James P. Johnson
Snowy Morning Blues
Copyright (C) Thomas L. Morgan 1995. All rights reserved.
Every jazz fan has their favorite pianist or piano style. When you talk of the piano in jazz history, many different faces and styles come to mind. There's the moody sound of Keith Jarrett, the genius-on-the-edge bop of Bud Powell, the staccato realignment of Thelonious Monk, and the remarkable ivory manipulations of Art Tatum. You could expand the list easily by adding such notables as Earl Hines, Willie "The Lion" Smith, John Lewis, Duke Ellington, Meade Lux Lewis, Eubie Blake, Pete Johnson and Fats Waller. One person who should be included because of his contributions and influence, James P. Johnson, is normally overlooked. Johnson's piano playing is wonderful jazz; he was a "tickler" whose style did not have quite the exuberance of Fats Waller, but made up for it with shades of Art Tatum's complexities and Monk's phrasing.
James Price Johnson was born in New Jersey in 1894. He was playing piano at rent parties in New York City before he got he first professional gig at the age of eighteen. In 1913, while playing at dances for black longshoremen emigrated from South Carolina, Johnson composed a tune that would become the basis for a dance rage ten years later. The song was the Charleston, which premiered in 1923 in an African-American revue called Runnin' Wild.Johnson, master and inventor of the style of piano playing called stride, was considered the best piano player on the East Coast in his prime. He also had an interest in classical music and composed many works including Yamecraw: A Negro Rhapsody which premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1928
There are twenty songs on the CD of Johnson's Decca recordings, four are from 1930, the remainder from 1944. All the earlier cuts feature Johnson solo. On the later tracks Eddie Dougherty's tasteful drumming accompanies him. Some of Johnson's best known compositions are included. His early works such as Over The Bars, Snowy Morning Blues, and his masterpiece Carolina Shout show his careful study of stomps and turn of the century rags. Later compositions like If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight) and Old Fashion Love are excellent examples of his influence on popular music. Many of the remaining tunes were written by Fats Waller and include Ain't Misbehavin', Honeysuckle Rose, and Keepin' Out Of Mischief Now. This is not surprising since the talented Waller was Johnson's most prolific student.
This is the first time in many years these recordings have been made available in the U.S. They had been on an Australian rerelease on the Swaggie label some years back which points out how much American jazz is appreciated overseas.
I suggest that you bring this pianist home to entertain at your rent party in the upcoming year.