Jazz musician personified rhythm and blues

WAY BACK WHEN

Ragtime: James P. Johnson, who taught and collaborated with Fats Waller, is the `Father of the Stride Piano.'

February 23, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Several weeks ago, after I had written a column about Fats Waller, several callers and letter-writers inquired about the identity of James P. Johnson, who had been Waller's teacher during the late World War I years.

"James P. Johnson is still the leading contender for the title of our most overlooked musical genius," wrote Grover Sales in his book, Jazz - America's Classical Music.

Johnson was the "Father of the Stride Piano," a rhythmic, galloping piano style that combines elements of ragtime, jazz and the blues, and flourished in Harlem during its artistic renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s.

His distinctive piano-playing combined two-beat left-hand rhythms with right-hand melodies.

In the liner notes for The Original James P. Johnson: 1942-1945 Piano Solos, released by Smithsonian Folkways, David Cayer writes: "In the hands of Johnson, stride could be full of variety, with the left hand's temporary interruptions of its own regularity and the right's accenting of the rhythms, now with powerful chords, more often with graceful embellishments.

"He had listened to all the competition, borrowed and improved their ideas, and soon was capable of a `trick a minute.' "

In addition to performing, Johnson wrote popular songs and composed symphonic works based on African-American themes. In his symphonic pieces, Johnson uses "basic Negro musical traditions that emulated roughly Liszt's approach in his Hungarian rhapsodies," wrote composer Gunther Schuller.

Until his career was cut short by a stroke, Johnson made 55 piano rolls, recorded 400 records, wrote 280 popular songs and 19 symphonic works.

His Yamecraw: A Negro Rhapsody premiered at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1928.

Among his better-known pieces is the "Charleston," a song that typifies the giddy Roaring '20s, which most would credit to George Gershwin or Irving Berlin. The "Charleston" and "Old Fashioned Love" were from his first Broadway musical, Runnin' Wild, which opened in 1923. He also was the composer with Waller of Keep Shufflin, an all-black Broadway musical that opened in 1928. Other collaborations included Load of Coal and Hot Chocolates.

And, like Waller, he was a featured player at Harlem rent parties, or "socials" as they were called.

A recorded version of "Louisiana Sugar Babes" marks a rare occasion of Johnson and Waller actually playing together. Johnson is on the piano, while Waller plays the organ.

Johnson was born in 1894 in New Brunswick, N.J., and was heavily influenced by Southern church music, popular and classical music.

His mother taught him piano, and after moving to Jersey City and then Hell's Kitchen in New York, Johnson studied classical piano and voice. In 1913, he began to play professionally at black clubs in Hell's Kitchen, which was known as "The Jungle."

Four years later, he was cutting his own piano rolls. In 1921, he made his first recording, "Harlem Strut," for Black Swan Records.

He was the favorite accompanist of Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters, the latter writing, "All the licks you hear, now as then, originated with musicians like James P. Johnson ... the rest of the hot piano boys ... are just followers and proteges of that great man, Jimmy Johnson."

During the 1930s, Johnson wrote his symphonic pieces, which are seldom performed today, while living with his family in Queens. There was a revival of interest in Johnson's music in the 1940s, and he returned to the recording studio.

He suffered a stroke in 1951 that left him an invalid. After his death in 1955, only 75 mourners appeared for his funeral.

"He should have been among the most famous and successful of men. Let us hope that future generations will make up for our lack of appreciation," said John Hammond, jazz critic and record producer, at the time.

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