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James P. Johnson

Back during the heyday of ragtime piano (pre-1920), James P. had become a part of the famed "Harlem music scene," and was contributing to the distinctive Harlem piano style that differed melodically and harmonically from classic ragtime. Conventional ragtime had syncopation but lacked polyrhythm. James P. developed a strong and solid walking bass with his left hand and a rhythmic exciting treble with his right. His music flowed at an even tempo with considerable syncopation between the two hands. He superimposed conflicting rhythms in solos of symmetrical beauty.

James Price Johnson was born in New Brunswick, N.J., in 1894. His mother taught him rags, blues, and stomps as soon as he was able to handles the keys on the parlor upright. When Jimmy reached 9 years of age, he started lessons with Bruto Giannini, a strict musician from the old country, who corrected his fingering but didn't interfere with his playing of rags and stomps.

The Johnson family moved into New York City when Jimmy was 12, and early in his teens he became the "piano kid" at Barron Wilkin's Cabaret in Harlem. It was at Barron's that he met Charles L. (Lucky) Roberts from whom he derived his brilliant right hand. Later his solid bass was inspired by the work of Abba Labba, a "professor" in a bordello. Through the years James P. kept up his studying, and in the 1930s he began the study of orchestral writing for concert groups.

James P., Lucky Roberts, Willie (The Lion) Smith, and the Beetle (Stephen Henderson), were familiar figures around "The Jungle" (on the fringe of San Juan Hill in the west 60s when this older Negro district was thriving before 1920.) They followed in the footsteps of Jack The Bear, Jess Pickett, The Shadow, Fats Harris, and Abba Labba.

Here and in the later uptown Harlem, the house rent parties flourished and the boys who could tinkle the ivories were fair haired. Willie The Lion recalled those days for Rudi Blesh as follows: "A hundred people would crowd into one seven-room flat until the walls bulged. Plenty of food with hot maws (pickled pig bladders) and chitt'lins with vinegar, beer, and gin, and when we played the shouts everybody danced." Long nights of playing piano at such festivities gave James P. plenty of practice at the keyboard.

There were two younger jazz pianists who followed Jimmy Johnson around during these Harlem nights. One was young Duke Ellington, fresh from Washington, and the other was James P.'s most noted pupil, the late Fats Waller. The latter cherished the backroom sessions with James P., Beetle, and The Lion.

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Drew Nugent
New Orleans High Society
band / orchestra


Album Discography

Recordings: As Leader | As Sideperson

The Original James P....

Smithsonian Folkways Recordings


King of Stride Piano ...

Giants of Jazz



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