In Search of James P. Johnson

Reprinted from old DTM; originally posted September 2009, slight updates 2010 and 2014, major edit 2015, latest version 2019.

This essay was originally prompted by “The Last Rent Party,” a gala that raised money used to purchase James P. Johnson a tombstone, who until then was buried in an unmarked grave in Queens. (“The Last Rent Party” was held at Smalls and spearheaded by Spike Wilner.)

The 2015 edit was connected to Johnson’s election into the Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame at JALC. 

In 2019, I’m still working on “Carolina Shout.”

At the end of the essay, a few sections from 2009 are retained unedited.

James P Johnson

Prelude 1: The Piano Rolls

The Musée Mécanique in San Francisco is a good place to learn about the raw power of early piano rolls. There’s not much jazz in the building, but there’s plenty of novelty music that has a dollop of ragtime and a stiff kind of cheerful swing. It’s absolutely “pop music.” After you watch the keys dance their jangly tune, you immediately want to stick in another quarter and make it go again.

James P. Johnson is still revered as one of the very greatest among the small group of collectors who devote themselves to historical piano rolls. At least one commentator thinks that his twenties-era recordings “were a side issue” to his rolls, since the rolls sold better.

Prelude 2: North vs. South

A fundamental part of Johnson’s art is “feel.” Compared to recordings of George Gershwin or Zez Confrey playing the piano, Johnson is far more advanced, far more swinging.

New York players improved their beat when musicians from New Orleans, Chicago, and Kansas City brought swinging information to them. Johnson got to hear Jelly Roll Morton in 1911 when Morton visited New York. This was one of Johnson’s most important formative experiences, but later on he said Morton wasn’t a very good musician. James P.’s student Duke Ellington went even further, saying that “Jelly Roll Morton played piano like one of those high school teachers in Washington.” Morton must have been a rare character indeed to get everybody so mad at him.

For the modern listener, Morton’s relaxed and groovy solo recordings from 1923 might be a better introduction to 1920’s jazz piano than James P. Johnson. They certainly make for an interesting comparison: after listening to a lot of Morton, James P. seems like an express train, and after listening to a lot of James P., Jelly Roll seems awfully slow.

I’m a Northerner myself, and I might take Johnson’s records over Morton’s if forced to chose. James Dapogny’s book of Morton transcriptions is the best of its kind. We need a Dapogny-type to tackle James P. Johnson.

Studio Solo Recordings, 1921-1939

The Johnson discography begins with three of the greatest examples of Harlem Stride.

“Harlem Strut” (9/21).  Original works of Harlem stride are modeled on ragtime, with a sequence of themes like AABBCCDD. (Late in life James P. recorded Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” and “Euphonic Sounds” with Harlem embellishment added.) “Harlem Strut” is in cheerful C major, with an especially twisty F major section to take it home. His piano roll version made the following year makes for an interesting comparison.

In most Afro Cuban music, there is a staggered beat called “clave” that requires unyielding consistency and precision. The ride cymbal beat of any good jazz drummer is related to clave.

In stride piano, the left hand’s “oom-pah” is like that clave or ride cymbal beat.

While there are examples of “oom-pah” in Chopin, Liszt and Brahms, you don’t need to groove for European piano music. In stride piano, clave is essential. James P. Johnson will always be one of the finest examples of the stride “feel.”

“Keep Off the Grass” (10/21) F Major. Part of the real Harlem stride style is how full the right hand is against the “oom-pah” below. A constant constellations of double notes (and sometimes chords) brassily sing on top. The first strain of “Keep Off the Grass” has a mysterious chromatic “thumb line” (the lower note of the dyads and chords) that, if isolated, would be quite Monkish in nature.

The last strain and its variants are made up of falling diminished chords. After nearly a century of increasingly advanced jazz harmony, it’s hard to hear them as provocative today. In 1921, though, I’m pretty sure James P. would have meant those chain sequences to mean uncertainty and perhaps even sadness, the tear beneath the smile.

“Carolina Shout” (10/21). This is Johnson’s finest recording of his most famous instrumental piece. David Jasen makes the astute observation that the themes get funkier as they go along. (See below for my transcription.)

The next six pieces from 1923 are very different in style. It’s almost like James P. is making an album of “piano roll blues,” since they are mostly 12-bar forms and have the kind of constant chattering repetition common to most piano rolls. It’s a lovely set of records that perhaps lack the immediate impact of the first three Harlem stride pieces.

It’s great blues playing, although not everyone thinks so. In the only full-length book on Johnson, Scott E. Brown notes, “Johnson’s effectiveness as an interpreter of the blues is somewhat in dispute.”

In 1958, Dick Wellstood wrote in the Jazz Review:

James P.’s blues were not too successful, except for Backwater Blues and a few others. He certainly was not a blues pianist in the same way that someone like Jimmy Yancey was. He plays blues much in the same way that he plays a tune like Blue Turning Gray Over You, and his blues suffer for it.

This trope is explored further by Gunther Schuller in his influential 1968 book Early Jazz:

Johnson’s playing for Bessie Smith…also leaves the nagging impression that his interests in commercial music and a “classical” repertoire closer to semi- or light classics had left its imprint on his playing. One might say that he played his blues very much the way he would play a show or pop tune.

Just barely in his unmarked grave, Johnson’s legacy was already being judged as wanting by white musicians rather overconfident in their assessment of early black jazz players.

Art Hodes gave his take in the liner notes to an Edmond Hall reissue (the track is 1943’s “Blues at Blue Note”). Hodes is inside the community, and his criticism has less authoritarian sting:

James P. takes a chorus. I regard Jimmy with reverence. He was Big Daddy (although this tempo blues wasn’t his bag) and if you listen there’s always something you can learn from his playing.

Perhaps James P.’s blues were most influenced by W. C. Handy. Johnson told Tom Davin:

We moved from Jersey City to New York in 1908 when I was 14. We had a piano in the house again. In Jersey City I heard good piano from all parts of the South and West, but I never heard real ragtime until we came to New York. Most East Coast playing was based on cotillion dance tunes, stomps, drags and set dances like my Mule Walk Stomp, Gut Stomp, and the Carolina Shout and Balmoral. They were all country tunes. In New York, a friend taught me real ragtime. His name was Charley Cherry. He played Joplin. First he played, then I copied him, and then he corrected me.

(…)

In New York I got a chance to hear a lot of good music for the first time. Victor Herbert and Rudolph Friml were popular and were played all the time.

(…)

From 1910 on, Handy’s blues were played in cabarets. Mannie Sharp, a singer and dancer, and Lola Lee, a blues singer, taught me Handy’s blues in 1911… Memphis Blues, St. Louis, and later Beale Street and Yellow Dog. Before that, there were “natural blues” sung on southern waterfronts, in turpentine camps, farms, chain gangs. Leadbelly and Ma Rainey were singing “natural” 12-bar blues that were developed from the spirituals.

Johnson’s “Worried and Lonesome Blues” is from Shufflin’ Around, a popular revue that followed the smash Runnin’ Wild. Runnin’ Wild had produced two of Johnson’s biggest hits, “The Charleston” and “Old-Fashioned Love.”

The original sheet music to these three songs are in different styles directly correlating to Johnson’s interview above. “The Charleston” is a dance from Carolina, “Old Fashioned Love” is a hymn-like pop song that is next door to Victor Herbert, and “Worried and Lonesome Blues” is blues that looks just like the pieces in a W. C. Handy folio.

Schuller’s (and Wellstood’s) claim that “He played his blues very much the way he would play a show or pop tune” is terribly misguided. Johnson knew what the blues was and used it for specific reasons. The point is not to listen to Johnson for what he didn’t have (say, a Jimmy Yancey sensibility) but for what he did.

“Weeping Blues” (6/23) C major blues. Wide-ranging melodies and a fat beat. At a medium tempo like this, Johnson’s left hand suggests a full orchestra.

“Worried and Lonesome Blues” (6/23) E-flat. This one especially sounds like a piano roll, with the verse constantly articulated in repeated triplets. There’s some fun two-handed “middle of the keyboard” interjections in the multiple blues variations. My favorite of this set.

“You Can’t Do What My Last Man Did” (7/23) C major. A blues in feeling but not in form, although it comes close. Again the “piano roll triplets.”

“Bleeding Hearted Blues (7/23, comp. Austin) Eb blues. Johnson’s right hand owns this one with big chords and aggressive punches throughout.

“Scouting Around” (8/23) A-flat blues. The final two selections from this set are not vocal numbers, but mixtures of novelty piano, Harlem Stride, and black folklore. The conceit in “Scouting Around” is the “break” which begins every chorus. Eventually Johnson modulates to D-flat and explores some harmonic subtleties.

“Toddlin’” (8/23) E-flat blues. The loping right hand figures seem quite connected to the “novelty piano” style. Here Johnson breaks up the 4/4 stride into 3/4 and 5/4, a famous effect.

It was five years before Johnson recorded solo again. The improvement in recording technology is noticeable, and the piano for the 1927 session is excellent.

“All That I Had Is Gone” (7/27, comp. Bradford). Perry Bradford was a mover and shaker for Johnson in those days, and Johnson recorded a fair amount of Bradford in band settings. “All That I Had Is Gone” is an attractive blues-based pop song in mid-tempo C major. When playing marching quarter notes, the left hand articulates not just octaves but the fifths the middle, emulating the overtones of a bass drum, making the keyboard that much more percussive. (Morton did this too.)

“Snowy Morning Blues” (7/27) G major. Perhaps James P. Johnson’s finest melody in his best recording. Black folklore and American pop song are blended together to perfection.

“Riffs” (1/29) A B-flat blues with breaks that also mixes with a non-blues E-flat theme. It seems to be an update on what he was working on with “Scouting Around,” now with truly outlandish displacement of the beat.

“Feelin’ Blue” (1/29) Begins with the folkloric B-flat changes that Sonny Rollins also took for “Doxy.” The right hand phrases with unusual freedom in the minor-key section.

2014: Collin Van Ryn, in response to this post, got interested in James P. and transcribed “Feelin’ Blue.

Feelin' Blue 1

Feelin' Blue 2

Feelin' Blue 3

The next session is one of James P.’s most famous, and features a truly terrifying amount of piano playing.

** “Crying for the the Carolines” (1/30, comp. Warren). Harry Warren’s E minor ditty is still known just because of this performance. Perhaps James P. played it because of its reference to his beloved Carolina. After the whole piece being in minor, Johnson ends with two cheeky bars of major.

“What Is This Thing Called Love?” (1/30, comp. Porter). The only familiar standard Johnson recorded in his prime years demonstrates how differently jazz musicians in 1930 thought about pop songs then they did later. Johnson plays the verse and bases his improvisations closely on the melody. If you look at Cole Porter’s published sheet music you can see exactly where Johnson is coming from.

“You’ve Got to Be Modernistic” (1/30) A-flat. For Johnson, “Modernistic” means the whole tone scale and the corresponding augmented triad. This in the Confrey “novelty” tradition (Eubie Blake’s “Troublesome Ivories” is another possible reference)  until the third theme in D-flat, where James P. settles down to do some serious swinging. The beat does push, but this was normal for the era. The clanging minor seconds show just where Thelonious Monk comes from.

“Jingles” (1/30). An earlier ragtime piece in bright F major. It’s not just the speed, it’s the meaty touch that is heart-stopping.

The next solo session is from nine years later.

“If Dreams Come True” (6/39, comp. Goodman/Sampson) Fast C major. Ellington said that when James P. Johnson took over the keyboard at a rent party, “Then you got real invention – magic, sheer magic.” The tune is quickly discarded and the variations unroll. These variations seem like they could keep coming forever,  like “magic.” This track also  offers one of the most fabulous aspects of Johnson’s late style, “displaced bells” in the right hand: Big chords are splashed out at irregular intervals while the left keeps pumping away. It’s quite modern, really. Jason Moran uses this kind of thing without sounding old-fashioned in the slightest.

“Fascination” (6/39) Reminiscent of an early, ragtime-style piece in F major. However, by this point, James P.’s phrasing is relaxed indeed. Double thirds in the left hand are notably uncommon.

“A Flat Dream” (6/39) The first and best boogie-woogie record from Johnson. It’s a minor masterpiece: the first A-flat themes are memorable, then, presto! The 32-bar Db-flat tune has two incarnations, first as chimes over a cello, then as authentic Harlem stride.

The boogie bass Johnson uses is not a particularly hard one. Most pianists would consider the stride in the last chorus harder than the gently rocking boogie figure. But it doesn’t seem like Johnson had played boogie that much. Perhaps he wrote this just because he knew how popular boogie was at the time?

At any rate, it is of pianistic interest to note that Johnson muddles the boogie figure a little bit: not badly, but he probably could have used another take to work on getting the feel right. The stride in the last chorus is perfect.

“The Mule Walk” (6/39) B-flat stomp. This seems to be a folkloric “ring dance” or something else from Carolina, and a great one, too.

“Lonesome Reverie” (6/39) Like “A Flat Dream,” this performance has an unusual form. After two choruses of lovely slow blues in G, Johnson shifts to C and gives us a beautiful 32-bar tune with a rich harmonization worthy of Ellington. Then up to E-flat for some variations and a hint of stomp. (Hear the trombones in the last 8 bars?)

“Blueberry Rhyme” (6/39) F major. One of Johnson’s prettiest pieces, reminiscent of “Snowy Morning Blues” but slower and sadder. Wonderful ornamentation in the melody.

There is a lot of later James P. Johnson solo piano on record, but after his first stroke in 1940 his mechanism slowed down a bit. Beautiful tracks include a purely Harlem “Gut Stomp,” a richly-harmonized version of “Sweet Lorraine,” and a hard-charging rendition of “Caprice Rag” that sounds like it’s 1920 again. For jazz historians, everything James P. recorded is important by default, especially unusual items like the extended composition “Yamekraw,” the Cuban-influenced “The Dream” and a Harlemized “Euphonic Sounds.”

Duos with Bessie Smith

From early 1927 until mid-1930 Johnson recorded 14 duets with Bessie Smith: “Preachin’ the Blues,” “Backwater Blues,” “Sweet Mistreater” “Lock and Key,” “He’s Got Me Goin,’” “It Makes My Love Come Down,” “Wasted Life Blues,” “Dirty No-Gooders Blues,” “Blue Spirit Blues,” “Worn Out Papa Blues,” “You Don’t Understand,” “Don’t Cry Baby,” “On Revival Day,” and “Moan Mourners.” (On the last two selections Smith and Johnson are joined by a small male gospel choir, the Bessemer Singers.)

This is Johnson in prime condition playing with the most celebrated singer of the era. The visions-of-Katrina “Backwater Blues” is on every Smith compilation, but strangely, most of the other music is just not well known, and seemingly never assessed as a discrete body of work.

The songs are mostly blues or blues-inflected pop, but careful listening actually shows great variety, from the death and gloom “Blue Spirit Blues” to the erotically charged “It Makes My Love Come Down,” the tuneful “You Don’t Understand” and the sanctified numbers with the Bessemer Singers.

Naturally, the music is a showcase for Bessie’s astounding rhythmic flexibility and swing. She also makes any lyric at all seem like inevitable truths. (From “No Gooders Blues”: There are 19 men in my neighborhood/There are 19 men in my neighborhood/18 of them are fools and one ain’t no good.) Johnson doesn’t get much solo space but he plays out the whole time, swinging like crazy and sounding like a full band. Whatever the source material was, it was undoubtedly fairly basic. Johnson creates veritable rhapsodies out of nearly nothing. These tracks may actually showcase Johnson’s rollicking time feel better than the solos do. He was veteran of countless shows and revues and knows just how to take care of the soloist.

James P. was a big man who played a lot of keyboard with those massive hands. Bessie’s voice could raise the roof. Their mission together is pride, rhythm, and love.

In Search of “Carolina Shout”

There are well over a hundred recordings of “Carolina Shout,” including Fats Waller, Willie the Lion Smith, Art Hodes, Duke Ellington, Dick Wellstood, and Marcus Roberts. Stephanie Trick’s recent YouTube videos are fabulous.

So you want to learn “Carolina Shout” yourself. What is it, exactly?

Johnson recorded the “Shout” eight times, four of which are fairly well known and “official.”

Artempo Piano Roll 12975 (1918)
QRS Piano Roll 100999 (1921)
1921 solo for OKeh
1944 duo with drummer Eddie Dougherty for Decca

There are also live bootlegs at Carnegie Hall in 1938 for a John Hammond evening of “Spirituals to Swing” and a rare 1944 aircheck with a spoken introduction by Eddie Condon.

None are the same, and sometimes the differences are radical. There’s clearly no one way that Johnson played “Carolina Shout.” (There’s also a Johnson-led band recording.)

In Black Bottom Stomp, David Jasen argues convincingly that the second piano roll is “the one that mattered.” Waller, Ellington and others learned this version by slowing the mechanism down. A fairly accurate transcription of the second roll was made by the late John Farrell.

Jasen also reproduces the cover page of Johnson’s own first published score of “Carolina Shout.” I haven’t seen it, but based on Johnson’s flimsy published versions of “You’ve Got To Be Modernistic” and “Jingles,” the published score to “Carolina Shout” would probably not be that helpful. Jasen says the published scores were simplified for the amateur. Morton’s published scores were also “simplified for the amateur.” Perhaps for serious jazz pianists like Johnson and Morton,  writing out what they actually played was also too time consuming, especially when they were going to change it a bit next week anyway.

Scott E. Brown has sent me what James P. actually filed with the Library of Congress. I’ll reproduce a fragment of it here.

Carolina lead

Bill Kirchner showed me an early published band arrangement of “Carolina Shout” that corresponds to both this chart and Johnson’s band recording in 1921.

More helpful is the transcription of the 1944 version of “Carolina Shout” by Dick Meares and David Le Winter for the folio Piano Solos by James P. Johnson. Also included in the same folio are some of the other duets with drums, “Keep Off the Grass,” “Riffs,” “Snowy Morning Blues,” and “Over the Bars.” These transcriptions are not perfect: In addition to questionable note choices, usually Meares and Le Winter run out of steam before the record does.

It’s an imperfect score, but the Meares/Le Winter version of “Carolina Shout” has been frequently heard in concert after this folio was republished in the Hal Leonard collection Jazz, Blues, Boogie and Swing. There was no mention of it being a transcription in the Hal Leonard edition, so it’s easy to assume that this is Johnson’s own score. This version is easily identifiable by having the first theme in the right hand an octave lower than the 1920’s versions; also by the tripletly melodic variation Johnson plays in the second A. There also a great chorus of “displaced bells,” the highlight of this later performance.

(For those looking for more Johnson sheet music: The tantalizing folio James P. Johnson’s Piano Jazzfest with “A Flat Dream,” “Blueberry Rhyme,” “Lonesome Reverie,” “Mule Walk Stomp,” “Fascination,” and “Gut Stomp” are also transcriptions, this time by Sam Meade. Overall Meade’s are worse than those of Meares/Le Winter. However, the six unrecorded boogies in Jimmy Johnson’s Boogie Woogie look like James P’s own finished work, not transcriptions.)

Here’s my transcription of the first recording.  Thanks to Dan Schmidt and Matthew Guerrieri for fixing several notes and general input.

Caro 1

Caro 2

Caro 3

Caro 4

PDF:

Carolina Shout

Listen:

 

James P. himself only played it like this the once. One of the most important aspects of the real Harlem Stride tradition is to take the basic material and make it your own.

Further Reading (and a quick note about the Formal Works)

There were two long interviews with James P. Johnson, one with the Library of Congress in 1938, and one with Tom Davin in the early 1950’s. One would hope that they would be generally available someday. Part of the Davin can be found in The Jazz Review.

In 1986 Scott E. Brown produced the only book-length study. James P. Johnson: A Case of Mistaken Identity still has the most detailed biographical information. (Reportedly a new edition with updated information is in the works.) Brown sought to place Johnson’s vast output in context of his era, hence his provocative title.

A Case of Mistaken Identity also contains a complete discography by Robert Hilbert.

Frank H. Trolle’s Father of the Stride Piano is two small pamphlets: a poorly-edited collection of minor biographical/musicological essays and a discography which was superseded by Hilbert’s.

John Howland’s 2009 volume Ellington Uptown: Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson, and the Birth of Concert Jazz goes into fascinating detail about the gestation of Johnson’s best known concert work, Yamekraw: A Negro Rhapsody. There’s also a good deal on the Harlem Symphony and some other Johnson orchestral works. The default companion CD to this music is Victory Stride, which I cautiously recommend.

Yamekraw is like all that Franz Liszt orchestra music that nobody plays: unprofessional and repetitive. By all means, Johnson and Liszt scholars should know this music (and there needs to be more Johnson scholars!) but contemporary enthusiasm for Johnson’s work would be better directed into making every college piano major learn “Carolina Shout” than into asking our major orchestras to program Johnson’s symphonic work. (We don’t want the average concert-goer leaving the hall thinking, “Well, Gershwin really was better than James P., because Rhapsody in Blue is obviously better than Yamekraw.” This is a superficial and Eurocentric reading of the situation.)

Other good information on Johnson scattered about in different places:

Black Bottom Stomp: Eight Masters of Early Jazz and Spreadin’ Rhythm Around: Black Popular Songwriters, 1880-1930 are both by David A. Jasen and Gene Jones. If you are interested in ragtime or early jazz piano you’ve come across Jasen’s name.

Black Bottom Stomp is just terrific. Jasen and Jones seem to get it just right all the time. Their prose style is also wonderfully smooth and occasionally even humorous. Spreadin’ Rhythm Around is excellent as well: This is the best source on Johnson’s significant career as a songwriter for shows.

Henry Martin has a chapter in The Oxford Companion to Jazz called “Pianists of the 1920s and 1930s.” There’s just a couple of pages on Johnson but it’s a rare example of someone trying to make sense of how the printed page interfaces with the records.

The Time-Life Giants of Jazz LP box on James P. Johnson is excellent. The extensive notes on the music are by the vastly knowledgeable Dick Wellstood, who at this point has gotten over his early claims that Johnson didn’t play the blues. (He does manage to get in a dig at boogie-woogie, though, Wellstood’s least favorite piano style.) He collaborates with Willa Rouder, and the solid biographical section is by Frank Kappler. (The Giants of Jazz boxes often have valuable booklets.)

[CODA: two sections from 2009 that can’t be changed since they were written in advance of the original Smalls Rent Party and at this point are somewhat “historical”: Annie Kuebler and Ed Berger have died, Aaron Diehl is well-known, and so on.]

The James P. Johnson Archive at IJS

Last week Aaron Diehl (who’s also playing the Last Rent Party) and I visited the Dana Library at Rutgers University which houses the Institute of Jazz Studies. I met Dan Morgenstern briefly and Ed Berger showed us a few of the treasures. Here is Berger’s photo of me holding Ben Webster’s saxophone while Aaron holds Don Byas’s:

aaron and ethan

Barry Glover, the grandson in charge of James P. Johnson’s estate, has generously given all of Johnson’s own music collection to the Institute. Glover also has given permission for serious parties to look through and photocopy at will. Annie Kuebler was our helpful guide through boxes and boxes of well-organized Johnson music.

I know that both Aaron and I were overwhelmed with what was there; afterwards we both were grey and exhausted, just trying to deal with the intensity of the experience.

aaron yamekraw

(Aaron sorts out one copy of the Yamekraw rhapsody for each of us.)

One of the things we were looking for was unusual solo piano music to play on Sunday. Aaron was already learning a movement from the Jazz-a-mine Concerto from the record, so he grabbed a holograph of that piece in Johnson’s own handwriting. (He wasn’t sure if he was going to be ready to play it in a week, but what a help to find the score!) (UPDATE: Aaron did play it, extremely well.)

concerto jazz a mine

I found a charming drawing-room piece called “Theme in Two Voices” published in 1944. It’s next door to somebody like Anton Rubinstein or Cécile Chaminade—certainly it’s just as good—and I bet Johnson would have gotten a kick out of me playing that surprise at the Last Rent Party. 

I don’t know Aaron well, but he turned up in my masterclass one day playing James P. Johnson, and when I asked Loren Schoenberg who I should take a stride piano lesson with he suggested “Aaron Diehl.” Aaron hasn’t really recorded much yet, but you can hear his flawless rendition of another Harlem test piece, Luckey Roberts’s “Ripples of the Nile,” on his MySpace page.

There was a piano next door to the archive. Regrettably, Aaron not only turned out to be as good a sight-reader as me (this almost never happens) but also played a version of “Carolina Shout” that was way better than mine. I can’t really ask Aaron for a lesson—he’s 13 years younger than me, for chrissake—but he gave me one that afternoon anyway. Aaron’s “Carolina Shout” was fluid, improvised, and personal; in comparison, mine was a laborious recreation. (I also got to play it for Fred Hersch on Monday, who made the astute observation that I was playing at one dynamic only, just like the piano roll I was learning from. Obviously, human pianists must use dynamics. I’m trying to get it together but there’s no doubt I’m going to be on the slow side of the “Shout” at the Last Rent Party.)

We don’t know who will play what on Sunday—probably many people won’t play Johnson at all, which is perfectly fine—but that afternoon at IJS Aaron and I enjoyed the fantasy of how awesome it would be to hear everybody play “Carolina Shout.” Just think, if all jazz pianists had to sit in front of each other and play the “Shout”…that would change some things right quick!

I’m definitely going back to IJS once in a while, and I seriously encourage others to explore it as well. The Johnson archive is just a fraction of what they have. More info and contact information is available at the IJS website.

tombstone

Thanks again to Spike Wilner for making it happen.

James P. Johnson’s Last Rent Party!

Smalls Jazz Club
October 4th, 2009

James P. Johnson, the father of stride piano, the composer of The Charleston and The Carolina Shout and one of the founders of modern jazz piano lies, shockingly, in an unmarked grave in Maspeth, Queens, Mt. Olivet Cemetery.

Please join the James P. Johnson Foundation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to music education and to raise the awareness of James P. Johnson, the Johnson family and Smalls Jazz Club for an all day “rent party” to raise money to buy a monument to commemorate this great musician!

Join us on Sunday, October 4th beginning at 1:00 PM at Smalls Jazz Club located at 183 West 10th street at 7th Ave. The afternoon will begin with a symposium by musicologist and Johnson scholar Scott Brown on the life and work of James P. Johnson. This will include an exhibit from the James P. Johnson archive housed at the Rutgers Institute for Jazz Studies.

Around 3:00 will then be a steady stream of pianists to play solo piano in tribute to James P. Johnson.

Suggested tax-free donations are $20 with all the proceeds to go to the James P. Johnson Foundation. (jamespjohnson.org) You may come and go as you please throughout the afternoon. Refreshments will be served.

Please come by and pay your respects to The Dean of Stride Pianists!

1:00 PM Doors Open
1:30 PM Opening Words – Barry Glover and The James P. Johnson Society
2:00 PM Symposium – James P. Johnson: The Man Who Made The Twenties Roar – Scott E. Brown
3:00 PM Symposium – James P. Johnson: Invisible Pianist of the Harlem Renaissance – Mark Borowsky
4:00 PM J Michael O’Neal and Natalie Wright
4:30 PM John Bunch
5:00 PM Tardo Hammer
5:30 PM Conal Fowkes
6:00 PM Terry Waldo
6:30 PM Spike Wilner
7:00 PM Ethan Iverson
7:30 PM Mike Lipskin
8:00 PM Aaron Diehl
8:30 PM Ted Rosenthal
9:00 PM Dick Hyman

Some heavy hitters on this list. I’m particularly nervous about meeting Mike Lipskin, the “Terror of San Francisco,” who is flying in just for this event. Given the time slots, I guess there’s no way he can avoid hearing me play. (Watch Lipskin play “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” on YouTube, especially after two minutes in: That’s the real stride left hand, ladies and gents.) Terry Waldo is Eubie Blake’s chronicler+NY legend and Dick Hyman plays Johnson with the best of them. (Watch Hyman play “You’ve Got to Be Modernistic” on YouTube.) Spike himself is great, and…well, I’m sure everybody’s great.

Read this fun article about the Last Rent Party by Devin Leonard in the New York Observer.