Pianist James P. Johnson is a little-known genius of American music. His style of piano playing became known as ‘stride’ and was a bridge between ragtime and jazz. He’s been called the ‘steadiest and most refined of the Harlem ‘stride’ players. And popular songs he composed 90 years ago such as “The Charleston,” “Old Fashioned Love” and “If I Could Be with You” remain jazz standards.
Johnson’s ambitions weren’t fulfilled until he composed ‘serious’ music for the concert halls of New York. A new arrangement of a rarely heard art-music piece by James P. Johnson, “Jazz a Mine Concerto,” is featured on this Riverwalk Jazz tribute as Shelly Berg joins The Jim Cullum Jazz Band.
Noted actor/singer Vernel Bagneris performs Johnson’s love songs and brings James P. to life in stories based on his first-person account of his life.
By 1913, when James P. was a teenager, Harlem was the scene of all-night parties that got underway at midnight. Party-goers were said to squeeze into a five-room flat until the walls bulged. Card games and dice kept the action in the back rooms hot. But the center of attention was the piano in the front parlor where a ‘tickler’ sat on a stool—hands poised above the keyboard—like a king on his throne.
New York piano ‘ticklers’ were famous for their sharp looks and stylish attitudes as well as their piano playing. Abba Labba was a ladies’ man, ‘the working girls’ Jelly Roll as James P. put it. And it was said that when Willie ‘The Lion’ walked into a place, ‘his every move was a picture.’
“Each tickler kept these attitudes even when he was socializing at parties, or just visiting. It was designed to show a personality that women would admire. With the music he played, the tickler’s manner would put the question in the lady’s mind: ‘Can he do it—like he can play it?’”
In addition to his output of pop songs, recording sessions and Broadway show scores, James P. Johnson was a prolific composer of symphonic works—an amazing feat for a largely self-taught jazz pianist who’d spent the first half of his life playing in basement cabarets in Hell’s Kitchen. Johnson’s ‘serious’ works include “Yamekraw, A Negro Rhapsody” and the blues opera De-Organizer with lyrics by Langston Hughes.
You get the feeling that there were no wasted moments in James P. Johnson’s life. He was always watching—always listening—and always learning something new.
Photo credit for Home Page and Recent Radio Broadcast Page: James P. Johnson, 1943 NYC. Photo by Gjon Mili for Life Magazine
Text based on Riverwalk Jazzscript by Margaret Moos Pick ©2011