Rudiments of Ragtime Installment 14: James P. Johnson

James P. Johnson at pianoJames P. Johnson is another gifted performer/composer whose music bridged the span between ragtime and jazz and he was an early innovator of Harlem stride. Johnson was born in New Jersey and grew up in New York City where heard original ragtime played and was fascinated by the music. After learning to play the piano, he studied classical music for a time, even studying in Europe briefly.

Johnson was a popular ragtime performer and many of his compositions contain syncopated elements like, “Harlem Strut,” “Carolina Shout,” and “Keep off the Grass.” In addition to his ragtime performances, James P. Johnson made many recordings and piano rolls. It was at the Aeolian Studios where he met George Gershwin.

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Like Scott Joplin before him, Johnson wanted to produce more serious music and as Gershwin and Johnson became good friends, both aspired to be classical composers. In 1924 George Gershwin wrote the concert piece, “Rhapsody in Blue.” In 1927 Johnson wrote his first concert piece, “Yamekraw.” The two men had many communications about writing American classical music. Gershwin had a successful classical career but though Johnson wrote several significant pieces in classical styles, his work failed to receive the same attention, though Fats Waller did perform “Yamekraw” in Carnegie Hall, produced by W.C. Handy in 1928.

In addition to “Fats” Waller who was a student of Johnson’s, he strongly influenced Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Art Tatum. James P. Johnson died in 1955 in Jamaica, New York.

Resources:

UpBeat Records

Kappler, Frank; Liner Notes for James P. Johnson album; Time Life Records;1981.

Radlauer, David; “James P. Johnson: Forgotten Musical Genius;” The Syncopated Times; November 2019.

Larry Melton was a founder of the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival in 1974 and the Sedalia Ragtime Archive in 1976. He was a Sedalia Chamber of Commerce manager before moving on to Union, Missouri where he is currently helping to conserve the Ragtime collection of the Sedalia Heritage Foundation. Write him at [email protected].

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