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James P. Johnson

Biography

Born: February 1, 1894; New Brunswick, NJ   Died: November 17, 1955; New York, NY  
Remembered primarily as the leading stride pianist of the 1920s, James Price Johnson was a talented and culturally ambitious musician who, after establishing himself as a jazz virtuoso and songwriter, moved on to Broadway musicals and symphonic concert music. Johnson's success as a jazz-classical fusion composer is difficult to judge as little of that music was published and many of his manuscripts are lost. Growing up in New York City, Johnson Read more discovered ragtime and blues and heard some of the day's leading classical pianists. He took lessons from Bruto Giannini and picked up pop music knowledge from Abba Labba (Richard McLean) and Eubie Blake, who opened Johnson's ears to the piano's timbral possibilities. He was performing at clubs in Hell's Kitchen by 1913, where he developed the loud, boisterous, driving "shout" pieces which would make him famous in the 1920s, particularly "Carolina Shout." In 1917 he published the first of 200 songs and recorded his first piano rolls that May.

Soon a central figure of Harlem cultural life, he cut his first 78s in 1921 and worked as musical director for Broadway revues. Johnson also recorded in the 1920s with such blues singers as Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters. He was the leading exponent of stride piano, a virtuosic amalgam of ragtime, jazz, and blues. His swinging, heavily rhythmic, oom-pah bass line was the foundation for continually varied melodies in the right hand, riffing from one register to another and evoking the call-and-response technique of black church music. By 1930, he had established himself as a daring virtuoso showman, the Stokowski of stride, but he published few piano solos after 1929. Similarly, his song output tapered off after 1930, as he devoted more of his time to composing stage and orchestral works and leading his own jazz band.

His first Broadway musical, Runnin' Wild, opened in 1923 and ran for 213 performances; among the hits from the show were "The Charleston" and "Old Fashioned Love." Johnson wrote a dozen stage works in all, starting with such titles as Mooching Along and Keep Shufflin'. However he grew increasingly ambitious, and this activity culminated in the 1940 one-act "blues opera" De Organizer (with libretto by Langston Hughes; it got a single performance at Carnegie Hall and wasn't revived until 2003 when it was heard in a reconstructred version by James Dapogny. Johnson followed this up wirh the 1942 opera Dreamy Kid, based on a story drawn from Eugene O'Neill.

During the Depression, Johnson turned his attention to orchestral pieces loosely inspired by classical formulas, but incorporating a great deal of jazz, influencing the later concert works of Duke Ellington. His piano-and-orchestra rhapsody Yamekraw was played in Carnegie Hall in 1927 with Fats Waller as soloist. There followed such substantial works as the piano concerto Jassamine (or Jazz-O-Mine, 1934; only the piano version of the second movement survives), the Harlem Symphony (1932; only the second movement survives), and Symphony in Brown (1935). Critics at the time tended to denigrate these works, but it's hard now to say whether they were really substandard or if they just suffered from the general resistance to jazz-classical fusion music.

Johnson eased back into the club and recording scene in the late '30s, where he found renewed success. He suffered several small strokes in the 1940s, though, and a major stroke in 1951 left him incapacitated until his death four years later. Read less
Browse 1-14 of 14 Available Recordings
  • 1.
    The Golden Age Of Light Music: My Dream Is Yours
    Label: Guild   Catalog: 5209 Release Date: 07/08/2014   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Victor Herbert,  Harry Warren,  Mischa Spoliansky,  John Frederic Coots  ... 
    Conductor:  Percy Faith,  Johny Clegg,  Annuncio Paolo Mantovani,  Frank Cordell  ... 
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  • 2.
    Fascinatin' Rhythm / Alan Feinberg
    Label: Argo   Catalog: 444457 Release Date: 07/17/2012   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  George Gershwin,  Thomas "Fats" Waller,  Edward "Duke" Ellington,  James P. Johnson  ... 
    Performer:  Alan Feinberg,  Daniel Druckman
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  • 3.
    James P. Johnson: Harlem Symphony, Concerto, Jazz A Mine / Alsop, Concordia Orchestra
    Label: Nimbus   Catalog: 2745 Release Date: 01/10/2012   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  James P. Johnson
    Performer:  James Pugh,  Chris Gekker,  Lawrence Feldman,  Leslie Stifelman  ... 
    Conductor:  Marin Alsop
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Concordia Orchestra
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  • 4.
    Jazz Nocturne - American Concertos Of The Jazz Age / Rosenberg, Hot Springs Music Festival
    Label: Naxos   Catalog: 8559647 Release Date: 02/22/2011   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  James P. Johnson,  Harry Reser,  George Gershwin,  Dana Suesse
    Performer:  Gary Hammond,  Don Vappie,  Tatiana Roitman,  Peter Minton  ... 
    Conductor:  Richard Rosenberg
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Hot Springs Music Festival Symphony Orchestra,  Creole Serenaders
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  • 5.
    The Indispensable Coleman Hawkins - Body And Soul
    Label: Rca   Catalog: 66495 Release Date: 09/07/2010   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Thomas "Fats" Waller,  Don Redman,  Red McKenzie,  James P. Johnson  ... 
    Performer:  Coleman Hawkins
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  • 6.
    The Indispensable Fats Waller Vol 7 & 8 (1938-1940)
    Label: Rca   Catalog: 26417 Release Date: 08/20/2010   Number of Discs: 2
    Composer:  Thomas "Fats" Waller,  Robert D. Emmerich,  Andy Razaf,  Hoagy Carmichael  ... 
    Performer:  Thomas "Fats" Waller
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Fats Waller Rhythm and Orchestra,  Fats Waller Rhythm
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  • 7.
    The Hot Club Of San Francisco
    Label: Clarity   Catalog: 1006 Release Date: 06/09/2010   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Django Reinhardt,  James P. Johnson,  Walter Donaldson,  Jimmy Rowles  ... 
    Performer:  Ned Boynton,  Paul Mehling,  Paul Robinson,  Evan Dain  ... 
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Hot Club of San Francisco
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  • 8.
    Swing That Music - A Tribute To Louis  Armstrong / Canadian Brass
    Label: Opening Day   Catalog: 7371 Release Date: 05/26/2009   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Vincent Rose,  Thomas "Fats" Waller,  George Gershwin,  F.J. "Jelly Roll" Morton  ... 
    Performer:  Adam James
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Canadian Brass
    CD: $17.98
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  • 9.
    Novarags- Novacek, Johnson, Roberts, Joplin, Scott / Novacek
    Label: Ambassador   Catalog: 5637346912 Release Date: 04/28/2008   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  James Scott,  John Novacek,  Joseph Lamb,  Scott Joplin  ... 
    Performer:  John Novacek,  Steven Novacek
    CD: $15.99
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  • 10.
    Ain't Misbehavin' & Other Fats Waller Hits / Canadian Brass
    Label: Rca   Catalog: 60979 Release Date: 08/29/2007   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Thomas "Fats" Waller,  James P. Johnson,  F.J. "Jelly Roll" Morton,  Roy Turk  ... 
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Canadian Brass
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  • 11.
    Donald Angle On Harpsichord
    Label: Afka   Catalog: 517 Release Date: 10/24/2006   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Harry Warren,  Steve Goodman,  Vasily Solov'yov-Sedoy,  Bob Carleton  ... 
    Performer:  Donald Angle
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  • 12.
    Vocalessence Witness - Got The Saint Louis Blues / Brunelle
    Label: Clarion   Catalog: 907 Release Date: 02/10/2004   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  R. Nathaniel Dett,  Edmund Thornton Jenkins,  James P. Johnson,  Carl Rossini Diton  ... 
    Performer:  Ryan French,  Michael Forest,  Paul Shaw,  Steve Burger  ... 
    Conductor:  Philip Brunelle
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  VocalEssence Ensemble
    CD: $17.99
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  • 13.
    That's A Plenty! - Sousa, Bernstein, Et Al / Carolina Brass
    Label: Summit Records   Catalog: 352 Release Date: 01/07/2003   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Arthur R. Frackenpohl,  Traditional,  Jeremiah Clarke,  John Philip Sousa  ... 
    Performer:  Steven Dube,  Bob Campbell,  Timothy Hudson,  John Beck  ... 
    Conductor:  Timothy Hudson
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Carolina Brass
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  • 14.
    Original Ragtime / Claude Bolling
    Label: Cbs Masterworks   Catalog: 39009 Release Date: 10/25/1990   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Jay Roberts,  Thomas Million Turpin,  Robert Hampton,  James P. Johnson  ... 
    Performer:  Claude Bolling
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