James P. Johnson:
A Composer Rescued

By LESLIE STIFELMAN

  The "greatest hit" of 20th century popular music was not the creation of Michael Jackson, the Bee Gees or even the Beatles. Anyone with a sense of history will realize that the once-ubiquitous dance tune called the "Charleston" fueled a craze that has never been matched. The creator of this one-tune soundtrack to the roaring twenties was a man named James P. Johnson. Johnson was no mere tunesmith but rather a creative genius who gave birth to a keyboard-bending genre known as "stride piano." But Johnson's story didn't end there. Later in his career, he created full-scale symphonic works of jazz, the first orchestral pieces created by an African-American. But this achievement did not bring Johnson lasting fame, partially because he hid the scores to these compositions, and until recently they had been neither seen nor performed since the 1940s.
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  In February, 1992, Manhattan's Concordia Chamber Symphony made history by performing several of these works for the first time in nearly 50 years. Last summer, Concordia released a compact disk of James P. Johnson's symphonic works, "Victory Stride," a recording that sounds like a time capsule from the genesis of the Big Band era. Conductor Marin Alsop's unmatched prowess in the production of string jazz brings Johnson's music to life, but on the other side of the podium is an even more exciting story. The concert and the compact disk, both milestones of American musical history, would never have happened without the extraordinary efforts of Concordia's pianist, Leslie Stifleman. In the program of the 1992 concert, she told the story of her musical treasure hunt, one of the most intriguing and rewarding research experiences that any scholar could hope to undertake. The following is a reprint of Sifleman's personal account, prepared for the February 21st, 1992 concert in Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall.
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ASK anyone who invented the light bulb and you will almost certainly get the right answer: Thomas Edison. Ask the same person which one tune best embodies the spirit of the Roaring Twenties and you will also likely get the right answer, the "Charleston." But if you ask them who wrote the "Charleston," you will probably get a blank stare or a wild guess such as Al Jolson, Irving Berlin or George Gershwin.3
  Surprisingly, a man named James P. Johnson composed the "Charleston," a piece that changed the course of American musical history. The Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age, the Harlem Renaissance and the Golden Age of Broadway were all enriched by Johnson's contributions. Yet how is it that so few know this seminal figure in American music? Why did his legacy fall through the cracks into obscurity?4
  Johnson's fate is not inexplicable, given the various biographical data printed about him. In various references, James Price Johnson's birth date is listed as February 1, 1891, 1894 or 1897. (The correct date is 1894.) To the readers of the Amsterdam News in the 1920s he was known as James P. Johnson, James Johnson, Jimmy Johnson, Jimmie Johnson and James J. Johnson. He is frequently confused with other noted artists of the time, including musician/statesman James Weldon Johnson, pianist/composer J.C. Johnson, composer James Rosamund Johnson and blues/boogie-woogie pianist Pete Johnson. Even his death is contested: May 5, 1954 (Downbeat Magazine) and November 17, 1955 (Queens General hospital). The carelessness in these biographical tidbits is indicative of the treatment given to the life and career of a musician whose extensive contributions to American music should have earned him instead the greatest popular and critical acclaim.5
  To those who knew him best, James P. Johnson was the "Father of Stride Piano." In the legendary cutting contests of the 1920s and 30s—where popular piano players would compete against each other with increasingly difficult and dazzling compositions—Johnson was king. All the jazz greats of the time, including Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Fats Waller and Art Tatum, regarded him as their musical father. And with good reason—for when James P. came to play, everyone stepped aside; his playing was unparalleled. He taught all of these men the basics of the stride style, and indeed much of his influence is heard in their great accomplishments. But his inspirations was felt not only among great pianists. Johnson was the favorite accompanist of vocalists Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters. The recordings he made with them are classics; he so complimented their vocal styles with his own unique voice that he was not merely an accompanist, but an equal partner.6
  But even all this musical activity did not satisfy Johnson. His greatest wish was to compose works for the symphony orchestra, which he did with characteristic inventiveness. In daring to combine the most vital elements of jazz and classical music, Johnson created a form that expressed the African-American experience. Most importantly, as jazz scholar Rudi Blesh has said, Johnson demonstrated that symphonies can be hot.7
  The name of James P. Johnson was first brought to my attention in 1986 while I was researching music for Concordia's third season at Lincoln Center. (In addition to performing as the orchestra's pianist, I help seek repertoire which exemplifies Concordia's mission of restoring and presenting American music, especially works influenced by jazz.) While rummaging through conductor Marin Alsop's closet, I came upon a recording of the noted pianist/composer William Albright playing solo piano renditions of Johnson's orchestral music. The record's liner notes referred to the many performances, four decades earlier, of the orchestral versions of these works, and reported that some of Johnson's other compositions, including symphonies, concertos, tone poems, and operas, had been performed in the early 1940s throughout the world. I was ecstatic that I had stumbled upon this information, but at the same time I was completely baffled. For here was a composer working contemporaneously to George Gershwin—who wrote works that paralleled "Rhapsody in Blue" and "An American in Paris," and was heralded by all as one of the greatest jazz pianists of the century—and almost no one had ever heard of him. (I later found out that Gershwin and Johnson not only knew each other, but made recordings at the same time at the Aeolian Company and had collaborated in England on a show called "Plantation Days.")8
  To tell the truth, I thought that it would be a simple matter to find Johnson's music—I'd only need to make a few phone calls to some libraries and publishing companies. Little did I know that it would take me five years of extensive research to put the pieces of this puzzle back together again.9
  My initial excitement about James P. Johnson was soon diminished to frustration, for there was no information available on him except for a few scattered references in jazz history books and in the biographies of other artists. After weeks of running into brick walls, I luckily found the historian Dan Morgenstern, Director of the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies. Dan put me in touch with Scott Brown, the author of the only full-length biography on Johnson, James P. Johnson—A Case of Mistaken Identity. I am not a strong believer in fate, but by some strange coincidence Scott's book, which had been published the same month I began my research, had just become available to the public. Together, Scott and I became musical sleuths, and from then on, my enthusiasm never waned. Somehow I knew that we would eventually unravel this mystery.10
  The research that Scott had done for his book was so extensive that I was able to get back to the hunt for Johnson's musical scores with an array of new ammunition. I searched for them at all the presenting organizations that had performed Johnson's orchestral music, including such unlikely places as Long Island University, the Heckscher Foundation, Carnegie Hall and even the Ladies Garment Workers Union. (I had the rather interesting experience of going through their basement in search of the missing scores.) But again, after countless hours of phone calls, attempts to contact principal participants from the original performances and additional searches through some of the country's largest research libraries, I came to another dead end.11
  Scott and I were down to our last possible lead. We were both aware of a persistent rumor that Arceola Glover, James P. Johnson's daughter, had kept a trunk full of his manuscripts. Many musicians had previously approached the family for access to this music, but all of their attempts were unsuccessful (including those of Scott while working on his book). But soon after Scott's book was published, he hand delivered a copy to Arceola and her son Barry. He told them of Concordia's desire to recreate the 1945 Carnegie Hall tribute to Johnson's orchestral music, and organized a meeting between the Johnson family, Marin Alsop and myself. The family was very moved by our commitment; in the forty years since his death, they had never seen so much time and effort being put toward the revival and dissemination of Johnson's musical legacy. A great bond of trust was solidified on that first visit, and soon afterward they invited us to see their father's music. What a treasure they revealed—the full scores to "Harlem Symphony," a symphonic poem entitled "Drums," the first movement of the "American Symphonic Suite," a piano concerto entitled Jassamine, and an orchestrated version of his song "Victory Stride." And all of these works were thought to be lost!12
  My initial elation was ultimately tempered, however, by the fact that the most elusive, and perhaps the most important, item in Johnson's catalogue could not be completely recovered; "De Organizer," a one-act opera on which Johnson had collaborated with the legendary poet Langston Hughes in the late 1930s. Although this work had been performed twice with full symphony orchestra, soloists and chorus, the only surviving materials were several sketches and lead sheets for two arias. We even found evidence of many other collaborations between the two men, but no additional music. What a team they must have made—two giants of the Harlem Renaissance working together to create a new operatic form! While I was disappointed that we would not be able to revive their entire body of compositions, I was nevertheless extremely grateful to have at least verified their historically significant work.13
  A new chapter can now be written about the life and music of James P. Johnson. With the help of conductors like Marin Alsop, new generations will be able to hear his works and appreciate them in a whole new way. Concordia will also have the privilege of making the first recording of these works to ensure that they will never again vanish from America's musical repertoire.14
  I'm still troubled by the nagging question: Why did it take so long for Americans to appreciate this great man's legacy. There are no simple explanations. Throughout the twentieth century composers have had to rely on the musical society that they work within to nurture their careers. Many of their compositions, as William Albright said to me recently, "dare to break down social and musical barriers, even at the risk of failure. Without the encouragement and positive feedback from the establishment, Johnson, like Scott Joplin before him, would not have been able to achieve everything that he desired, including recognition." Composers, no matter how great, need champions for their music to survive; Gershwin had Paul Whiteman, Copland had Koussevitsky and later Bernstein. Tragically, James P. Johnson had no one. From what I know of Johnson as a man he would not have been bitter. The concert that we present here tonight is a dream come true for all who knew him. For those who are just hearing of him for the first time, I guarantee you'll never hear the "Charleston" the same way again.15


Columbia Journal of American Studies. 1:1 (1995).