100 Jazz Profiles
James P. Johnson
1894 - 1955
Pianist, bandleader and composer. Known to his Harlem colleagues as 'The Brute', Johnson was the 'dean' of the New York school of jazz pianists who specialised in the style known as stride - derived from ragtime, but with more jazz timing and a repertoire of brilliant improvisational effects that were skilfully incorporated into almost every performance.
Johnson's classically-inspired technique, his setpiece compositions such as Carolina Shout, and his mastery of the cutting contest or competitive jam session combined to make him the most revered of this group of players, that also included his contemporaries Willie The Lion Smith and Luckey Roberts, plus his pupil Fats Waller.
He worked in New York from around 1913, and he cut many piano rolls (starting in 1916) and a series of solo piano recordings, beginning in 1921. In these he proved he was a first-rate composer as well as pianist, and he began writing musicals for the Broadway stage in the early 1920s. These included many of his best-known songs, of which the most famous of all was The Charleston, from his show Runnin' Wild.
He also wrote orchestral pieces, as well as an opera with words by the poet Langston Hughes. Johnson led his own bands on record in the 1920s, made some important discs for the French critic Hugues Panassie in the 1930s (with trumpeter Frankie Newton), and recorded with many bands in the 1940s, including the house group on Rudi Blesh's radio show This Is Jazz. He suffered a stroke in 1951 that ended his playing career.
Scott E. Brown: James P. Johnson: A Case of Mistaken Identity. (Metuchen N.J., Scarecrow Press, 1986)
Carolina Shout (Biograph BCD 105)
Suggested track: The Charleston
James P. Johnson at Red Hot Jazz
Brief biography, photo and links to recordings
on radio 3
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