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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.

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