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 stride style of jazz piano, he was a model for Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum and Fats Waller. Johnson composed many hit tunes including "Charleston" and "Carolina Shout" and remained the acknowledged king of New York jazz pianists until he was dethroned c. 1933 by the recently arrived Art Tatum. His influence and success is often overlooked.
Johnson was born on February 1, 1894, in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The proximity to New York meant that the full cosmopolitan spectrum of the city's musical experience, from bars, to cabarets, to the symphony, were at the young Johnson's disposal. In 1908 his family moved to the San Juan Hill (near where Lincoln Center stands today) section of New York City. With perfect pitch and excellent recall he was soon able to pick out on the piano tunes that he had heard.
Johnson grew up listening to the ragtime of Scott Joplin and always retained links to the ragtime era, playing Joplin's "Maple Leaf", as well as the more modern (according to Johnson) and demanding, "Euphonic Sounds". Johnson, like Joplin, when the royalties from his compositions made him financially secure, pursued a lifelong ambition of writing orchestral works.
Before 1920 Johnson had gained a reputation as a pianist on the East coast on a par with Eubie Blake and Luckey Roberts and made dozens of superb player piano roll recordings for Aeolian, Perfection (the label of the Standard Music Roll Co., Orange, NJ), Artempo (label of Bennett & White, Inc., Newark, NJ), Rythmodik, and QRS during the period from 1917–1927. During this period he met George Gershwin who was also a young piano-roll artist at Aeolian.
Johnson honed his craft, playing night after night, catering to the egos and idiosyncracies of the many singers he encountered, which necessitated being able to play a song in any key. He developed into a sensitive and facile accompanist, the favorite accompanist of Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith. Ethel Waters wrote in her autobiography that working with musicians such as Johnson " ...made you want to sing until your tonsils fell out".
As his piano style continued to evolve, his 1921 phonograph recordings of "Harlem Strut", "Carolina Shout" and "Keep off the Grass" were among the first jazz piano solos to be put onto record. The majority of his phonograph recordings of the 1920s and early 1930s were done for Black Swan (founded by Johnson friend W.C. Handy, where William Grant Still served in an A & R [Artist and Repertoire] capacity) and Columbia.
James P. Johnson, Fess Williams, Freddie Moore, Joe Thomas 1948.
Photography by William P. Gottlieb.
In the depression era, Johnson's career slowed down somewhat. As the opportunties to record and perform live music were limited by the harsh economic realities of the time, the cushion of a modest but steady income from his compser's royalties allowed him to devote significant time to the furtherance of his education, as well as the realization of his desire to compose "serious" orchestral music. Although by this time he was an established composer, with a significant body of work, as well as a member or ASCAP, he was nonetheless unable to secure the financial support that he sought from either the Rosenwald Foundation,or a Guggenheim Fellowship, both of which he received endorsement for from the Columbia Records executive, and long time admirer, John Hammond.
The Johnson archives include the letterhead of an organization called "Friends of James P. Johnson", ostensibly founded at the time (presumably in the late 1930s) in order to promote his then idling career. Names on the letter-head include Paul Robeson, Fats Waller, Walter White (President of the NAACP), the actress Mercedes Gilbert and Bessye Bearden, the mother of artist Romare Bearden. In the late 1930s Johnson slowly started to re-emerge with the rise of independent jazz labels and began to record, with his own and other groups, at first for the HRS label. Johnson's appearances at the Spirituals to Swing Concerts at Carnegie Hall in 1938 and 1939 were organized by his friend John Hammond, for whom he recorded a substantial series of solo and band sides in 1939.
Johnson suffered a stroke (likely a transient ischemic attack) in 1940. When he returned to the public eye his style was less clean and precise though his technique was still formidable. He began a heavy schedule of performing, composing, and recording, leading several small live and groups, now often with racially integrated bands led by musicians such as Eddie Condon, Yank Lawson, Sidney de Paris, Sidney Bechet, Rod Cless, and Edmond Hall. He recorded for jazz labels including Asch, Black and White, Blue Note, Commodore, Circle, and Decca. He was a regular guest star and featured soloist on Rudi Blesh's This is Jazz broadcasts, as well as at Eddie Condon's Town Hall concerts and studied with Maury Deutsch, who could also count Django Reinhardt and Charlie Parker among his pupils.
Johnson permanently retired from performing after suffering a severe, paralyzing stroke in 1951. He died four years later in Jamaica, New York and is buried in Mt Olivet Cemetery in Maspeth, Queens. Perfunctory obituaries appeared in even the New York Times. The pithiest and most angry remembrance of Johnson was written by his friend, the producer and impresario John Hammond.
James Price Johnson (1 de febrero de 1891, New Brunswick, Nueva Jersey, Estados Unidos - 17 de noviembre de 1955, Nueva York, Estados Unidos), conocido como James P. Johnson, fue un pianista y compositor estadounidense de jazz. Fue uno de los creadores, junto con Luckey Roberts, del estilo stride de jazz.
James Price Johnson nació el 1 de febrero de 1891 en New Brunswick (Nueva Jersey, Estados Unidos). Su familia se trasladó a Nueva York en 1908. En 1911, mientras que "todavía va a la escuela en pantalones cortos", asistió a una interpretación de Jelly Roll Morton en Harlem y estaba inspirada por el blues. En 1912 tuvo su primer compromiso profesional en Coney Island. Johnson y Morton representaban las distintas ramas en la posterior evolución desde el ragtime de Scott Joplin al piano en el jazz de comienzos de los años 1920.
Además de un músico solista, James P. Johnson también realizó interpretaciones como músico de acompañamiento de algunas de las más destacadas cantantes de blues de la época, como Ethel Waters o Bessie Smith. También compuso la música de diversos espectáculos teatrales de la época y varias piezas para piano y orquesta, incluída una ópera-blues titulada "The Organizer" y con libreto de Langston Hughes.
A lo largo de su carrera musical colaboró con músicos de jazz tradicional como el cornetista King Oliver, el clarinetista Pee Wee Russell, el guitarrista Eddie Condon o el saxofonista soprano Sidney Bechet.
Influyó a artistas como Fats Waller, Willie "The Lion" Smith, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum y Thelonius Monk entre otros.