Welcome to Basin St. to Birdland

by mikeconklinmusic


James P. Johnson

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, Bessie Smith worked with many key figures in the history of jazz; this included “The Father of Harlem Stride,” James P. Johnson.

James P. Johnson (James Price Johnson, also known as Jimmy Johnson, born February 1, 1894, died November 17, 1955) was an American pianist and composer. A pioneer of the Harlem Stride style of jazz piano, he was a model for Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Fats Waller. Johnson composed many hit tunes including The Charleston and Carolina Shout; the latter becoming known as the test piece for aspiring stride practitioners. His 1921 recording of the tune stands as the prototype of the Harlem Stride style. As conductor Marin Alsop once stated in an interview, “If you couldn’t play Carolina Shout, you couldn’t play.”

Here’s the tune:

The Harlem Stride piano style, taken from the looping left hand of the pianist as it strides from the lower register of the piano to the middle register, was a prominent feature in the upper side of Manhattan or Harlem. Here, a large African-American population resided after the real estate bust. This style of piano, largely meant for entertainment, gained great popularity during rent parties and cutting contests.

Although reminiscent of the ragtime tradition of the late 1800s and early 20th century, Stride piano included unique aspects such as improvisation (or preconceived concepts applied in a live performance), a sense of a swing rhythm, and elements of the blues.

Johnson, although a pianist and composer of extraordinary talent, has had very little written about him. In fact, the only thorough biography on Johnson is by author Scott E. Brown; the book is entitled James P. Johnson: A Case of Mistaken Identity,

As a supplement to our discussion on Johnson, I thought I would provide some audio clips:

Here are some highlights on James P. from Riverwalk Jazz © from Public Radio International.

As an aside, the estate of James P. Johnson bequeathed a collection: Johnson, James Price, Collection, ca. 1921 – 1955, Posthumous: Music and Scripts,which can be found at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University in Newark, NJ.

For an incredibly astute article on James P. Johnson, Carolina Shout, and improvisation, read Henry Martin’sBalancing Composition and Improvisation in James P. Johnsons ‘Carolina Shout.’ Be advised: this is a very complex analysis and is not for the faint of heart 🙂