D. Laing: Preface to The Scots Musical Museum (Edinburgh, 1839), pp.xii–xvi
D. Johnson: Music and Society in Lowland Scotland in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1972), 147–9
FRANK KIDSON/WILLIAM C. SMITH/DAVID JOHNSON
Johnson, James P(rice)
(b New Brunswick, NJ, 1 Feb 1894; dNew York, 17 Nov 1955). American jazz and musical theatre pianist and composer. He first learnt music from his mother, singing songs at the piano. In 1908 the family settled in New York, where Johnson took lessons with Bruto Giannini, and also learnt from such contemporary ragtime pianists as Eubie Blake. By 1913 he had begun to work at clubs in the black section of Hell's Kitchen in New York known as ‘The Jungles’, where labourers from the South danced most of the night to the accompaniment of solo piano. It was in these dance halls that Johnson developed many of the rhythmically driving shout pieces for which he later became famous. In 1917 he published the first of some 200 songs and recorded his earliest piano rolls.
Johnson recorded a series of inspired solo performances in the 1920s of his own compositions, beginning with Carolina Shout (1921, OK; his best-known work for piano), Keep off the Grass (1921, OK) and The Harlem Strut (1922, Black Swan), and culminating in 1930 with Jingles and You’ve Got to be Modernistic (1930, Bruns.). He played virtuoso pieces of this sort in competitive cutting contests with his contemporaries, and he soon came to be regarded as the best of the Harlem pianists. He recorded with many blues singers of the day, notably Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters. In 1923 Johnson wrote his first Broadway musical, Runnin’ Wild, which ran for 213 performances; its score included what came to be the defining song of America's jazz age, The Charleston. He continued, with mixed success, to write for the Broadway stage throughout his career, producing more than a dozen scores. At the same time he began composing large-scale orchestral works based loosely on classical models and incorporating elements of jazz. The first of these, Yamekraw, a piano rhapsody, was orchestrated by William Grant Still and was performed in Carnegie Hall in 1927 with Fats Waller as soloist. The following year Waller and Johnson collaborated on the revue Keep Shufflin’, each man composing different songs. They also performed on two pianos for the show. During the Depression Johnson turned his attention increasingly to the composition of large-scale works. He wrote his Harlem Symphony in 1932, followed by a piano concerto, Jassamine, in 1934 and Symphony in Brown in 1935; De Organizer, a one-act ‘blues opera’ with a libretto by Langston Hughes, received one performance at Carnegie Hall in 1940. A true assessment of this music is hampered by the loss of many of the scores, but some commentators have questioned the success of Johnson’s orchestral compositions.
With the revival of traditional jazz in the late 1930s and 40s, Johnson began again to appear frequently in clubs and concerts, and to take part in recording sessions. He suffered several minor strokes in the 1940s, and a major one in 1951 which left him incapacitated until his death.
Despite his great versatility, Johnson’s main contribution was as a jazz pianist. He perfected the style known as stride piano, which infused the Midwestern ragtime of Scott Joplin and his contemporaries with elements of jazz, blues and popular song, as well as greatly increasing the demands on the pianist. Johnson’s stride pieces share with ragtime a more or less composed, multi-strain format and an oom-pah bass figure. However, he often makes use of broken 10ths, instead of the traditional octaves of ragtime, and other deviations in the left hand, while his right-hand patterns depart from the stereotyped syncopations and broken chord melodies of ragtime (both of these features are evident in Carolina Shout, ex.1). Furthermore, he never repeats strains without varying them. Perhaps most importantly, the rhythmic feel of his style is more relaxed and closer to the swing of jazz than to the even quavers of ragtime. At the same time he generates more rhythmic intensity by using shifts of register, riffs and blues-like clusters in the treble to imitate the call-and-response patterns of black church music. It is this rhythmicization of his musical ideas that, by allowing for variation and improvisation, lies at the heart of the new freedom of his style. Thus, like his New Orleans contemporary Jelly Roll Morton, Johnson developed a viable jazz piano style by fusing the diverse musical influences of his youth. He exercised a major influence on succeeding generations of jazz pianists, from his friend and pupil Fats Waller through Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson to modern players such as Erroll Garner, Jaki Byard and Thelonious Monk.
complete list in Brown (1986)
dates are those of first New York performance unless otherwise stated
Runnin’ Wild (C. Mack), Washington, DC, 25 Aug 1923 [incl. Old Fashioned Love, The Charleston]; Keep Shufflin’ (H. Creamer, A. Razaf), addl music F. Waller, C. Todd, 27 Feb 1928; Shuffle Along of 1930 (Razaf, Creamer), addl music Waller, April 1930; Kitchen Mechanics Revue (Razaf), 1930 [incl. A Porter's Love Song to a Chambermaid]; Sugar Hill (J. Trent), 25 Dec 1931; De Organizer (blues op, 1 , L. Hughes), 31 May 1940