Born: 1792; Philadelphia, PA
Died: April 6, 1844; Philadelphia, PA
His accomplishments slowly being rediscovered today, Frank Johnson was a famous bandleader and composer of over 300 published works, who established a career remarkable both for an African-American during the 1820s - 1840s and as a full-time musician when that profession was a rarity in the U.S. He was a noted virtuoso on the Kent bugle and the violin, a teacher of both black and white students, and the central figure of a group of composers inRead more Philadelphia. Today he is gaining recognition as one of the "founding fathers" of the American musical style.
Almost nothing is known of Johnson's early life. He was rumored to have been born on Martinique in the West Indies, but this is only vaguely supported. He may have learned the bugle from Richard Willis who led the West Point band in 1818. Johnson also may have been in the band of Philadelphian Matt Black. Johnson's first composition A Collection of New Cotillions was published in 1818. By 1819, he led a band that performed at all balls and had "a remarkable taste in distorting a sentimental, simple, and beautiful song, into a reel, jig, or country-dance" (Robert Wain, "The Hermit in America"). Affiliated with the Philadelphia State Fencibles (a militia unit) and performing at the Saratoga Springs Summer Resort in the early 1820s, the band of up to 20 "Free Black" musicians toured the east coast (not without some racially-motivated violent incidents) during the 1820s and 1830s. They performed for concerts, charity functions, concerts at African-American churches (which included music by Haydn and Handel), parades, cotillion balls, circuses, canal dedications, railroad openings, the return of Revolutionary War hero General Lafayette, a ball for author Charles Dickens, and at the popular 1840s Promenade Concerts à la Musard, which included white performers, thus being some of the first interracial performances in the U.S. In 1837, part of the band performed in England during the coronation celebrations for Queen Victoria.
Johnson's compositions include many marches (including the Recognition March on the Independence of Hayti), overtures, waltzes (The New Bird Waltz features birdcalls and syncopated rhythms), quadrilles, cotillions (the Philadelphia Firemen's Cotillion features musicians shouting "Fire!" accompanied by a clanging bell), sentimental ballads, songs (including the abolitionist tune The Grave of the Slave), and salon pieces for flute and piano. His orchestrations were influenced by Bellini (viz., the exquisite Dirge for brass) and Johann Strauss, but these have had to be reconstructed from piano scores (with some instruments indicated) and literary sources. Johnson's band also performed unusual works by other black composers, such as the waltzes in 5/4 time Valse a Cinq Temps by A.J.R. Conner and Five Step Waltz by Edward Roland, the almost-ragtime Lucy Neale Quadrille by Isaac Hazzard, and the Philadelphia Hop Waltz by James Hemmenway with its lively brass writing. There are written accounts of the band playing unusual, improvised rhythms and spontaneous variations, but words did not exist then to describe what was going on. Read less