In Search of James P. Johnson

Reprinted from old DTM; originally posted September 2009. This exploration was contextualized by a successful fund-raiser to get James P. Johnson a tombstone. We did it!


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.  ( 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. 


As far as I know, what follows is the first systematic look at Johnson’s 1921-1939 solo recordings, his duos with Bessie Smith, “Carolina Shout” in print, the literature about James P., and a description of the IJS holdings. 

The regrettable aspect of a post like this is how it seems to set me up an authority. I not only fear playing in front of the stride masters Sunday, but also fear whatever they would say about what I've written.  That's one reason this post is called "In Search of James P. Johnson"-- I haven't found him yet! While I feel fairly comfortable calling it like I see it with Keith Jarrett, Ornette Coleman, or 1970's modern jazz, that's really not true of any music during James P. Johnson's era.

Still, the point is to generate interest in the man, and the best way for me to do that is to weigh in with an opinionated DTM post. Obviously, after reading whatever I think, it’s important to listen yourself and draw your own conclusions.


Eccentricity: The piano rolls

Mechanical music! The story of Twentieth Century American pop culture is inexorably tied to machines. 

While the piano roll was once considered superior to the 78, today almost any 78 has more prestige than any piano roll. Rolls reproduce badly on record; they are much more exciting live. I’ll never forget the first time I heard a serious jazz piano roll "in the flesh" at Vince Giordano’s house deep in Brooklyn.  The amount of sound was positively torrential as Jelly Roll Morton’s “Shreveport Stomp” shook the air. 

When I’m in San Francisco, I like to go to the Musée Mécanique on the wharf and drop quarters in the player pianos. There’s not much jazz in the building, but there’s plenty of novelty piano music that has a dollop of ragtime and a stiff kind of cheerful swing. It’s absolutely “pop music.” After you watch the levers and keys dance away on a better roll, you want to stick in another quarter and make it go again.  In 1913 this music must have been hip indeed.

Hearing some piano rolls is an important gateway into understanding James P. Johnson. He is still revered as one of the very greatest among the small group of collectors who devote themselves to historical piano rolls. 

While several CDs of Johnson player piano music are readily available, they are not particularly charismatic. Again, the magic of a live piano roll is not easily transferable to a recording, and I’m unconvinced that these CD transfers are that good. It’s high time for a well-financed reclamation project of these rolls, like Nonesuch did for Gershwin’s a few years ago.

But if you are interested in James P., you have to spend at least a little time listening to those CDs; there’s no other way to hear a simulacrum of this crucial historical moment. Johnson’s style and musical trajectory were seriously informed by his experience making rolls.  His time making rolls – about 1917 to 1927 – was the time of his greatest commercial success.  At least one commentator thinks that his twenties-era recordings “were a side issue” to his rolls, since the rolls sold better. 

It’s easy to forget that early jazz was pop music. Putting the African Diaspora in American pop has always sold, and Johnson's second roll of “Carolina Shout” or his song “The Charleston” are somewhere in the same continuum that produced Stevie Wonder and D'Angelo.

Listening to the rolls is also good preparation for the actual 78 recordings, which are so relaxed and swinging in comparison.  If you don’t know the rolls the 78s might seem a bit stiff by modern standards.    I don’t notice anything as “stiff” anymore, but at the beginning I was occasionally distracted by the headlong breathlessness of James P. Johnson 78’s. 

An Old Feud: North vs.  South

Like most jazz, James P.’s art is fundamentally the art of “feel.”  Compared to contemporary recordings of George Gershwin or Zez Confrey playing the piano, Johnson is D’Angelo. However, there are other comparisons to make. 

It seems like the New York players learned about the real jazz feel not from their homegrown talent.  Instead, musicians from New Orleans, Chicago, and Kansas City brought that 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.”  There are many recorded moments of tension between Morton and various New Yorkers. He must have been a rare character indeed to get everybody so mad at him.

However, in my opinion, Jelly Roll’s solo recordings from 1923 exhibit even deeper feel than most of James P. Johnson’s 78s.  There certainly isn’t any “breathlessness."  Therefore, for the contemporary listener, Morton’s solo recordings are probably a better introduction to 1920’s jazz piano than James P. Johnson. (Duke is completely wrong about Jelly Roll, at least on Morton’s first solo recordings.) 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. For those who don’t know anything about Morton, he is comparatively easy to read about and find classic recordings of. Morton is also the life’s work of an excellent musicologist, James Dapogny. Dapogny’s book of Morton transcriptions is easily the best of its kind that I’ve ever seen.  We need a Dapogny-type to tackle James P. Johnson.

The Golden Years: Studio solo recordings, 1921-1939

** means the composition is not by Johnson  (the composer is given in parenthesis)

Johnson announces himself with the three hardest and greatest examples of Harlem Stride. If you hear nothing else of Johnson, listen to these 1921 tracks. They are all fast. 

“Harlem Strut” (9/21). This is the fastest! My god, what a lot of piano. The great original works of Harlem stride are modeled on ragtime, with a sequence of themes like AABBCCDD etc. (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 folkloric Afro Cuban music, there is a “clave” that repeats incessantly. It’s a staggered beat that sounds a lot easier to play than it really is. I’ve heard a story of a truly excellent jazz musician visiting Havana and gamely attempting to play along with locals using the clave. After one(!) articulation of the theme, the leader took the sticks away.

It’s a life and death matter, the clave, and what makes it so is its unyielding consistency and precision.  It’s just like the ride cymbal beat of a good jazz drummer:  put that drummer in front a cymbal, give him a stick, and if they are a professional, they will deliver a “spang-a-lang” that is immutable. If the drummer is an artist as well as a professional the interpretation of the beat will be as distinctive as a snowflake.

In stride piano, the left hand going “oom-pah” is like that clave or ride cymbal beat in its unyielding consistency and precision. It’s very hard technically:  there is a big jump between the “oom” and the “pah,” and the pitches change constantly. 

There are examples of “oom-pah” in Liszt and Chopin, and some of them are very hard indeed. (In Chopin’s Op. 25 etudes, No. 4 in A minor and the “Butterfly” in G-flat are  proto-stride.) However, you don’t need the grooving, “clave-aspect” for Chopin and Liszt. In stride piano it is essential. It’s like the Energizer bunny with soul.  Probably for eternity, James P. Johnson will be the gold standard for the stride "feel."

“Keep Off the Grass” (10/21)  F Major. Part of the real Harlem stride style is how single notes do not dominate the melody; instead, 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 (and most improvised) strain is 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). More on this work below. This is his finest recording of his most famous instrumental piece. David Jasen makes the astute observation that the themes get funkier as they go along.  This is the slowest of the first three stride pieces, which gives Johnson enough time to play broken tenths in the left hand - which makes that side even harder!


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 is forced to include the sentence, “Johnson’s effectiveness as an interpreter of the blues is somewhat in dispute.”

I just recently found what I believe is the beginning of this criticism. Nat Hentoff has generously put up many issues of the 50’s magazine The Jazz Review online. In the second issue Dick Wellstood writes:

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. 

Wellstood is only 29 here; I can only hope that he repented later for starting this trope, which is explored further by Gunther Schuller in his highly 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. 

On balance, both Wellstood and Schuller are to be praised for their advocacy of James P. Johnson.  Wellstood’s performance of “Caprice Rag” might just be the best James P. currently on YouTube, and Schuller’s ten pages on Johnson in Early Jazz declare that Johnson is unjustly neglected and footnotes that “Jazzmen, by Ramsey and Smith, fails to mention Johnson once in its more than 300 pages.”  All serious jazz histories since 1968 have needed to include James P. Johnson on the basis of Schuller’s footnote alone. 

But when Wellstood writes in the liner notes to Donald Lambert: Recorded 1959-1961, “That every single one of the younger stride players is white is a sad commentary on the way young black musicians regard what was once an ethnic black music,” I really want to turn that back on him and ask: “Why would talented young black musicians want to play in a style that white people like yourself felt so comfortable passing judgment in print about?”

(Since those liner notes were written, newer generations of black jazz pianists have shown interest in Johnson and stride. Marcus Roberts and Jason Moran have both recorded James P.; both were invited to the Last Rent Party but were already booked on tour and sent regrets and best wishes.)

Anyway, Johnson could play the blues great. Perhaps, late in life, when he played the slow blues, there was something that seemed a little rote, and to be fair, one of those last records is what Wellstood is reviewing. Still, I much prefer what Art Hodes had to say about this topic in the liner notes to an Edmond Hall reissue (the track is 1943’s “Blues at Blue Note”).  Hodes is much more inside the community here, and as a result his criticism has much 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.

Johnson’s blues were not like Jelly Roll Morton’s or Jimmy Yancey or anybody else. I’m not a blues expert, but I think his blues were most influenced by W. C. Handy. This is Johnson speaking, telling us how he learned about music:

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.

Of these 1923 solo recordings, Johnson’s “Worried and Lonesome Blues” is from Shufflin’ Around, a popular revue that followed the smash Runnin’ Wild. Runnin' Wild produced two of Johnson’s biggest hits, “The Charleston” and “Old-Fashioned Love.”

The original sheet music 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 constantly.  He’s famous for this effect – almost too famous! There’s a lot more to Johnson than this basic element of Harlem Stride.


It was five years before Johnson recorded solo again. The improvement in recording technology is noticeable, and this disc was made on what sounds like a great piano besides.

** “All That I Had Is Gone” (7/27, comp. Bradford).  Perry Bradford was a mover and shaker for Johnson in those days. 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 in-between, emulating the overtones of the drums.  (Morton did this too.) Stomp it, baby! One of the great James P. performances. 

“Snowy Morning Blues” (7/27)  G major. Perhaps James P. Johnson’s finest melody in his best recording. Black folklore and American pop song have never been blended so precisely. Art Hodes’s 1942 version is one of the best covers of a James P. Johnson instrumental. It sounds just like Hodes but also honors Johnson. You’ll never find it, and Hodes continues to recede into history, so I’ll just give it to you:

Download Snowy Morning Blues played by Art Hodes

“Riffs” (1/29)  This is interesting: 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” but he really gets there this time around. This track has the most outlandish displacement of the beat of any Johnson I’ve heard.

“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.

UPDATE, 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.  Maybe 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. I play it in masterclasses to demonstrate 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” apparently means the whole tone scale and the augmented triad. This in the Confrey “novelty” tradition 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 and needs to be listened to with this in mind. The clanging minor seconds show just where Thelonious Monk comes from. 

“Jingles” (1/30).  An earlier ragtime piece in bright F major. I seriously doubt that there is a pianist alive now that could replicated this performance. It’s not just the speed, it’s the meaty touch that is heart-stopping. 


The last session on my list is from nine years later. 

** “If Dreams Come True” (6/39, comp. Goodman/Sampson)   Fast C major. Of all these records, this is the one that gives an idea of what Ellington meant when he 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. I’m not sure how “improvised” the variations are but it feels like they could keep coming forever.  They sound like “magic.” This track also has the first full instance (it was also hinted at in “Riffs”) of 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)  This sounds like an early, ragtime-style piece in F major. However, by this point, James P.’s phrasing is relaxed indeed. He could have practiced the tricky runs in double thirds in the left hand a bit more...but on the other hand, what other jazz pianist, then or now, plays double thirds in the left hand?

“A Flat Dream” (6/39)  The first and best boogie-woogie solo 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. 

But then the stride in the last chorus is perfection itself. This is an example of how true the “clave effect” is: Johnson owned stride, and that Energizer bunny was always ready to roll. Boogie? He needed to gig for a few weeks steadily doing it, that’s all.

“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.

“Lonesome Reverie” (6/39)  Like “A Flat Dream,” this performance has a fascinating shape. 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. 


There is much more James P. Johnson solo piano on record after this. But his first stroke was in the summer of 1940, and I hear a change. That’s not to say there isn’t wonderful Johnson music from the 40’s: there certainly is, like the 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 his turn through the extended composition “Yamekraw,” the Cuban-influenced “The Dream” and a Harlemized “Euphonic Sounds."

There's also a lot of Johnson with other artists, in bands, in duos, etc. But I think that it’s important to understand the best of James P. first before going further. My playlist of 23 tunes above, 18 written by him, equals only 70 minutes of music. It’s a crime, really, that there’s so little: from his two greatest decades as a player, we have only 70 minutes of solo performances!

Why you can’t buy a well-produced CD of that canon is a mystery. I have this music over three discs on the fine series once put out on the French label Classics. Now those discs are out of print and cost upwards of $70 apiece on Amazon. Since this music is in public domain I’m tempted to just upload a zip file of it all.  But that might be a tad disrespectful to the Johnson estate, I’m not sure. (I seriously doubt Classics paid them anything, for example.)  At any rate, with this playlist those interested can do the work and track this music down:  it’s out there, for free or for a minimal price.

Still too much work? OK, here’s my top ten.  If you listen to this miraculous half hour a few times and get nothing from them, stay away from James P. Johnson.  

“Harlem Strut” – “Keep Off The Grass” – “Carolina Shout” – “Worried and Lonesome Blues” – “All That I Had Is Gone” – “Snowy Morning Blues” – “Riffs” – “Jingles” – “You’ve Got To Be Modernistic” – “If Dreams Come True.”

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.  Commentators who know all of Smith -- like Chris Albertson and Guther Schuller -- agree that Johnson was the best pianist Smith recorded duets with. 

Even more than the solo performances, the fact that this music has never been collected as a recital is utterly mystifying. It’s as good as anything from this era that I know. The visions-of-Katrina “Backwater Blues” is on every Smith compilation,  but most of the other music is just not well known, and seemingly never assessed as a discrete body of work. It’s only 43 minutes, but a perfect 43 minutes, a look into a long lost era. I found these tracks on Volumes 5, 6, 7, and 8 of the complete JSP Bessie Smith set.  

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. 

The highlight is of course Bessie’s superb singing, which shows 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.) But Johnson is featured too. He doesn’t get much solo space but he plays out the whole time, swinging like crazy and sounding like a full band. These tracks may actually showcase Johnson’s rollicking time feel better than the solos do, which can occasionally get a little breathless.  Here Johnson, the consummate pro, is taking care of the soloist, and nobody could have done it better. 

It’s interesting to hear how little damper pedal Johnson uses. Most of us when going into a duo session with a singer would immediately take reassuring hold of the right pedal with the right foot. But on many of these tracks it sounds like James P. doesn’t reach for it once. ("No Gooders" is an exception, which shows marvelous legato pedaling.) It’s also fairly miraculous how thick and interesting the piano arrangements are. The music is usually by Smith, Johnson, or a forgotten tunesmith of the day.  Probably Johnson was just looking at the simplest of charts for the first time in the studio that afternoon. He creates veritable rhapsodies out of nothing! And not that this matters too much, but I’ve been listening to these recordings hard for a couple of weeks, and I still haven’t noticed one wrong note from the piano on any of the 14 tracks. 

Johnson was a big man who played a lot of keyboard with massive hands. Bessie’s voice could raise the roof. There’s not a lot of sensitive, concerned vulnerability on display here. Instead there is pride, rhythm, and love.

In search of “Carolina Shout”

David A. Jasen’s reference book Ragtime lists 54 solo piano recordings of “Carolina Shout” that are not by Johnson himself.  That book is a few years old, so there’s already more, including notably one by Marcus Roberts.  (There are current 123 recordings including band performances in the Tom Lord discography.)

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

I’ve also heard live bootlegs of him playing at Carnegie Hall in 1938 for a John Hammond evening of “Spirituals to Swing” and a really rare 1944 aircheck with a spoken introduction by Eddie Condon. They are all a bit different, and the differences between some of the versions are radical.  There’s clearly no one way that Johnson played “Carolina Shout.”

In Black Bottom Stomp, David Jasen argues convincingly that the second piano roll is “the one that mattered.”  It’s the one that Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and others learned by slowing the mechanism down, and roll enthusiasts generally agree that it is one of the greatest piano rolls ever made.  A fairly accurate transcription (be sure to double-check everything) by the late John Farrell is available here

Also in Black Bottom Stomp, Jasen reproduces the cover page of Johnson’s own first published score of "Carolina Shout." No one seems to have this, except Jasen and Henry Martin, who writes of it in his essay “Pianists of the 1920s and 1930s” collected in The Oxford Companion to Jazz.  It’s not even at the IJS Johnson archive (more below). But I have seen Johnson’s published versions of “You’ve Got To Be Modernistic,” “Jingles” and “Eccentricity.” It’s fair to say that these scores are not that helpful if you want to sound like the record, and probably the published “Carolina Shout” is not really helpful either.  Jasen says the published scores were simplified for the amateur. This is probably correct: see also Morton’s published scores, which are even less helpful than Johnson’s. In addition to being “simplified for the amateur,” I suspect that actually writing out what they really played just seemed to be too time-consuming, boring, and daunting for serious jazz pianists like Johnson and Morton – especially if they knew 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. As you can see it is fascinating but also no help whatsoever if want to play a stride version. Bill Kirchner showed me the early “stock arrangement” of “Carolina Shout” that corresponds to both this chart and Johnson’s band recording in 1921.

LOC James P- Johnson 278

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 fabulous. In addition to questionable note choices, usually Meares and Le Winter run out of steam before the record does. It’s also a shame that these are the second and (in my opinion) lesser performances of all these Harlem classics. (It doesn’t seem that drummer Eddie Dougherty and Johnson can hear each other that well:  the rhythm isn’t as settled as it should be.)

But this is the version of “Carolina Shout” that people know and play, since this folio was republished in the ubiquitous Hal Leonard collection Jazz, Blues, Boogie and Swing. Since there was no mention of it being a transcription in the Hal Leonard edition, it’s easy to assume that this is Johnson’s own score. It’s the version I learned in high school, and the version most amateurs on YouTube play. (You need the book with the grey cover. Astoundingly, Hal Leonard’s most recent pressing with a gold cover omits “Carolina Shout” and other Johnson pieces.) This version is easily identifiable by having the first theme in the right hand an octave lower than the 1920’s versions and 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, I can also supply the information that 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 really look like James P's own work, not transcriptions. These boogies are quite a nice set, really.)

That’s about it for print versions of “Carolina Shout.” There are other transcriptions floating around, like a 90% accurate version of the 1921 recording by Paul Marcorelles, but that version is not currently commercially available: Marcorelles briefly published 17 Johnson transcriptions before running into copyright problems. Hopefully the legal tangle will be sorted out and they will become available again, since it’s a good resource. I’m learning “A Flat Dream" for Sunday with Marcorelles’s assistance, although playing along with the record is just as important. 

Also for Sunday, I’ve taken on the classic piano roll version of "Carolina Shout" with the help of the Farrell edition. It’s much harder than the 1944 transcription. Indeed, I don’t remember working on anything harder!

So what about those 54 recordings listed by Jasen? I’ve only heard a few of them, but they are important ones, including versions by Fats Waller, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Donald Lambert, Dick Wellstood, and Marcus Roberts. The simple fact is that they all play “Carolina Shout” their own way. None are alike.  Since "authentic" sheet music has never been available anyway, this approach makes a lot of sense.  That may be one of the most important yet misunderstood aspects of the real Harlem Stride tradition: take the basic material and make it your own. I’m not there yet, but maybe I will be someday.

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:


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 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.)


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.  (UPDATE:  YouTube.)

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.

Further Reading

As of now, there is no easy way to get access to either the recordings or transcripts of two long interviews with James P. Johnson, one with the Library of Congress in 1938, and one with Tom Davin in the 1950’s.  This must be rectified in the future.  Part of Davin’s interview is here


Scott E.  Brown has produced the only book-length study.  James P. Johnson: A Case of Mistaken Identity is now 25 years old, and reportedly a new edition with updated information is in the works.  Still, Brown’s book in the current incarnation is extremely valuable, with a wealth of biographical info not really available anywhere else.  Brown was instrumental in seeking to place Johnson’s vast output in context of his era (hence his provocative title).  I’m looking forward to Brown’s keynote speech on Sunday. 

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


Frank H. Trolle’s Father of the Stride Piano is impossible to find.  (I’ve seen it for as much as $200 on Amazon.)  It’s actually just two small pamphlets: a poorly-edited collection of minor biographical/musicological essays and a discography which was superseded by Hilbert’s.  Still a fun item, though!


The latest news on Johnson is John Howland's 2009 volume Ellington Uptown: Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson, and the Birth of Concert Jazz.  This book goes into fascinating detail about the gestation of Johnson’s best known concert work, Yamekraw: A Negro Rhapsody.  (Why isn’t the Vitaphone short “Yamekraw” on YouTube yet?)  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, although I admit that I have yet to interface with the canon of Johnson concert works in a truly serious way. Howland has copied Johnson’s (rejected) Guggenheim application in full, which is an amazing document. 


The only other really good information on Johnson is scattered about in different places. I recommend four items:

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. He’s a true authority. (So is Jones, clearly.)

I particularly admire Black Bottom Stomp, which may be my favorite book on early jazz piano. The information is not new, exactly, but 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 too: this is the best source on Johnson’s significant career as a songwriter for shows.


Henry Martin has a good 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. Martin is a very interesting composer whose jazz-based Preludes and Fugues for piano are worth exploring: there’s an excellent recording by Sara Davis Buechner.  (Buechner told me once that it was the hardest thing she ever played.) 


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 lovely biographical section is by Frank Kappler. The Giants of Jazz boxes frequently have valuable booklets.

CODA: 2009

Institutional racism is a major factor in the history of American music. Jazz music continues to get far less arts dollars from the government and private donors then classical music does, although Wynton Marsalis has made a bit of a dent. My interview with Wynton was the springboard for some of my previous blogging about James P. Johnson in "Reading the Black Jazz Writers."

I always compare James P. Johnson to George Gershwin.  This comparison is awkward since they were better at different things. But I’ve come up with a concrete example of how American culture could use Johnson and Gershwin to solve issues regarding the color line:

The only Gershwin solo piano music that regularly gets performed are his charming Three Preludes.  This music will be programmed at innumerable college recitals this year. 

Unfortunately, compared to Gershwin’s own excellent recording, it almost always gets a watered down, rhythmically flaccid treatment. It seems to be a chance for students (and some professionals, unfortunately) to wink, smirk, and be “jazzy.” Frankly, that means it’s also a chance for those students to thumb their nose at black culture (although they never realize this, of course).

Just think if every classical student who wanted to play Gershwin was told they had to learn some James P. first:  one Harlem Stride classics, “Harlem Strut,” “Keep Off the Grass” or “Carolina Shout,” for example. And to show they knew it they had to play it along with Johnson’s 1921 recording.

It would be one of the hardest things for them to do at college.  They would instantly gain real insight and respect for black traditions -- something that too few seem to do on their own.

Obviously, this is just a fantasy.  We're a long way from getting respect for the real jazz feel at classical conservatories. Still, until last year, James P. didn't have a tombstone, and now he does, so who knows what the future could bring?


(Draft card from 1917, borrowed from this webpage.)