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James P. Johnson: Ragtime Pianist and Composer Evolving into Jazz

James Price Johnson, a pioneer composer and pianist who specialized in stride piano was born on the 1st of February, 1894 in New Jersey, USA. He was an influential figure in the early days of music recording and was a specialist in the ragtime evolution that gave birth to Jazz. Fats Waller studied music under him, while Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie all looked up to him as an idol.  

James P. Johnson

Early Life

Johnson was born to William H. Johnson and Josephine Harrison in the New Brunswick province of New Jersey. The senior Johnson was a mechanic while his mother was a self-taught pianist working for the Methodist Church choir. James started his musical education by listening to the popular African-American dances and songs that were played across the city and his own residence, something that curated his musical taste.

In 1908, when the Johnson family shifted to New York City, a whole new world was made available to the talented boy from New Jersey who also boasted the uncanny ability to pick out musical tunes as he heard them. In 1911, the Johnsons moved further uptown, he got a full experience of the diverse musical spectrum, from symphonies to bars and cabarets. In his teens, he listed to the ragtime music of the legendary Scott Joplin, creating his very own bond with the ragtime era. In 1912, he decided to quit school and pursue a musical career after landing the job of a pianist. He spent the next few years listening and analyzing other pianists, developing his own ragtime piano skills, and even composing his initial rags.

Musical Journey

In 1914, Johnson met Lillie Mae Wright at a performance in Newark, New Jersey. They collaborated for that show and instantly formed a bond that lasted a lifetime. The couple tied the knot in 1917. The Newark show was also the stage where James met Willie “The Lion” Smith, with him he forged an instant friendship. Their ideas regarding stage appearance and entertainment further complemented their beliefs and gave birth to a harmonious partnership. The duo started touring in 1918 and eventually settled down in New York after a year on the road.

Johnson was already famous on the East Coast as a pianist, and further partnered Luckey Roberts and Eubie Blake to make multiple piano rolls. Soon, he started recording his ragtime compositions for QRS, Rythmodik, Artempo, Perfection, and Aeolian. The next decade also marked his meeting with George Gershwin, another young piano stalwart at Aeolian. Johnson slowly became a pioneer in stride piano, honing his craft with an incessant hunger for improvement, performing night after night for various shows. He was already experienced enough to cater to the towering egos and eccentricities he met on this journey, and he was equally capable of playing a song in any key necessary. His conceptual knowledge and orchestral style were exemplary. He developed himself into a facile and sensitive musician, everyone who worked with him loved him.

In 1921, phonograph recordings were created for some of his compositions, namely “Worried and Lonesome Blues,” “Carolina Shout,” “Keep Off the Grass,” and “Harlem Strut.” These were among the earliest jazz piano solos that were recorded. Johnson almost acted like a drummer when playing the piano, his energy was infectious, and his contemporaries often used them as test pieces for technically challenging solo competitions. The pianists, harmonists, and swing masters would display their improvisational skills, leaving the audience in awe. The initial recordings were produced by Columbia and Black Swan. In 1922, Johnson joined hands with the Revue Plantation Days and became their official music director. He soon toured England for a period of four months, and then collaborated with Cecil Mack, a lyricist to craft Revue “Runnin’ Wild.” The Revue was a smash hit and was used on tour for more than half a decade, and even made its Broadway debut.

As the Depression-era settled in, Johnson's career also slowed down a bit. The emergence of the “Swing era” among the African-American community somewhat affected him. He faced some difficulty adapting to the changing landscape, and his popularity diminished subsequently. However, he already had a stable source of income through his royalties that allowed him to concentrate on his musical education. He decided to pursue his long-term desire of composing orchestral music. He started by crafting Revues and soon moved on to compose multiple orchestral pieces. However, his dream soon hit a snag. Despite being an established composer and a member of the “American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers,” he was unable to attain any financial assistance from either the Guggenheim Fellowship or the Rosenwald Foundation. John Hammond of Columbia Records came to his rescue, endorsing him to continue his work. An organization named “Friends of James P. Johnson” was formed to promote his works.

The first name on Johnson’s list of hit tunes for the musical theatre is “Charleston,” which also debuted on Broadway in 1923. Other notable tracks are - “Snowy Morning Blues,” “Carolina Shout,” “A Porter’s Love Song to a Chambermaid,” “Keep off the Grass,” ‘Don't Cry, Baby,” and “If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight).” He also composed several symphonic pieces for ballet, waltzes, and light opera.

Towards the end of 1930s, his career was back on an upward trajectory as traditional Jazz made a comeback. Johnson began recording on his own and also under the H.R.S. label. In 1938, he appeared at the Spirituals to Swing concert held at Manhattan’s Carnegie Hall by Columbia Records. He also made several solo recordings for John Hammond, along with band sides. In 1940, he suffered from a transient ischemic attack and was bedridden for 2 years. In 1942, he re-appeared on the stage, embarking on several recording, composing, and performance sessions with multiple small groups. In 1944, he again teamed up with his friend Willie “The Lion” Smith to participate in stride piano competitions held at Greenwich Village. He worked under famous Jazz labels like Decca, Circle, Commodore, Blue Note, Black & White, and Asch. In 1945, he was performing regularly with Louis Armstrong at the Town Hall and Carnegie Hall in New York City. He was made frequent guest appearances as a soloist on Rudi Blesh's legendary program “This is Jazz broadcasts.” He was also made guest appearances at Town Hall concerts organized by Eddie Condon. In 1951, Johnson suffered from another severe stroke that paralyzed him and forced him to retire. He passed away on the 17th of November, 1955 in Jamaica, New York. He was buried at the Mount Olivet Cemetery in Queens.

Recognitions and Usage in Popular Culture

  • In 1929, his song titled “Your Love is All I Crave” was used in John G. Adolfi’s movie “The Show of Shows.” 
  • In 1933, he composed “Alabama Swing” for Robert Z. Leonard’s movie “Dancing Lady.” 
  • In 1942, his smash hit “If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight)” was used in the legendary “Casablanca” directed by Michael Curtiz.  
  • In 1946, the movie titled “It's a Wonderful Life” used his track “Charleston.”
  • The music of “If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight)” was also used in three other movies - The Man I Love (1947), Flamingo Road (1949), and The Joker Is Wild (1957).
  • In 1970, James Price Johnson was inducted into the “Songwriters Hall of Fame.”
  • In 1974, his track “Charleston” was used in the movie titled “The Great Gatsby.”
  • In 1973, Johnson was named in the “Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame.”
  • In 1980, he was again inducted into the “Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame.”
  • In 2001, his composition “Blue Note Boogie” was used in the movie titled “The Majestic.” 
  • In 2007, he was inducted into the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers “Jazz Wall of Fame.”

The Invisible Pianist                  

Johnson is the embodiment of Harlem Stride piano. He was the pioneer of this East Coast ragtime evolution, which is further infused with ‘Blues’ elements to create a distinguishable style. The differences with ragtime are stark - stride pianists offer a more swinging rhythm while ragtime focused on sustained syncopation. Harlem Stride is also imbued with a delicate sense of anticipation, further accentuated by the creation of tension and its subsequent release through the melody (right) hand, while the bass (left) hand generates beats. There are also elements of Blues incorporated with complex harmonies in the works of classical composers. Ragtime is more of “composed” music, while stride depends on improvisation. The early stride pianists and contemporaries of Johnson were not particularly adept at this spontaneous melodic and harmonic improvisations. They would focus on popular works of the day, carefully planned and rehearsed with very little variation. This is where James Price Johnson came into play, he always had a trick upon his sleeve that he could conjure up at a moment’s notice. His performances always had some variation from their counterparts, either through melody, or harmonic devices, or change in rhythm, chords, or interpolated scales.

The fundamental aspect of James Price Johnson’s art is “feeling.” He was far advanced compared to his stride contemporaries, always swinging for the fences. He used to blow everyone away at the “the virtuosic piano-playing marathons” or musical cutting contests. His music moved at the force of an express train, one that will hit you hard before you realize it, and if listened carefully, there’s always something that you can “feel.” James Price Johnson was “authentic,” a word that is somewhat at risk these days when it comes to art. He was one of America’s great unsung musicians whose work feels like classical architecture - fun, honest, and unassuming. He was the invisible pianist.


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