James P. Johnson - Symphonic Music

James P. Johnson was an astounding musician, arguably the most impor­tant black musician in New York during the decade of the 1920s. He is best known in jazz as the Father of Stride Piano, a two-handed, solo piano style that developed out of ragtime and flourished in the Northeast, especially Harlem, during the 1920s as the first true jazz piano idiom. He has influ­enced many successive jazz musicians, including his students Fats Waller and Duke Ellington. His stride piano composition, ‘Carolina Shout’ is con­sidered by many to be the first recorded jazz piano solo (1921). Johnson was the first black staff musician for the QRS piano roll company and favorite accompanist of Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters.

As a composer, he scored all or part of at least 16 musical revues during the 1920s. Out of his 1923 Broadway production Runnin' Wild came the tune and dance most closely associated with the entire decade, the ‘Charleston’. Of all his accomplishments, James P. Johnson most wanted to be remembered as a serious composer of symphonic music utilizing African-American musical themes.

Despite little recognition and limited encouragement, James P. Johnson would write two symphonies, a piano and a clarinet concerto, two ballets, two one-act operas and a number of sonatas, suites, tone poems and a string quartet. The pioneering jazz writer Rudi Blesh visited Johnson at his home a few years before Johnson suffered a paralyzing stroke. The com­poser was happy to show Blesh his scores and play some of the themes for him. Blesh later wrote about his private audition: ‘These are long works with a feeling of breadth and sweep and with a racial pungency that Gershwin missed, and their African rhythms move with a forthright nobility. One feels none of these qualities as borrowed—they all reside in the dark, diminutive composer himself.’



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 James P. Johnson was a notable black musician in the 1920s. He is best known in jazz circles as Father of Stride Piano and as favoured accompanist of Bessie Smith. His students included Fats Waller and Duke Ellington. He scored musical revues during the 1920s. There are two symphonies, a piano concerto and a clarinet concerto, two ballets, two one-act operas and a number of sonatas, suites, tone poems and a string quartet.
The present disc is another of Nimbus's superb re-licensings from the MusicMasters catalogue. James Johnson's symphonic music is laid bare with exemplary style. Marin Alsop is heard in recordings made in 1992 and 1994.
The Victory Stride is a brief jazzy eruption with solos for trumpet, clarinet, trombone and piano. The prominent trumpet line is taken by Chris Gekker - he of some pretty gloriously dazed Hovhaness recordings for Koch. The four movement Harlem Symphony is more of a suite really: four movements of easy to assimilate jazz with excursions into light dance music. Some of it is rather latino and carries inflections from Gershwin, Tin Pan Alley and Broadway. This is jazz: gippy, swinging, snorted and carefree. The two movement piano concerto Jazz a Mine is from two years later that the ‘symphony’. It’s a display piece that strikes home like a sort of child of Rhapsody in Blue and Tavares’ Concerto in Brazilian Forms. The last and slow movement might almost recall the famous song from the film Casablanca. The American Suite - Lament is the toughest music here. It is as if Johnson had decided to crossed swords with Bartók. sidling and sliding suave way and with some peremptory interpolations by the piano. Drums is a symphonic poem which opens with a cannonade of drums à la Fanfare For The Common Man but more propulsive and snappy. Its commanding way is like a jazz cauldron - a storm of molten material. Its snappy and angry like a Schwerpunkt assault by jazz shock-troops. Along the way Johnson builds in some sly Weill-like trumpet asides. It’s grandiloquent stuff – a ripe big cheese of a movement. There’s more caustic writing in this than is usual for Johnson – and Alsop and the Concordia play up a storm. The disc ends with an idiomatically climactic Charleston complete with the ratatat of tap dancer Frederick Booth.
How long, I wonder, before we get a recording of the jazz and 1920s and 1930s dance symphonies written by Ben Frankel and Joe Holbrooke.
Rob Barnett, Musicweb-international.com

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