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James P. Johnson: Forgotten Musical Genius

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Dean of the Jazz Piano

By the mid-1930s Johnson was vigorously engaged in songwriting and arranging, performing, recording and appearing on radio.  He waxed about 400 tunes as a piano soloist, accompanist, bandleader or sideman.  In New York City he was featured at John Hammond’s Spirituals to Swing concerts at Carnegie Hall in 1938-39, at Café Society Downtown and was widely respected among his musical peers

JPJ Borowsky 1940s Pt 1 Rerecorded Rags.mp3


In the early 1940s Johnson suffered a mild stroke (most likely a transient ischemic attack), the first of several.  Nonetheless, he continued working a heavy schedule — performing, recording, leading combos, enjoying some measure of recognition and fleeting national fame.

The death of his protégé and dear friend Fats Waller in late 1943 severely depressed Johnson.  He went into private mourning for months, before recording eight Waller tunes for Decca in 1944.

JPJ Borowsky 1940s Pt 2 Small Label Jazz.mp3


During the late 1940s Johnson was featured at prestigious jazz clubs and heard regularly on Rudi Blesh’s radio show.  Throughout the 1940s he was paired up with Dixielanders and New Orleans veterans for recording sessions or radio and television broadcasts with Eddie Condon.

JPJ Borowsky 1940s Pt 3 Elder Statesmen of Jazz.mp3


Johnson on the Eddie Condon TV show with drummer Zutty Singleton, trumpet player Oran “Hot Lips” Page and Condon.

Symphonic Aspirations

It’s clear that from the start Johnson tried to fuse jazz with traditional European classical music, seeking over and over again to create a blend.  At first, he borrowed or adapted classical themes and motifs:

“From listening to classical records and concerts, I would learn concert effects and build them into blues and rags. . ..  I’d make an abrupt change like I heard Beethoven do in a sonata.  Once, I used Liszt’s ‘Rigoletto’ concert paraphrase as an introduction to a stomp.”

Johnson retired from performing for a while following the economic collapse of 1929.  Envisioning a broader musical horizon, he took formal training in classical piano technique and mastered music theory, counterpoint and harmony.

His “Harlem Symphony” was completed in 1932.  Shortly afterwards “Symphony in Brown” was copyrighted but never published.  “Jassamine Concerto” and “American Symphonic Suite” received smatterings of performance and publication.

Johnson penned his dramatic symphonic poem “Drums” for the 1932 show, Harlem Hotcha, later orchestrated as “Those Jungle Drums” with lyrics by Langston Hughes.  Lost for 40 years, the score has been restored and recorded in recent decades.

JAMES P JOHNSON_C Classical influences and Victory Stride.mp3



“Yamekraw: A Negro Rhapsody”

A rhapsody-concerto for piano and orchestra, Yamekraw was a creative achievement blending the classical piano concerto format with black musical idioms.  The full-scale score was arranged by African American composer William Grant Still.  It was dedicated to Yamecraw, a picturesque waterfront district on the outskirts of Savannah, Georgia.

Exuberant and visionary, this was Johnson’s most ambitious and successful orchestral work. Yamekraw fused symphony orchestra with Jazz, Blues, Stomps and Gospel themes.  The first composition of its kind by an African American composer, it at Carnegie Hall, premiering with Fats Waller soloist in 1928 just a few years after “Rhapsody in Blue” by his good friend George Gershwin.  It was recorded by soloist Marcus Roberts with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (Sony Classical, 1995).

Yamekraw was performed twice . Johnson performed it there himself in 1945 for a program featuring several of his symphonic works.  He waxed a masterful solo piano rendition on four 78 rpm record sides in 1944.

For decades Johnson wrote to conductors and patrons seeking sponsorship for performance of his other large scores and extended works.  Sadly, he received only rejections.

JAMES P JOHNSON_D Yamekraw Rhapsody.mp3


US Postage stamp; mid-1930s Johnson band; on the Eddie Condon Show (Condon foreground); Blue Note, 1944.


Honoring Forgotten Genius

A paralyzing stroke in 1951 ended Johnson’s performing career.  He died in 1955, his passing barely noted at the time. But James P. is not forgotten.

America has slowly come to recognize Johnson’s vast talents. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970 and ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) in 2007.  His personal papers and scrapbooks are preserved in the Rutgers University Libraries. A century after his birth Johnson’s portrait appeared on a United States Postage stamp in a set with nine other jazz greats.

James P. Johnson’s musical genius was incubated and nurtured in a rich American melting pot.  Foundational to Jazz and American popular music, his effervescent keyboard style, pioneering Black musicals, popular songs and symphonic works propelled early Jazz piano and African American music into the modern era.


Tony Nichols from Black Star.

Great thanks to guest narrator Peter Coyote and to Mark Borowsky for his expert insights in the audio clips.  Thanks to Hal Smith for assistance.


Sources and further reading:

Black Bottom Stomp: Eight Masters of Ragtime and Early Jazz, Jasen, David A. and Jones, Gene, Routledge, 2002
James P. Johnson: A Case of Mistaken Identity, Brown, Scott E., Scarecrow Press, 1992
James P. Johnson, Giants of Jazz, liner notes booklet, Kappler, Frank, Time Life Books, 1981



5 Responses to James P. Johnson: Forgotten Musical Genius

  1. TerryParrish says:

    The first photo is not from the 20s, but much more likely from the later 30s

  2. Thank you for the correction Terry. Mark Borowsky confirms that the photo is publicity for Johnson’s 1945 Carnegie Hall appearance. Dave R

  3. Johnson ‘s career overlapped the late part of the ragtime era. He retained connections to ragtime until the end of his life. Having said that, Johnson was , arguably, the first jazz pianist . Jelly Roll Morton also belongs on the conversation. However, Johnson’s stride school proved to be the more mainstream, and more influential. For the better part of 3 decades, he was also a writer of many classic Broadway shows, and ventured into the classical realm, composing, opera, a symphony, and a a rhapsody, which incorporated his jazz roots.

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