Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b James Price Johnson, 1 Feb. 1891, New Brunswick NJ; d 17 Nov. '55, NYC) Piano, composer; a link between ragtime and jazz, the East Coast equivalent of Jelly Roll Morton; master and indeed virtual inventor of the NYC stride style of piano; inspiration of Duke Ellington and teacher of Fats Waller. To NYC at 14; played at rent parties at 17. Infl. by a Harlem community of black seamen and longshoremen originally from the southern coastal ports, incl. Gullahs (from the Sea Islands of Carolina and Georgia, who spoke a dialect that had African words in it): their 'ring shouts', cakewalks etc became an element of stride. Luckey Roberts was also an influence; Johnson was also associated with Perry Bradford and Clarence Williams. Played club dates, Southern vaudeville circuit, also theatre work (toured England '22 with Plantation Days starring Florence Mills). He made piano rolls (compiled in Biograph CD Carolina Shout); first sound recordings '21, accompanied singers Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, etc; wrote hits 'Old Fashioned Love' (with Cecil Mack), 'Charleston' (both in revue Runnin' Wild '23; latter became national dance craze), 'If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight)' (introduced by Ruth Etting; lyrics by Henry Creamer, b 21 June 1879, Richmond VA; d 14 Oct. '30, NYC, who also wrote 'Way Down Yonder In New Orleans', etc), 'A Porter's Love Song To A Chambermaid' (with Andy Razaf); stride showpieces 'Carolina Shout', 'Mule Walk', 'Keep Off The Grass' etc. 'Yamekraw: A Negro Rhapsody' was written for orchestra, chorus, jazz band and solo piano (Carnegie Hall '28), named after a settlement near Savannah GA; made into nine-minute screen drama '30 (music played for the film by Hugo Marianni and his Mediterraneans; no musicians on screen). Worked in Waller's show Keep Shufflin' '28; led the band in St Louis Blues '29, 16-minute film with Bessie Smith and members of the Fletcher Henderson band; he appears briefly, but the piano introduction to the cabaret scene could only be his. Wrote Symphony Harlem '32, short opera De Organiser with poet Langston Hughes; appeared in John Hammond's Spirituals to Swing concert '38 at Carnegie Hall. The next day he was recorded by folklorist Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress, who apparently did not know who he was and asked him to play and sing the blues: the records were catalogued by the Library as 'by a blues singer from Kansas City'.

He led his own band; played with Wild Bill Davison '43 in Boston, led own band '44, Carnegie Hall solo concert '45, played Town Hall concerts NYC with Eddie Condon, at Condon's club '46; worked in West Coast prod. of his revue Sugar Hill '49 (songs recorded by Nat Cole, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong), worked with clarinettist Albert Nicholas. A severe stroke '50 left him disabled. He spent most of the '30s composing, able to live on royalties from hits; he was more fortunate than Scott Joplin in getting his more ambitious work performed; on the other hand, he wrote to music patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (1864--1953) trying to get his string quartet 'Spirit Of America' played, and apparently she did not bother to answer; the quartet is now lost, with much of his other work. He was equalled only by Earl Hines and Art Tatum in technical skill at the keyboard, admired the boppers (e.g. Dizzy Gillespie) and was ahead of his time in foreseeing the day when 'jazz musicians of the future will have to be able to play all different kinds ... just like the classical musician'. 'Yamekraw' was issued on Folkways; he recorded solo and with small groups in every decade (ten prod. by Hammond '39 incl. five solos, five small groups); Blue Note recordings '43- -4 incl. 13 tracks by Johnson's Blue Note Jazzmen, others with Edmond Hall and Sidney De Paris groups, and eight solos which are among the finest solo jazz piano recordings ever made in any style; a limited edition Mosaic box incl. all of it and there were LP compilations on Folkways, Columbia, Swaggie and other labels, all this was out of print until James P. Johnson, The Original: 1942--45 on Smithsonian/Folkways restored 20 excellent tracks to the catalogue '97. More CD compilations incl. Snowy Morning on Decca Jazz (USA), Harlem Stride Piano 1921--1929 on EPM Musique and a series of six 'complete' CDs on Classics.