragtime was a repertoire, stride was a way of playing. You could play popular music of the day in stride. You could play songs from musicals in stride. And you could improvise. That was the big one. Stride allowed more danger and personality. And while many stride pianists played their own signature figures over and over, improvisation was something James P. was particularly known for.

He was especially appreciated by singers he accompanied, who loved the way he punctuated the lyrics. The very first Johnson recordings where you can actually hear the piano were made with Lavinia Turner, and they are on this Mosaic set. On another Lavinia Turner session, he places something new and original in every vocal break.

You'll also find his very first recording of "Carolina Shout," which became a staple of the stride tradition. You can hear echoes of rags and dance-oriented pieces that were popular, the call-and-response of ring shout, and other borrowings, but the improvisation and sheer breadth of his expression was completely unknown before him.

He made 14 sides and a movie with Bessie Smith, including her most famous piece, "Back Water Blues." He wasn't known especially for blues, but what Johnson was doing was laying down the rulebook for all jazz accompanists that followed him.

An Experimental Session

Included also are "Snowy Morning Blues," one of Johnson's most successful recordings, as well as a session by the Louisiana Sugar Babes, which was really Johnson, Fats Waller at the organ, Jabbo Smith on cornet, and Garvin Bushell on clarinet, alto saxophone, and bassoon. Bushell and Smith were in the pit orchestra of the show "Keep Shufflin'" with Waller and Johnson, and these recordings have attained nearly legendary status for the rare opportunity to hear the creators of the music performing the tunes, with experimental instrumentation, recorded in a venue (the former Trinity Baptist Church in Camden) known for its exceptional sound quality.

There are so many gems on this set, far too many to list here, including solo work, ensemble work, Johnson accompanying singers by himself and with ensembles, small band sessions, and well as his important work as a sideman with King Oliver, Clarence Williams, Teddy Bunn and Spencer Williams, Mezz Mezzrow, and more.

The package comprises 158 tracks, including eleven never before released. Our exclusive Mosaic booklet features a session-by-session analysis by Scott Brown and many photos that are rare and delightful to see. There is also the most complete discography ever of James P. Johnson's important early work.

Sadly, most of his compositions in the classical style are completely lost. We are extremely proud of our opportunity to present his jazz recordings for an audience determined to preserve his legacy.

Read More About James P.Johnson:
Track Listing, Personnel & Recording Dates »

His fingerprints are all over the first half of 20th century American music, examples of much of it included in this set. It’s a lot of music, not easily accessible before, that illuminates one of America’s greatest pianists and composers. – Scott Brown, liner notes

  • Booklet
  • Audio Quality
  • Photography
  • Sample Session Notes
Dr. Scott Brown is one, if not the prominent authorities on the music of James P. Johnson. His insight, knowledge and love of the “Father of the Stride Piano” is most evident in the notes for our set and we are honored to have him relate the life and music of this most important musical giant.

James P. Johnson recordings came from a variety of sources. We had, for both Columbia and Victor vaults, one-third of the sources coming from metal parts and test pressings. One of those metal parts yielded an unissued alternate take on a 1934 Clarence Williams led side. The rest were mint condition 78s that we located from some of the most respected record collectors in particular Joe Lauro and Jim Prohaska. Steven Lasker, Brad Kay also helped us with rare recordings. Long time collector and producer Colin Bray led us to a previously unissued test pressing of an alternate take of “Weeping Blues” from 1923 and the Institute of Jazz Studies provided us with an unissued test pressing of one of the greatest Frankie Newton interpretations from a 1938 Bluebird side, “Blues My Baby Gave To Me”. For the famous Ida Cox session we called upon our good friend Phil Schaap, jazz disc jockey, scholar and educator, who owns a reel to reel tape of the original 16” lacquer disc which no longer resides in the Sony Archives and this yielded some unissued material. Once again our engineer Andreas Meyer has worked miracles and we know you’ll love the sound.

Photo Copyright © Protected
James P.Johnson
Our photos came from many sources and we were pleased to obtain permission from Barry Glover, the grandson of James P. Johnson, to include a number of photos from his grandfather’s collection. Another major source was from the collection of the outstanding pianist and record producer Mike Lipskin, whose classic reissues on the RCA Victor “Vintage Series” of the 1960s are prized collector’s items. After searching the internet for images on James P, I was reminded of a number of photos of the Mezz Mezzrow 1938 session with Johnson on Bluebird. I turned to Mike and he was able to locate some of the original photos from that wonderful session.

(VV) Frankie Newton and his Orchestra
January 13, 1939

This was the fourth and last of the Pannasie sessions. Mezzrow and Johnson were the only holdovers from the first session. This group clicked and the session received highly favorable reviews. “The best of the Hughes (sic) Panassie combinations is that headed by Frank Newton….This is enticing jazz by any standard, and the solos are exciting, particularly those of Pete Brown on alto sax and James P. Johnson, the pianist who taught Fats Waller.” …

On ”Who?” Johnson sends Jerome Kern’s one note melody held for nine beats down the rhythmic rapids. In the second chorus, while Brown plays the melody straight, James P. paddles behind him with a rollicking chromatic counter melody, coming in again after to add another splashy chorus. Johnson lays out and we are treated to a propulsive guitar solo by Casey, a riveting drum solo by Cole, and Brown showing off his jump saxophone chops before the ensemble finale. Johnson kept this tune in his repertoire, 10 years later referring to it as his “special arrangement” of the number. Unfortunately, this is the only recorded version with a solo, and in only one take here.

The final two Mezzrow originals, “The Blues My Baby Gave To Me” and “Rompin’” are equally superlative showcasing the band members. “Here are the last of the Hughes Panassie recordings,” wrote another reviewer, “and they are just about the best of this Bluebird series. After hearing James P. Johnson romping all over the keyboard on “Who?” you realize very few pianists can touch this old master.” Johnson was 2 weeks shy of his 45th birthday. Old master indeed.


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  Best thing that Mosaic has ever done !!! first go-around for 20s-30s music. Piano playing aside as good as it is......Its the SINGING that makes this set indispensable.
  reviews are funny
Typically rationalizations for not buying a set or for buying the set. Having said that, Im enjoying this set. I take my time with these, listen to a disc, move on to other music for a time, listen to another disc, and so on... Next up is disc 4 of 6. I already had the Bessie tracks on the Frog UK set, but to have them interspersed with all the other vocalists and accompaniment or lack there of, injects this whole set with an air of freshness. No small task with music nearly a century old. Im glad Mosaic did it this way and as usual these Mosaic profiles, Im really happy I gave this a shot.
  A magnificent excavation!
RE: Previous review. One of the many advantages of Mosaic is being able to dive into the discographical information in detail BEFORE making a decision to purchase any set. I bought the James P. for the piano playing and vocalists are not usually the first thing I reach for, but Lavinia Turner aside, I found the range of singers in this box to be revelatory. If you are interested in the rare and unusual Roy Evans underappreciated Ethel Waters or simply love the idea of having all of the music Bessie Smith and James P. made together under one roof, this is the set. Good luck finding anything remotely as good as this for setting the scene for James P. Johnsons sound world and its relationship to 20s and 30s music. Love stride piano? Love superb small band jazz from the late 20s and 30s.? Perhaps youre a Greil Marcus-stoked aficionado of weird old America in its various permutations? You will not be disappointed.
  The Snowy Mountain Blues Gone Bad, Really Bad.
Almost all the music on all 6 cds is bloody dreadful. What a waste. Wish I had not purchased this set, which is one of the absolute worst from Mosaic. This is not a proper way to give the magnificent James Price Johnson respect. Enough with all the silly, obvious vocals already! This set is a painful listen and not worth your time or money. You’ve been warned. Stick to the France Classic cds, until someone gets it right!

Classic James P. Johnson Sessions (#262)
Classic James P. Johnson Sessions (#262)
Limited Edition: 5,000 copies
6 CDs - $102.00

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