James P. Johnson - Biography



Known as the "Father of Stride Piano," James P. Johnson's most famous piece is the Jazz Age-defining song, "The Charleston." Over the course of his career, Johnson recorded over 400 sides, wrote more than 250 pieces and scored eleven musicals.

James Price Johnson was born February 1st, 1894 in "The Hub City," New Brunswick, New Jersey. In 1908, the Johnson family moved to Manhattan's San Juan Hill, a neighborhood long since razed to make room for the Lincoln Center. Ragtime great Scott Joplin had moved from Missouri to New York the same year. In the decade that followed, Luckey Roberts, Eubie Blake, Willie "The Lion" Smith and Johnson began playing what was at the time called "New York ragtime" but came to later be known as "stride." Johnson began playing in clubs shortly after the others, as early as 1913, and was quickly recognized for his talents. In 1917, he began recording piano rolls, ultimately for labels including Aeolian, Perfection, Artempo, Rythmodik, and QRS. That same year, Scott Joplin died broke and frustrated that his unsuccessful to stage his black folk-opera, Treemonisha.

In the early 1920s, Johnson began tutoring Fats Waller. Soon Johnson, Waller and Smith were providing nightly entertainment at Harlem rent parties. Beginning in 1921, Johnson began recording 78s. His 1923 musical Runnin Wild introduced "Old Fashioned Love" as well as one of his biggest numbers, "The Charleston." It was also during this decade that Johnson accompanied several blues singers, including Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters. He also led his own combos, which ultimately included James P. Johnson's Harmony Eight, Jimmy Johnson and his Band, Jimmy Johnson and his Orchestra, Jimmy Johnson's Jazz Boys, Johnson's Jazzers and James P. Johnson's Blue Note Jazz Men. He was successful enough that in 1926 he joined the ASCAP.

In 1927, like his idol Scott Joplin, Johnson expressed his desire to stage an ambitious piece entitled Yamekraw - A Negro Rhapsody, in some ways a response to Rhapsody in Blue. But whereas Johnson's friend George Gershwin's transition from piano roll recorder to serious composer was embraced by the bourgeoisie, similar ambitions by black composers continued to be discouraged. Nonetheless, under the orchestration of William Grant Still, he staged the rhapsody with Waller on piano, as Johnson was still contractually tied to his long-running show, Keep Shufflin'. In the 1930s, he continued to compose ambitious pieces like Harlem Symphony (1932) Jassamine Concerto (Piano Concerto in A?) (1934), a blues opera, Symphony in Brown (1935), Spirit of America - String Quartet, Improvisations on "Deep River" and others.

In 1938, Johnson was a featured performer in a series of performances at Carnegie Hall organized by his friend, John Hammond, the Spirituals to Swing Concerts. He returned to recording in 1939. He also began performing more frequently, often with Eddie Condon. With the rise of independent jazz labels, and Johnson recorded for HRS. Johnson collaborated with Missourian poet, Langston Hughes, on a provocative piece, De Organizer, which was performed just three times in 1940. With aspirant compositions by blacks almost universally unfashionable, the piece wasn't performed again until 2002. That year Johnson suffered a stroke. When he returned to performing a few years later, his abilities, though still formidable, were noticeably diminished. Nonetheless, he continued playing -- often with Yank Lawson, Sidney De Paris, Sidney Bechet, Rodd Cless and Edmond Hall. He also began recording for Asch, Black and White, Blue Note, Commodore, Circle and Decca, releasing albums including Rent Party Piano (1943-Blue Note), James P. Johnson Plays Fats Waller Favorites (1950-Decca), The Daddy of the Piano (1950-Decca) and Stomps, Rags and Blues (1951-Blue Note). Johnson also studied composition with Maury Deutsch, who also taught Charlie Parker and Django Reinhardt. Finally, semi-retired and still financially secure, Johnson staged Harlem Symphony in 1945 at Carnegie Hall with Joseph Cherniavsky conducting. Ten years later, a more serious stroke in 1955 ended Johnson's career. He died November 17th, 1955 in Jamaica, New York.

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