Born: February 1, 1894 | Died: November 17, 1955 Primary Instrument: Piano
Back during the heyday of ragtime piano (pre-1920), James P. had become a part of the famed Harlem music scene, and was contributing to the distinctive Harlem piano style that differed melodically and harmonically from classic ragtime. Conventional ragtime had syncopation but lacked polyrhythm. James P. developed a strong and solid walking bass with his left hand and a rhythmic exciting treble with his right. His music flowed at an even tempo with considerable syncopation between the two hands. He superimposed conflicting rhythms in solos of symmetrical beauty.
James Price Johnson was born in New Brunswick, N.J., in 1894. His mother taught him rags, blues, and stomps as soon as he was able to handles the keys on the parlor upright. When Jimmy reached 9 years of age, he started lessons with Bruto Giannini, a strict musician from the old country, who corrected his fingering but didn't interfere with his playing of rags and stomps.
The Johnson family moved into New York City when Jimmy was 12, and early in his teens he became the piano kid at Barron Wilkin's Cabaret in Harlem. It was at Barron's that he met Charles L. (Lucky) Roberts from whom he derived his brilliant right hand. Later his solid bass was inspired by the work of Abba Labba, a professor in a bordello. Through the years James P. kept up his studying, and in the 1930s he began the study of orchestral writing for concert groups.
James P., Lucky Roberts, Willie (The Lion) Smith, and the Beetle (Stephen Henderson), were familiar figures around The Jungle (on the fringe of San Juan Hill in the west 60s when this older Negro district was thriving before 1920.) They followed in the footsteps of Jack The Bear, Jess Pickett, The Shadow, Fats Harris, and Abba Labba.
Here and in the later uptown Harlem, the house rent parties flourished and the boys who could tinkle the ivories were fair haired. Willie The Lion recalled those days for Rudi Blesh as follows: A hundred people would crowd into one seven-room flat until the walls bulged. Plenty of food with hot maws (pickled pig bladders) and chitt'lins with vinegar, beer, and gin, and when we played the shouts everybody danced. Long nights of playing piano at such festivities gave James P. plenty of practice at the keyboard.
There were two younger jazz pianists who followed Jimmy Johnson around during these Harlem nights. One was young Duke Ellington, fresh from Washington, and the other was James P.'s most noted pupil, the late Fats Waller. The latter cherished the backroom sessions with James P., Beetle, and The Lion.
From about 1915 to the early '20s, James P. made many piano rolls for the Aeolian Company and then became the first Negro staff artist for the QRS piano roll firm in 1921. It was in this connection that he met and became friendly with the late George Gershwin, and ultimately helped him write the music for several shows. Around late 1922 Johnson left the piano roll field to make phonograph records. His first waxing was also probably the first jazz piano solo on records. This was the Victor pressing of Bleeding Heart Blues.
Most of Johnson's playing was solo, but through the years there were periods of considerable length when he served bands in the piano chair. He played for some time with the famed James Reese Europe's Hell Fighters at the Clef Club in Harlem.
Johnson's composing activities are as noteworthy as his piano style. In the '30s he wrote a long choral work, Yamecraw, which was made into a movie short starring Bessie Smith. Other serious works of his include Symphonie Harlem; Symphony in Brown; African Drums (symphonic poem); Piano Concerto in A-Flat (which he performed with the Brooklyn Symphony); Mississippi Moon; Symphonic Suite on St. Louis Blues; and the score to De Union Organizer (with a Langston Hughes libretto).
One of Johnson's most famous and best known tunes was If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight, written in 1926, the year he was accepted for membership in ASCAP. Jazz fans will recall Old Fashioned Love, Porter's Love Song (to a Chamber Maid), Charleston, Carolina Shout, Caprice Rag, Daintiness, The Mule Walk, and Ivy.
J.P. at one time or another made records for every major label, with the exception of the two youngest-Capitol and Mercury-and many of his older sides have been reissued. Most of his sides are found under his own name, but there are miscellaneous dates where a jazz band called him in to handle the important piano chore. He recorded with McKinney's Cotton Pickers on Victor and was selected by Hughes Panassie on the Frenchman's sessions at Victor during a visit to the U.S. The Hot Record Society picked James P. for their Rhythmaker record date in 1939.
James P. Johnson was one of the great jazz pioneers and his contributions take an important place among the jazz classics.
James P. Johhnson died in New York on Nov. 17, 1955.
Source: James Nadal