Making Strides, Part 2 – James P.

“There has long been a disturbing tendency among jazz aficionados to regard each innovation in the music as “progress”, a practice that sends the musicians who have been supplanted into the outer darkness” – Whitney Balliett.

I wanted to revisit the above quotation which began Part 1 of this piece, because the process of marginalization Balliett describes applies to few more than James P. Johnson. Johnson was a key pioneer of jazz piano, the founder and widely acknowledged king of stride piano, and was, with Jelly Roll Morton, one of the first great jazz pianists.

And yet, since well before his death in 1955 and continuing until recently, Johnson has been largely forgotten, and this obscurity is easy to demonstrate. For years he rested in an unmarked grave in the Mt. Olive Cemetery in Queen’s, N.Y., which is scandalous. The respected Reed College musicologist David Schiff wrote an article on Johnson which was sub-titled “The Invisible Pianist”. The noted pianist and jazz scholar Ethan Iverson wrote a very systematic and detailed examination of Johnson’s playing and recordings called “In Search of James P. Johnson.”

Both these titles strongly suggest a neglected, shadowy figure, shrouded in the mists of antiquity. And he’s not easy to find on the market either – although Johnson made a great many piano rolls and records between 1917 and the middle ’40s, it’s still difficult to find his recordings. It took some time and effort, but I’ve managed to cobble together seven or eight CDs by him, on various labels such as Biograph, Tradition, Decca, Columbia, Asch (Smithsonian Folkways) and Blue Note. Other than a Time-Life set (reportedly very good but which I’ve never seen), there hasn’t been a comprehensive collection of Johnson’s recordings to date. Clearly, someone who was in on the ground floor of jazz and provided so much of the foundation on an instrument as important as the piano deserves better.

There have been some encouraging signs of improvement on this front in recent years. A dedicated group of jazz people – fans, musicians, scholars – formed a non-profit organization called The James P. Johnson Foundation, dedicated to raising awareness of him. Spearheaded by pianist Spike Wilner, in September of 2009 the group raised funds to get Johnson a proper tombstone, which reads:

James Price Johnson Feb. 1, 1894 – Nov. 17, 1955                                        Beloved Father, Husband & Grandfather                                                                                                                      Master American Pianist and Composer                                                                        The Dean of Jazz Pianists

That’s more like it, particularly the final line of the epitaph. Although jazz piano has evolved tremendously since Johnson’s heyday, he was there to lay the first cornerstones and deserves credit for this, he truly is the dean of jazz pianists. The achievement of marking Johnson’s grave was celebrated with a ‘rent party’ afternoon at Smalls Jazz Club in Harlem on October 4, 2009, honouring his music. This began with two hour-long symposia on Johnson, followed by a dozen pianists paying tribute to James P. with thirty-minute sets of solo piano each. Included were such heavyweights as Iverson, John Bunch, Mike Lipskin, Ted Rosenthal, and Dick Hyman.

This is very heartening proof that Johnson’s music and stride piano in general continue to breathe, further borne out by the fact that such contemporary pianists as Iverson, Jason Moran and Marcus Roberts have each recorded Johnson compositions in recent years. Indeed, research for this article revealed that Johnson’s signature “Carolina Shout”, a kind of stride test- piece, has been recorded at least 55 times by various solo pianists over the years, some quite recently. This indicates that not all pianists have forgotten Johnson – just most of them, and the jazz public at large.

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In my early days as a jazz bassist and student, I largely ignored stride piano; there was so much other music to investigate and stride seemed cornered off way in the distant past. And, as it seemed to involve the piano mainly as a solo instrument, it didn’t have much relevance to me as I’d never have to play it. I acquired a basic knowledge about it from reading. I knew that ‘stride’ described the action of the left hand in playing a swiftly moving ‘oom-pah’ of bass notes on beats one and three and chords on beats two and four, while the right hand played fairly complex, syncopated constructions and figures (as opposed to single-note lines) against this. I read that it evolved on the East coast and in Harlem out of ragtime, but displaced the genteel, parlor formality of ragtime with more swing, greater syncopation and blues tonality, and that it was a very full, orchestral style. Its practitioners were known as piano ‘ticklers’, highly competitive virtuosos who very jealously guarded their pianistic secrets, often preferring to play with the keyboard out of view lest another tickler steal their ideas. They composed specialties, often known as rags, struts, or stomps, which showed off their pianistic wares and were rigorously displayed at rent parties, saloons, theatres and other public forums of the day.

Stride piano is a very specific, intricate style, but also a living and varied one. Not being a pianist, I confess to feeling out of my depth in trying to write about it or its founder with any specific insight. Those who want a more detailed assessment of Johnson’s work would do well to read the afore-mentioned Iverson piece on his blog site “Do the Math.” Iverson is not only a gifted pianist, but an engaging writer and an excellent jazz scholar; his is one of the most informed and informative jazz sites going.

In my younger days, I heard some stride piano on records and on the radio in passing, but mostly came to like it from hearing it live. Toronto had a great club for a while called Cafe des Copains that largely featured solo piano, which suited its narrow, intimate confines. I heard such later stride exponents as Dick Wellstood and Ralph Sutton there in the 1980s and was mightily impressed by each. Wellstood was one of the most intelligent pianists of his day, not only a master of stride but also a great appreciator of Bill Evans and an expert on the music of Thelonious Monk. His solo sets always featured a broad and surprising array of styles and repertoire. Sutton was a little more traditional in his approach, but a steaming powerhouse of a pianist, it was impossible to keep still when he played.

Another thing that won me over to stride was working with Ray Bryant. Ray’s piano style drew from many elements, and he would often play a stride or boogie-woogie solo piece in the middle of a set. Hearing Wellstood and Sutton live and playing with Bryant, I came to love the tactile, textural aspects of two-fisted piano playing – the roaring, driving bottom end, the crunchiness, the surprising syncopation and lacy delicacy in the right hand, all spiced with the blues, all sorts of clusters, little dissonances and other goodies. I loved the physicality and percussiveness of the style – the piano as drum – after all, the piano is a percussion instrument as well as a stringed one. This robust percussiveness led me to see the relationship between stride pianists and non-stride ones I’d listened to and admired, who were also rhythmically deadly – Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and a little later, Randy Weston – none of them were really linear so much as percussive.

Another pianist who had a similar impact in this regard was Dave McKenna, who I often heard live playing solo, but also worked with many times. McKenna was not a stride pianist, but absorbed that tradition among others in creating a personal style which reflected the rhythmic intensity of stride in a unique way, especially when he played alone. Dave was a massive man with huge hands, which he used to somehow do the following: instead of playing the usual stride left hand, he played walking bass lines, thundering ones which generated tremendous momentum. (Many called him the hardest-swinging pianist who ever lived; while I don’t know about that, I would say that as a pianist he was one of the greatest bassists who ever lived.) While doing this, he used parts of each hand to play shell-chords and comping figures against this 4/4. He used the rest of his right hand to play piston-like melodic lines, some with rolled, swinging eighths and others with straight ones; the resulting rhythmic tension was both compelling and delicious. It wasn’t stride but mirrored that style in its fullness, rhythmic drive and in the stunning independence of the two hands. Fortunately, Dave was a very nice, gentle man and when playing piano in a band, he altered his style to leave room for the bassist to handle the walking, focusing on very incisive comping and playing inner harmony lines. I was very aware when playing with him that he could absolutely bury me at any time, but he chose not to.

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So, exposure to all these pianists led to an appreciation of stride piano, but I still hadn’t really checked out the originators, especially the “Big Three” of Johnson, Fats Waller and Willie “The Lion” Smith – they remained in the distant past for me. When their recordings became more readily available on CD I bought some, but was still somehow expecting these to sound boxy, mechanical or old-fashioned, a kind of hangover of prejudice it’s taken years to cure. Happily, none of my fears were justified. I was thrilled by how complex, varied and alive the music of these masters sounded.

Waller probably had the best pure jazz time-feel of the three and I of course love his songs. The Lion did some arresting, impressionistic things with texture, chord voicings and inversions. But when I finally came to Johnson, I found him to be the most compelling of the bunch. For one thing, James P. was more of an improviser than these other two. Because stride was so technically demanding and required such complex independence of the two hands, its practitioners were often not great improvisers, it was challenging enough just to execute the very fiendish set pieces these men devised for themselves. Johnson is the exception. He had a habit of revisiting certain pieces in the studio throughout his career, with multiple versions of “Snowy Morning Blues”, “Carolina Shout” and George Gershwin’s “Liza” among many others. The various takes show considerable evolution and variation, he was capable of more spontaneous invention than his Harlem colleagues. As Johnson himself put it, in his prime he could “think up a trick a minute.”

Perhaps his greatest records were made between 1921 and 1930. His earlier piano rolls are also tremendous and had a huge impact on pianists like Waller and Ellington, but don’t transfer to records so well, the sound being a bit tinny. Key tracks such as “Harlem Strut”, “Keep Off the Grass” and “Carolina Shout”, leave no doubt that Johnson was a virtuoso by the standards of his day, or any other. In particular, “Harlem Strut” is breathtakingly fast and complex, there’s a whole mess of piano being played.

These recordings show that Johnson was not only a master of piano technique, but of thinking at the piano, using its full range of sonority and texture in a very compositional, organic way. He clearly absorbed a lot of classical piano and ragtime, but his playing abounds with all sorts of other elements too – the blues, a “Spanish tinge” element, even some boogie-woogie here and there. His left hand resembles a full orchestra at times, but often departs from the bass note-chord-oom-pah of stride with complex bass ostinatos, Latin “clave” figures, open fifths, broken tenths and so on. His right hand is extremely dexterous too – stacked thirds, big fat, jabbing chords, octaves, tremolos, and amazing displacements of the beat.

To say that Johnson was a master of stride piano is a bit like saying Michelangelo was a great interior decorator because he painted The Sistine Chapel – there was a little more to him than that, and a little more to Johnson than stride. Johnson was also a superb vocal accompanist, as his recordings with Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters, the two most prominent female jazz singers of his day, clearly show. He provided the best piano backing either one ever had, and both have gone on record as saying so. He was also a great rhythm section pianist in the context of a band; this came more to light later in his career and which I’ll come back to.. He was also a prolific, masterly composer, and this took place on several fronts.

Firstly, he wrote a great many pieces for the piano, most of them very original and extremely difficult. “Caprice Rag”, “Carolina Shout”, “Snowy Morning Blues”, ‘You’ve Got To Be Modernistic”, “Feelin’ Blue”, ‘Keep Off the Grass”, “Harlem Strut”, “Jazzomine Concerto”, “Worried and Lonesome Blues” and many others form an integral part of jazz piano literature. “Carolina Shout” was a direct and lasting inspiration to Ellington, both as a pianist and composer, indeed Duke often performed it as a piano solo feature during his orchestra’s concerts as late as the 1960s. Ellington’s admiration of Johnson is nicely summarized by the following:

“…..it was me, or maybe Fats, who sat down to warm up the piano. After that, James took over. Then you got real invention – magic, sheer magic.” – Duke Ellington, discussing James P. Johnson, at a 1920’s Harlem rent party.

Johnson also composed a lot for musical theatre, including a series of revues for which he also served as musical director – “Plantation Days” (1921), “Runnin’ Wild” (1922), “Keep Shufflin'” (1928), “Messin’ Around” (1929), “Shuffle Along of 1930” and “De Organizer” (1940). Of these, “Runnin’ Wild” in particular was a smash hit; a selection from it, “The Charleston” led to the huge 1920’s dance craze of that name. Indeed, Johnson was all over jazz and popular music of that decade.

He also wrote some popular songs and I wish he’d done more of this. Apart from “Charleston”, “Runnin’ Wild” also yielded his “Old-Fashioned Love”, an interesting blend of popular song and Negro spiritual. His “If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight)” is an oft-performed standard and made many appearances in movies. “Snowy Morning Blues” is not a blues at all but a very attractive melody that I never tire of hearing and which combines, in Iverson’s phrase, “Black folklore and American pop song.” And he also wrote the very charming “A Porter’s Love Song To A Chambermaid”, which I first heard sung and played by Jimmy Rowles on one of his records. I assumed it was a Fats Waller song at first and at least part of the reason is that the funny, double-entendre words are by Andy Razaf, Waller’s most frequent lyricist.

Johnson also had ambitions to compose “serious” symphonic music, which he began to realize in the 1930s. Aided by the modest royalties earned by his popular compositions, and as his jazz career dimmed somewhat in those years, he had mixed success at this. He composed such full-length orchestral works as “Yamekraw: A Negro Rhapsody” (which also appeared as an extended piano piece), “Harlem Symphony” and “Symphony In Brown”, which were performed and recorded. Although he was an established composer and a member of ASCAP, Johnson was unable to secure the financial support he sought from the Rosenwald Foundation or a Guggenheim Fellowship (which would have greatly helped), despite being endorsed for both by Columbia Records executive John Hammond. Recordings of the symphonic works are available and they are performed with increasing regularity. I took part in some pops concerts some years ago by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and on one of them “Yamekraw” was performed, which was nice to hear. Had he been white or lived in a different time, Johnson might have achieved success as both a popular and serious composer similar to that of George Gershwin, with whom he’s often compared. But this was not to be.

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Even with all his activity as a composer, it’s as a pianist that Johnson should be best remembered. He was one of the greatest of his day and a great one by any standards; he certainly blazed a trail for jazz piano which many followed. His playing was eclipsed in the ’30s, and there were several reasons for this. For one, many of his key innovations in developing the stride style pre-dated jazz recording, his own style was fully formed by the time he was first recorded in 1917. As a result, the crucial role Johnson played in the transition from ragtime to jazz piano remains a matter of logical deduction rather than specific credit. Within the stride school itself, both Waller and The Lion received more attention than Johnson due to their outgoing, extroverted personalities. Waller was a comic singer and born entertainer as well as being a master pianist and songwriter, all too often Johnson was merely mentioned as Waller’s teacher. The Lion was also an out-sized personality, with his jaunty bowler hats, omnipresent gigantic stogies and self-aggrandizing tendencies as a raconteur. Johnson, though revered and well-liked in his time, was a more modest and retiring figure by comparison.

Also, by the late-20s, there were pianists who had the innovative imagination and technique to break from stride, first and foremost of these was Earl Hines. Hines kept some of the left-hand conventions of stride, but used his right hand to play virtuosic, fully improvised single-note lines – “trumpet-style” piano, as it came to be known. This style was more open-ended, imaginative and fit better into the ensemble direction jazz was moving in, as opposed to being a solo piano music. And as Swing developed, along came Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum to build on the accomplishments of Hines. Though both acknowledged Johnson as an inspiration, their forward-looking pianistic and harmonic brilliance made many forget him.

And Johnson’s extreme versatility worked against him. Wearing the many hats of multi-faceted composer, musical director and accompanist, he spread himself thin and this deflected attention from his brilliant piano work. His career went into a dip in the ’30s, from which it never completely recovered. There was a revival of interest in his work starting about 1938 though, spearheaded by the efforts of John Hammond and a group called The Friends of James P. Johnson. Hammond included Johnson in his 1938 and ’39 “Spirtuals to Swing” concerts, which did a great deal to promote greater awareness of black music pioneers, including Johnson. This eventually led to Johnson’s return to the recording studios from 1938 on, after an absence of three years.

Much revered by the musicians in Eddie Condon’s circle, Johnson was hired by Pee Wee Russell for the clarinettist’s first date as a leader on August 31, 1938, for Steve Smith’s Hot Record Society (H.R.S.). Russell assembled a first-rate octet known as “The Rhythmakers” for this date. Joining him in the front line were trumpeter Max Kaminsky, a Condon-mob colleague, and Dickie Wells, whose very expressive and eccentric trombone meshed beautifully with Russell’s unique clarinet; one wishes they’d recorded together more. Joining these three was the group’s lone non-ringer – tenor saxophonist Al Gold, whose first and last record date this would be, making him the Gary Mapp of the tenor. The rhythm section is a Bugati engine – Johnson on piano, Freddie Green (the baby of the group) on guitar and two great New Orleans veterans – Wellman Braud on bass and Zutty Singleton on drums. They recorded eight tracks and Johnson shines throughout, both as a soloist (particularly fine on the faster, first take of “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” and on take two of “There’ll Be Some Changes Made”) and as a gold-standard accompanist. After hearing him play solo piano, it’s fascinating to hear how he integrates himself into a full rhythm section, interacting percussively with the drums, while allowing the pulse provided by Green and Braud to come through underneath. Johnson gets to strut his best stride stuff on two trio numbers with just Pee Wee and Zutty – “I Found A New Baby” and “Everybody Loves My Baby” – he sounds marvelous on each, at once intense and graceful.

This led to Johnson recording again as a leader, for Columbia Records in 1939. On March 9th he took an excellent band of Red Allen, J.C. Higginbotham, Gene Sedric, guitarist Eugene Fields, Pops Foster, Big Sid Catlett, and singer Anna Robinson into a studio to record his “Hungry Blues”, with lyrics by the innovative Harlem poet Langston Hughes. The song is not a blues per se, but rather a superior jazz/pop song with a blues mood and forward-looking, anti-Jim Crow lyrics.

On June 14, Johnson recorded six solo numbers – Edgar Sampson’s “If Dreams Come True” and five of his own pieces – “Fascination”, “The Mule Walk”, “Lonesome Reverie”, “A-Flat Dream” and “Blueberry Rhyme”. He sounds terrific, very inventive and streamlined on all of them. The next day he would return with the above-mentioned band (minus Anna Robinson) to record another four numbers – Eubie Blake’s “Memories of You” and three of his own – “Old-Fashioned Love”, “Swingin’ at the Lido” and “Havin’ A Ball.” These small-group sides show an evolution in Johnson’s playing toward Swing piano. The very good, full rhythm section allows Johnson to play more freely and, ironically, his lightness of touch and the darting, rippling runs he plays here are very reminiscent of Teddy Wilson, one of the pianists who supplanted him.

Johnson’s comeback was interrupted when he suffered a mild stroke, likely a transient ischemic attack, in August 1940. The recovery from this sidelined him until 1942, when he resumed a very full schedule of live performances, composing and recording. He had two main recording outlets from 1942-45 – Blue Note and Asch, and his records on these labels (both solo and with groups) provided a satisfying kick to his late career.  In November and December of 1943, he recorded eight piano solos for Blue Note which I haven’t heard, I’m much more familiar with his pivotal role in the all-star recording group The Blue Note Jazzmen, which recorded four sessions from late 1943 to late 1944.

I’ve mentioned these sides before and likely will again, they represent to me a high water mark of the best that traditional jazz and Swing had to offer up to that point. Mainstream hadn’t been invented yet as a term, but the timeless quality of the playing here presages those musical values by about a decade. Johnson was a constant on all four sessions, along with trombonist Vic Dickenson (at home in any jazz context), trumpeter Sidney De Paris (a superb exponent of hot trumpet) and Jimmy Shirley, who provides both good solos and rhythm on acoustic guitar. Edmond Hall plays clarinet on three of the sessions (replaced by Ben Webster’s tenor on one) and the great Sid Catlett plays drums on three, replaced by Fat’s Waller’s former drummer Arthur Trappier on the last date. The bass chores are handled by three of the best – John Simmons (on two sessions), Israel Crosby and Al Lucas. Johnson is the leader on two dates, with Hall and De Paris leading one each. The repertoire ranges from traditional jazz tunes and blues to standards and some originals written expressly for the sessions, many of them by Johnson. Each of the sessions yields music beyond category, but interestingly enough, one of the ones led by James P. – the oldest musician here – is the most “modern” in character, as it replaces Hall’s clarinet with Webster’s tenor, and the tunes are all originals, save for a glorious, fast “After You’ve Gone”. Throughout, everyone plays superbly including Johnson, who is all over this music as both soloist and accompanist. His interaction with Big Sid in particular is just brilliant and a joy to hear, leaving no doubt that Johnson was one of the great rhythm section pianists of his time, or any other.

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His solo piano recordings for the Asch label completed what was known as the “James P. Johnson Renaissance”. Moses Asch was a very progressive music producer, interested in recording authentic American music of a non-commercial and folkloric character, be it jazz, blues, folk, or classical; Johnson certainly fit the bill. Asch gave Johnson free reign to record whatever he liked in a series of sessions held between 1942 and 1945. An excellent compilation of these is available on a CD called The Original James P. Johnson,1942-1945: Piano Solos, with 20 tracks offering a huge range of material and styles. Included are two standards (Gershwin’s “Liza”, a favourite party piece, and “Sweet Lorraine”); two compositions by his good friend W.C. Handy (“St. Louis Blues” and “Aunt Hagar’s Blues”); a Scott Joplin piece (“Euphonic Sounds”) and two gorgeous takes of a beautiful Spanish-inflected piece of bawdy origins called “The Dream”, composed around 1890 by pianist and pimp/gambler Jesse Pickett. The rest of this historic-survey approach is completed by an array of Johnson’s compositions – some of his earliest ones, some blues improvisations, two very different takes of “Snowy Morning Blues” and three of his extended “third stream” symphonic works in solo piano versions – a twelve-minute “Yamekraw”, two movements of “Jazzomine Concerto” and “Jungle Drums”. Both in terms of composition and piano playing, these last three are quite breathtaking in their scope and originality.

Some observers noted that, having suffered a stroke and approaching 50 when these solos were made, there’s a slight diminution in Johnson’s speed and virtuosity, which is to be expected. He’s not quite up to the blazing level of “Harlem Strut” and other performances from his prime, but his overall musical vision and command remain intact. His workout on “Liza” here is fast and nimble enough to turn any pianist’s head, and the extended symphonic pieces show an amazing range of moods, tempos, musical approaches and a great deal of pianistic control. There’s a maturity and a kind of ruminative grace in his playing here that is very affecting, and he gets a beautiful sound out of the piano – rich and warm down low, brilliant and gleaming up top, crunchy in the middle. There is some prime stride piano here to be sure, but I don’t think of this as a stride record, I see it as beyond category, a recital of classical-jazz piano by a master. It’s one of my favourite solo piano records, and I don’t venture very far from home without it.

Johnson suffered a second, more serious stroke in 1946. After recovering from it, he resumed his jazz activities, which included being a frequent guest on Rudi Blesh’s This Is Jazz radio show and performing regularly at venues such as Stuyvesant Casino and Central Plaza. He suffered a massive, crippling stroke in 1951, which caused his permanent retirement from music. Living on the royalties from his composing, he spent his last years in paralyzed seclusion before dying on November 17, 1955. He was so forgotten in the years leading up to and following his death that in the 1980s, jazz critic Grover Sales wrote that Johnson was “the leading contender for the title of our most overlooked musical genius.” Fortunately, as discussed earlier, jazz is sometimes self-corrective on these scores.

As to his legacy, James P. Johnson was the key figure in the transition from ragtime to jazz and in terms of the continuum of jazz piano, a major fountainhead. He was, as both teacher and inspiration, a direct influence on Fats Waller and Duke Ellington, and Waller was in turn the prime inspiration for Count Basie. So directly or indirectly, Johnson was the source for Waller, Ellington and Basie – try to imagine jazz without these men, especially the last two. But it doesn’t end there. There’s a direct line from Ellington to Thelonious Monk; Monk made it clear that Ellington was the musician who most inspired and influenced him, both as a pianist and composer. But Monk also had a deep respect for Johnson and the other Harlem stride pianists, as demonstrated by the following story from Orrin Keepnews: when Monk was making his first solo piano record, he played a long, slow blues he called “Functional”. While listening to a playback of it, Monk was quite pleased, saying, “Hmmm – that’s pretty good – I sound a bit like James P. Johnson”. Monk was never one to mince words; clearly, sounding like James P. Johnson was desirable to him. From Ellington and Monk, it’s a short trip to Randy Weston and Cecil Taylor, which brings us to contemporary piano ground. Obviously, it wasn’t just Johnson, each of these great musicians brought their own unique talents to bear, but it was Johnson who got the ball rolling. That ball – the common ground among all these men – was playing the piano like a drum.

I witnessed a very memorable and visceral demonstration of this piano lineage at a jazz event some years ago. A Toronto organization called The Art Of Jazz staged an evening to honour the British-born, Toronto-based jazz figure John Norris, who’d done so much to further the music in Canada in so many ways. There was to be live music and the organizers of the event – Jane Bunnett, Larry Cramer, Howard Reese – allowed John to pick the performers he’d like to hear. He choose Dan Block and Jon-Erik Kellso (I mentioned their Swing to Bop Project in Part 1 of this essay), Jim Galloway’s Wee Big Band, and Randy Weston, who would perform solo. Along with drummer Terry Clarke and pianist Mark Eisenman, I was hired to form the rhythm section for Block and Kellso and we had a ball playing together. After our set and some speeches, Randy Weston took to the stage, his huge frame and regal bearing creating a presence before he’d even played a note. A silence fell over the room and Weston proceeded to spin a web of magic in one of the greatest solo piano performances I’ve ever heard. He may have had some loosely preconceived thematic elements in mind, as the long, single piece he played hung together structurally as an organic whole. Or maybe not, because it also felt very spontaneous and improvised. Without resorting to any pastiche, Weston’s piece was a sort of suite containing a whole range of jazz, and jazz piano, history. Like much of his music, there was a distinct African element in the rhythms and left-hand ostinatos, also a strong blues element in the tonality and mood. There were echoes of Ellington and Monk, as this music seemed to come from a very old and mysterious place but also sounded brand new, which it was. But there was also a strong element of stride piano – or at least Weston’s take on its physicality and strutting percussiveness – holding it all together. It was exciting and meditative all at once and must have lasted at least twenty minutes or maybe longer. Nobody knew or cared, because Weston had hypnotized us, effectively stopping time. During this trance of listening I could clearly feel the presence of Duke and Monk in the room, but also James P. Johnson, smiling down on Weston. It was a beautiful musical offering to John Norris and the rest of us, one which I’ll never forget.

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Getting back to the jazz party I mentioned in Part 1, it’s been going on for a while and is now in full swing. Plenty of drink has been taken and the ice of the pre-assigned seating at separate tables has long been broken. It might have been Dizzy Gillespie at the Bop table who made the first move by hitting his old friend Roy Eldridge – seated at the Swing table – with a spitball from a pea-shooter, right between the eyes. Little Jazz cracked up in mock outrage, then started throwing bread rolls back at Diz and soon the two were in each other’s arms. At any rate, everybody is visiting whoever they want to, there’s a lot of talk and laughter now.

Ellington and Monk go over to the stride table to pay their respects and are welcomed, sitting down to be regaled with some stories from Fats and “The Lion”, who are holding court with James P. and Luckey Roberts.

Ornette Coleman and Pee Wee Russell are off in a quiet corner discussing ‘purple’ notes, micro-tone pitch and the risk-taking challenges of improvising. Coleman starts to explain his harmelodic theory to Pee Wee, who interrupts with, “Oh, you mean like landing an a wrong note and seeing where it takes you? Why didn’t you say so? – I was doing that way back in the late ’20’s, chum…. it’s a fun way to play, but lonely and hard.”

A whole bunch of guitarists – Jim Hall, Barney Kessel, Wes Montgomery and many others – have Django Reinhardt cornered, demanding to know how he did it all using just two fingers on his left hand. Django shrugs, beams that proud, enigmatic Gallic smile and answers, “I’ll tell my secrets if Wes will tell us his first…”

Bob Brookmeyer and Brad Gowans are alone together at a table with a bottle of whisky, Brookmeyer asking Gowans how he ever came up with the idea for the “valide”, a combination valve-slide trombone of his invention. Brad answers it was just one of the crazy ideas he got when he was drunk, which was a lot of the time. This seems to satisfy Brookmeyer and they have a shot on it.

Bix Beiderbecke, Bobby Hackett and Don Fagerquist are deep in a discussion about tone production and playing melody. Passing by, Joe Wilder overhears them and immediately sits down to join in.

Off in another corner, there’s a piano and a set of drums; gradually a jam session starts up. Soon, Henry “Red” Allen, Roswell Rudd, Eric Dolphy, James P. Johnson and Billy Higgins are deep into “Honeysuckle Rose”, just smoking. A bunch of the other musicians gather round to listen and encourage.

Dolphy is soloing and Bud Freeman says, “Well, I’ll be damned, that alto player reminds me of Boyce Brown…” “Yeah, but with some Pee Wee notes in there”, answers Rod Cless. Pee Wee Russell is standing nearby and grins wanly, mumbling something unintelligible down toward his shoes.

“That trombonist sounds a little like Kid Ory and George Brunies, he’s really got some sound” says Jack Teagarden of Roswell Rudd. Buck Clayton is standing next to Tea and nods his head, answering “Yeah, and he plays those great, wild donkey sounds like Dickie Wells.”

George Wettling and Jo Jones are checking out Higgins at the drums and Wettling is raving about him. “Jesus, that kid has a great ride beat, there’s a lot of you in him, Jo!” Jones flashes one of his maniacal grins and says, “Razza brazza, Tommy Tucker”. Wettling cracks up at this and spits a sizable mouthful of gin all over Jo’s white shirt, to which Jo responds with “Orrin Tucker!!”  They both fall down laughing.

Red Allen is just tearing it up, playing a solo full of his buzzing, rocket-flare dissonances, and cavernous forays into the lower registers of the horn. Freddie Hubbard and Booker Little are standing in front of him, mouths agape. Hubbard says “Man, Red sounds so daring and modern!” Standing nearby, Coleman Hawkins and Pee Wee Russell answer in unison, “He always did.”

With no bass in the group, James P. is holding everything together with fantastic striding tenths from his left hand and romping chords from the right. The two Walter Juniors – Bishop and Davis – are standing on either side of Monk, listening. They turn to him and say “Monk, he comps just like you!” Monk harrumphs, muttering, “It’s the other way around, but ain’t I been tellin’ you so all these years?”

They build to a climactic out-chorus ensemble and end with a resounding bang, greeted with applause and cheers. Jimmy Garrison wanders over to unpack a bass, and Sid Catlett makes a move to sit in for Higgins, to which Smiling Billy defers, as Big Sid is towering over him. Monk taps James P. on the shoulder and Johnson grins, saying, “OK Monk, you can play one, but I’ll be back soon, I want a piece of Big Sid”. It appears Lester Young is going to sit in too. Or rather, lay in. He’s flat on his back in front of the drums with a bird bath-sized glass of Sauterne and gin beside him, holding his saxophone aloft and muttering, “Ivey divey ladies, ivey divey…”.

Suddenly, they’re into a medium-up “Just You, Just Me”, Pres playing the melody from the floor with a big butter sound, while the other horns weave quiet background lines behind him. Monk delivers jabbing dissonant cluster-chords and Big Sid is driving everything along with a stick on the hi-hat, the other one delivering popping rimshots on the snare.

Pres kicks off the soloing with one of his yodelling, one-note breaks, greeted by Roy and Diz screaming “YEEEEAAAAAAHHHHH!!” just as the rhythm section enters. Within five seconds, Garrison is soaked in sweat, beaming and locked in with Big Sid’s sizzling Chinese cymbal. Everyone in the room is transfixed by the seething energy of it and the guys in the band can’t take their eyes off Pres, still flat on his back, wailing. Eddie Condon pours a fifth of Scotch over his own head as Fats and James P. dance a two-step together around the bandstand.

And so this music of joy rolls into the night, steaming and shimmering, leaping and shouting, above all, swinging………forever.

At least, that’s how I like to think of jazz history, as a big, inclusive party…. The musicians facing forward, but occasionally looking back; not disconnected, but connected. The unity of diversity.

© 2014 – 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

3 thoughts on “Making Strides, Part 2 – James P.

  1. WWOWWW !!! You are the unquestioned successor to W.Balliett and
    then some. That is the most masterfull article on James P. ever written
    and a wonderful addition to his legacy. In feel strongly in part because
    he dated almost from my days and partly because I heard a lot of James
    P.When a certain member of my family was starting on the piano and was
    fascinated by his stuff and stride generally. He would love this masterpiece
    and must be on your list. As Duke and your others believe, James P is part
    of the very foundations.
    Also I remember the Norris sendoff and , of course great nights at Café Copains.
    Terry

  2. Wonderful piece of writing and research; thank you for publishing it here for all to enjoy. I’ve got to track down those Blue Note sessions. Side note: you wrote “…while the left hand played fairly complex, syncopated constructions and figures (as opposed to single-note lines)” — I think you meant to say the right hand (?). Also, “Duke Ellington on James P. Johnson, at a 1920s Harlem rent party.” I know you mean “Duke Ellington, discussing James P. Johnson at a 1920s Harlem rent party, but it reads like Ellington was quoted while attending said party. Keep up the great work. I also loved your piece on Carl Perkins.

  3. Thank you, Steve, for continuing in the tradition of keeping alive the memory of James P. I was one of those people who gave a presentation at Spike’s production of James P. Johnson’s Last Rent Party. I would add that Mosaic Records has put out the complete James P. Johnson Blue Note recordings, including the 8 piano solos from 1943. Mosaic has also recently put out a new 6 CD collection called Classic James P. Johnson Sessions. The biggest omission from these 2 collections would be the 30 or so that James P did over the years for Decca / Vocalion / Brunswick. Most of these have been re-issued on Chronogical ( sic ) Classics, as well as the now out of print , Decca CD, Snowy Morning Blues. Producer Dave Radlauer and I have done 3, one hour Johnson radio programs for his Jazz Rhythm series. They may be heard here http://jazzhotbigstep.com/58101.html . Finally, I have 2 facebook pages which ae quite arguably the best resources for James P. and Stride Piano on the internet. Swinging’ Piano https://www.facebook.com/groups/1451492985134955/ and Friends of James P., Fats & Current and Past Stride Piano Masters https://www.facebook.com/groups/115941758550793/

    You would be welcome to join.

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