James P. Johnson: Born 1894; Died 1955.
Musical Selection: “Yamacraw”, “Symphony Harlem”.
Pianist-composer Johnson was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey, learning music from his mother. He moved with his family to New York in 1908, making a regular living at music before the end of the decade. Johnson eagerly took in all the music then thriving in New York, including ragtime, classical, and blues, and was serving up his version of all this to clients at various mid-town New York dives in the years prior to World War I, cutting his first cylinder rolls in 1916. Equally adept at theater music, Johnson traveled after the war to England with the show, Plantation Days, then on his return began to establish a reputation as a first-rate composer of show tunes, completing the score for the hit show Runnin’ Wild in 1923. By this time his driving piano style had matured into the stride left-hand figures for which he and other New York pianists of this time were to become world famous. Johnson, however, was more than just a pianist and songsmith, for during the 1920s and 1930s he consistently completed larger-scale, through-composed works, such as Yamacraw and Symphony Harlem, many of which were premiered in New York but most of which failed to find an audience: at this time, a black writing serious music simply had no niche to aim for. Undeterred, Johnson continued to compose, writing operatic works as well as, in 1938, completing a symphonic treatment of, “St Louis Blues.”
For the rest of his career Johnson continued to write ambitious works and to play with a range of groups in and around New York, establishing himself undeniably as a significant figure in the jazz scene; he also stayed involved in revues and musicals, writing the music for 1949’s Sugar Hill; unfortunately, a stroke in 1951 rendered him incapable of actively pursuing his career any further. He died four years later.