James P. Johnson

"Served as a stylistic model for Duke Ellington and Fats Waller and a whole generation of pianists. His fingerprints are all over the first half of 20th century music." - Scott E. Brown, M.D.

© William P. Gottlieb Library of Congress

James P. Johnson

“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 recognize his influence.”– Bob Hilbert

By Scott E.  Brown
At first glance, one might wonder how one musician fits into a seemingly odd assortment of disparate recordings. There are piano solos, vocal accompaniments, popular songs, blues, bands of all sizes and styles, arcane roots music and even some vaudeville. It is the anchoring element of James P. Johnson’s unparalleled artistry that shines through this diverse musical variety.

It speaks to a versatility that established him not only as a trendsetting and unique musical voice but also as a highly sought after musician who could move easily amongst singers, other virtuoso instrumentalists, and collaborators perhaps interested more in promoting product than artistry.

In James P. Johnson’s nearly 30 year-long recording career across this broad musical terrain, he pops up in some of the most important and wonderful jazz recordings ever. His seminal contributions and body of work as pianist, stylistic innovator, teacher, and composer are second to none.

James P. Johnson
Carolina Shout
October 18, 1921 Session

Okeh 4495 is an iconic record in every sense. The James P. Johnson originals on both sides became staples of the stride piano tradition. The Carolina Shout B side, predating the recordings of Jelly Roll Morton and Earl Hines, can lay claim to being the first jazz piano solo on record.

By the time of this October recording date, Carolina Shout was already well known, at least among pianists, from the Q.R.S. piano roll released in the spring. As the title implies, at its heart, it is a programmatic representation of the shout dances. In contrast to piano roll recordings wherein liberal “editing” has rendered suspect the notes actually played, here we have the master alone taking his most famous instrumental composition through multiple variations. Melodically, James P. Johnson borrows a bit.

The A strain uses a descending theme thought to have been circulating since the early part of the century and is heard in Ted Snyder’s popular Wild Cherries Rag from 1908. The B strain has roots in Will Vodery’s Carolina Fox Trot from 1914.

The rest is pure James P. Johnson. The repeat of the A strain is a complete departure, belying the notion James P. Johnson was not an improviser. Blues clusters, shuffle rhythms, and the characteristic call and response phrases of the C strain leave little doubt we are hearing the ring shout. No one was playing like James P. Johnson in 1921, and many were eager to try. The style was difficult to learn from the record, so Duke Ellington and Fats Waller and others slowed down the piano roll.

It is the first example of James P. Johnson’s influence on the pulse of the roaring 20s.

Although some continued to characterize this new style as ragtime, James P. Johnson didn’t really care what the music was called. Late in life in his interviews with Tom Davin, he refers to Carolina Shout as a ragtime arrangement. But he was also proud of his place in launching the new music called jazz, referring to himself as the “Dean of Jazz Pianists,” a designation with origins in Carolina Shout.

James P. Johnson

© William P. Gottlieb Library of Congress

James P. Johnson was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey on February 1, 1894 above a livery stable. William, his father, was born in New Brunswick and held a steady job as an appliance mechanic for a prominent merchant family named Price for whom he named his son. His mother Josephine had moved to New Brunswick in the 1870s from Petersburg, Virginia and widowed the next decade after having four children, which later gave James P. Johnson 3 half-brothers and a half-sister.

In 1908 the family moved to New York. Here he encountered classically trained musicians like child prodigy Ernest Greene and, a little later, Charley Cherry and Alberta Simmons (who would, a few decades later, tutor Thelonious Monk) who began to teach him “real ragtime.” Around 1913 he began his first serious piano training with Bruto Giannini. Amongst his other students was Scott Joplin, then immersed in work on his opera Treemonisha. For James P. Johnson, this began a nearly unbroken course of study with conservatory trained musicians, both black and white, over the next 35 years.

By 1912 James P. Johnson had quit school and decided to become a professional musician. He began working regularly in the burgeoning Harlem night club scene as well as travelling along the east coast where he met other pianists who would become stylistic influences and his best friends. He met Charles Luckyeth “Luckey” Roberts in Harlem, James Hubert ‘Eubie” Blake in Atlantic City, and in Newark, William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff Smith, after World War I better known as Willie “The Lion” Smith.

While playing many a gig in Harlem as well as the still bustling black section of Hell’s Kitchen on the west side called “The Jungles,” James P. Johnson again encountered the ring shout pounded out nightly on the dance floor by the immigrants from South Carolina and Georgia. James P. Johnson integrated these characteristic rhythms into the ragtime and popular music he was playing, sprinkled in what he called “concert effects” learned from Giannini and others, and was on the verge of creating a unique piano style that a few years later became the stylistic cornerstone of jazz piano. – Scott E. Brown M.D., liner note excerpt Mosaic Records: Classic James P. Johnson Sessions (1921-1943) 

James P. Johnson

Selected Jazz Albums

By Scott Yanow

Carolina Shout: Original Piano Rolls Made By James P. Johnson (Musical Heritage Society)
Parlor Piano Solos From Rare Piano Rolls (Biograph)
Runnin’ Wild – 1921-1926 (Rykodisc)

James P. Johnson (1894-1955) may not have invented stride piano but he was the first important stride pianist and was considered its greatest exponent during the 1920s. Stride pianists keep the beat by striding back and forth with their left hand between bass notes and chords while their right plays melodic variations. At a time when many pianists were either playing ragtime (with little improvisation) or primitive blues, Johnson’s sophisticated and virtuosic displays impressed and amazed his fellow pianists, many of whom took mental notes when he performed.

Some, like the young Duke Ellington, slowed down James P. Johnson’s piano rolls so they could emulate his playing. Johnson set the standard for jazz pianists in the 20s and, other than his protégé Fats Waller and the up-and-coming Earl Hines, was the pacesetter and dominant force, at least until Art Tatum arrived upon the scene in the early 1930s.

During 1917-27, James P. Johnson recorded dozens of piano rolls and was possibly the first African-American to make piano rolls of his own pieces. While some piano rolls are suspect, with extra holes punched in the rolls that which would make the music impossible for one pianist to reproduce,James P. Johnson’s piano rolls tended to be more lifelike and a bit less metronomic than the usual ones. Naturally his actual recordings are preferable but, as these three intriguing collections (which have very few overlapping performances) show, some of his compositions were never otherwise recorded by James P. Johnson. Although he played it for a piano roll, ironically James P. Johnson never recorded his most famous original, “The Charleston.”

James P. Johnson
Keep Off the Grass
October 18, 1921

Structurally Keep Off The Grass is built around a series of three 16 bar strains much like ragtime. Imbedded within it is the rhythmic fiber that became the basis for the subsequent line of jazz piano. The characteristic tied eighth syncopations of ragtime are transformed into a complex rhythmic scaffold built of back beat bass patterns, swinging eighth notes, so-called “jazz triplets” and off the beat right hand riff placements that build increasing rhythmic complexity as Johnson moves from one strain to the next.

The first theme anticipates the dissonance of Thelonious Monk, who made no secret of his admiration for and influence by James P. Johnson. The chromatic ascending line is juxtaposed against an upper register repeated note. Set against the stride piano bass where each low single note, moving in its own melodic line, alternates with a different middle register chord, James P. Johnson has fashioned his own special four-part harmony.

Classic James P. Johnson Sessions: 1921-1943 (Mosaic)

During the 1920s, James P Johnson’s life was a whirlwind of activity. He wrote for the revue Plantation Days in 1922 (traveling with the production to London), in 1923 for Runnin’ Wild (a show that made it to Broadway and toured for five years), and in 1928 performed in Shufflin’ Along on Broadway. He was the star of many rent parties in Harlem where he battled it out with his friends Willie “The Lion” Smith and Fats Waller. And, in addition to the piano rolls, he made quite a few recordings during the era, as a soloist, an accompanist to blues and vaudevillian singers, a sideman, and the leader of both hot combos and larger ensembles.

The seven-CD Mosaic box set contains all of James P. Johnson’s dates as a leader for the labels owned by Sony (Paramount, Okeh, Columbia, Victor, Vocalion, Bluebird, Signature, and some later collector’s labels) plus all of his sideman sessions where he took a significant solo. It does not include his work for other labels but has the great majority of his most important recordings.

The 22 piano solos are consistently superb including “Keep Off The Grass,” “Snowy Morning Blues,” “Riffs,” “If Dreams Come True,” “The Mule Walk,” and of course “Carolina Shout.” James P. Johnson’s sophisticated playing was a perfect foil for blues singers and he is heard as an inspiring accompanist to such vocalists as Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters (who is heard at her very best), Lavinia Turner, Sadie Jackson, Rosa Henderson, Martha Copeland, Clara Smith, Eva Taylor, Ruby Smith, Ida Cox, and country singer Roy Evans. Johnson is also featured with several heated combos including with the Original Jazz Hounds, the Louisiana Sugar Babies (where his piano interacts with Fats Waller’s organ), Spencer Williams, Lonnie Johnson, Teddy Bunn, Mezz Mezzrow, Frankie Newton (his opening solo on “Rosetta” is quite memorable), and many dates headed by Clarence Williams. 

While the majority of the performances are from 1921-31 and all but four date before 1940, James P. Johnson shows on his two piano solos from 1943 that he remained a potent force, playing in his unchanged and classic style.

Snowy Morning Blues (Decca):

In the 1930s, James P. Johnson for a time changed the direction of his career. He had written all or part of the scores of 16 revues in the 1920s but that was not enough for him. He decided to de-emphasize his live performances in favor of concentrating on symphonic composition. James P. Johnson composed two symphonies, two ballets, a string quartet, a concerto for piano and clarinet, and several other works that fell between jazz and classical music.

Unfortunately, few of these compositions were ever performed during his lifetime (there was little interest in African-American classical pieces in the ‘30s) and much of the music was permanently lost. A few pieces, including his “Harlem Symphony,” “Concerto Jazz A Mine,” the first movement of his “American Symphonic Suite,” and “Drums – A Symphonic Poem” survived and during 1992-94 were recorded by the Concordia Orchestra for the CD Victory Stride (Music Masters). In addition, James P. Johnson recorded some excerpts from his works as piano solos in his later years.

James P. Johnson was off records (other than some sessions with Clarence Williams) altogether during 1931-37. In 1938 he returned to the active playing scene, recording with Pee Wee Russell and becoming one of the performers at John Hammond’s legendary all-star Spirituals To Swing concerts of 1938-39.

Snowy Morning Blues has recordings not on the Mosaic box set. Most significant are Johnson’s four piano solos from a 1930 session, each of which are brilliant: “What Is This Thing Called Love,” “Crying For The Carolines,” “Jingles,” and “You’ve Got To Be Modernistic.” These rank with his finest documented performances.

The Original James P. Johnson 1942-1945 (Smithsonian/Folkways):

After recovering from his 1940 stroke, James P. Johnson had a renaissance. He was in great demand for trad jazz club dates, concerts, jam sessions, and recordings. Rightly considered a living legend, he recorded with Eddie Condon, Yank Lawson, Edmond Hall, Will Bradley, Sidney DeParis, Max Kaminsky, Rod Cless, Sidney Bechet, Albert Nicholas, and as a piano soloist for such labels as Blue Note, Commodore, Disc, Wax, Folkways and Circle.

James P. Johnson’s best piano solos for the Asch label (produced by Moses Asch) have been reissued on this 1996 CD from Smithsonian/Folkways. Of the 20 selections, eight were previously unreleased until this CD came out. James P. Johnson is heard in prime form on such numbers as “Liza,” “Jersey Sweet,” “Daintiness Rag,” “Euphonic Sounds,” and “Twilight Rag.” In addition, there are excerpts from his more ambitious works including “Yamekraw – A Negro Rhapsody,” “Jazzamine Concerto,” and “Jungle Drums” that hold up well as piano solos.

James P. Johnson made his final recordings in 1949. A very serious stroke soon ended his career and he passed away in 1955 when he was still just 61. While sometimes a bit overlooked as one of jazz’s finest pianists, James P. Johnson’s legacy lives on. Among those who were influenced and inspired by his playing were Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Johnny Guarnieri, Don Ewell, Dick Hyman, Ralph Sutton, Dick Wellstood, Thelonious Monk, and any pianist who has seriously tried to play stride piano.