James P. Johnson, the Father of Harlem Stride piano, was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1894. Although he received classical training as a child, he was enamored with the excitement of ragtime. He parlayed his interest in ragtime into a burgeoning career as a solo pianist and accompanist. He started playing professionally as early as 1913 in New York City clubs. He was a staple at Harlem rent parties and often took part in cutting contests. From this experience, Johnson garnered a reputation as the best piano player on the East Coast and was widely utilized as an accompanist on over four hundred sides and from 1916 on, produced hundreds of piano rolls under his own name. He backed up many of the Classic Blues singers of the 1920s, such as Ida Cox, Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith. It was Johnson’s 1921 recording of Carolina Shout, however, that is considered to be the first recorded example of solo jazz piano; it went on to become an etude of the Harlem Stride school. As Marin Alsop once quipped, “If you couldn’t play Carolina Shout, you couldn’t play.” Johnson composed several musical revues, including “Running Wild” and “Plantation Days” and his 1928 collaboration with his protege, Fats Waller, “Keep Shufflin’.” Perhaps his most popular tune is Charleston from the revue “Running Wild”; its popularity was the impetus behind an entire dance craze of the 1920s! Other hits included Old Fashioned Love, If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight), and A Porter’s Love Song to a Chambermaid. Johnson composed several symphonic works as well, including: “Yamecraw: A Negro Rhapsody” (1927), “Tone Poem” (1930), “Symphony Harlem ” (1932), a symphonic version of W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” (1937), and a one-act opera entitled, “De Organizer/Dreamy Kid” (1940), with lyrics by Langston Hughes. He passed away on November 17, 1955 after suffering a massive stroke.
Johnson, although a pianist and composer of extraordinary talent, has had very little written about him. In fact, the only thorough biography on Johnson is by author Scott E. Brown; the book is entitled James P. Johnson: A Case of Mistaken Identity.
As an aside, the estate of James P. Johnson bequeathed a collection: Johnson, James Price, Collection, ca. 1921 – 1955, Posthumous: Music and Scripts,which can be found at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University in Newark, NJ.
For an incredibly astute article on James P. Johnson, Carolina Shout, and improvisation, read Henry Martin’s Balancing Composition and Improvisation in James P. Johnsons ‘Carolina Shout.’ Be advised: this is a very complex analysis and is not for the faint of heart