Episode 9: James P. Johnson

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Born:February 1st, 1894 in New Brunswick, New Jersey

Died:

November 17th, 1955 in Jamaica, Queens, New York

The Father of Stride Piano

Pianist James P. Johnson grew up studying classical music and ragtime. Purported to have perfect pitch, he learned popular styles of music from listening to performances at dance halls. Johnson intently studied the music of Scott Joplin, whose compositions were the inspiration for the development of the Harlem stride jazz piano style.

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Carolina Shout:

When he was just 23 years old, James P. Johnson composed a technically demanding piece called “Carolina Shout.” The piece, which stemmed directly from the ragtime aesthetic, was regarded as the pinnacle of the stride style. It required virtuosic ability, and combined elements of the blueswith intricate melodic and harmonic structures. “Carolina Shout” became the touchstone of stride.
Pianists were considered legitimate only after they had mastered the song. Fats Waller and Duke Ellington are both said to have painstakingly learned how to play the piece by following along with Johnson’s piano roll version. A 1921 recording of “Carolina Shout” is said to be the first jazz piano recording. Image

In the 1920s, when rent parties were roaring across Harlem, New York City, James P. Johnson was the undisputed master. He played with a precision and accuracy that allowed for some of the most jubilant and impressive stride pieces to be performed, injecting jazz with a sense of wonder and awe.

Popular Music and Light Opera:

Aside from performing in the stride jazz piano style, Johnson was a composer of popular song and symphonic works. His 1923 Broadway show “Runnin’ Wild” contained a dance number called the “Charleston,” which would become one of the most renowned dance styles of its time.

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He even composed a one-act opera called “De Organizer,” on which he collaborated with the great African-American poet Langston Hughes. His works for orchestra are considered the main inspiration for composer Geroge Gerswhin’s body of work. Gershwin, who was white, and therefore not limited by racial barriers, in turn helped spread Johnson’s influence to a wider audience.

Invisible Man:

Despite his enormous talent, because of racial boundaries during his era, and shifts in cultural focus since, James P. Johnson is largely unknown to the general public. However, his music and legacy is alive in the work of countless pianists, including but not limited to Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Thelonious Monk, Dick Hyman, and George Gershwin.
— original source: http://jazz.about.com/ —
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