Only a few pop tunes in the twentieth century have launched a dance craze as wild as “The Charleston,” a tune that still evokes images of Jazz Age flappers and Charlie Chaplin silent movies, bathtub gin and The Great Gatsby. The gentle genius who wrote “The Charleston”—James P. Johnson—remains all but invisible today and is rarely remembered by anyone except a handful of musicians. “The Charleston” was Johnson’s big hit, but he wrote many far more ambitious compositions.
Joining The Jim Cullum Jazz Band to pay tribute to this almost-forgotten legend are piano master Dick Hyman and William Warfield, a star of theater and film. Dick Hyman first met and performed with James P. in Greenwich Village in the 1950s; Hyman went on to study and perform Johnson’s work for decades. William Warfield recreates the atmosphere of 1920s New York in his portrayal of James P. Johnson, using Johnson’s own words, excerpted from an interview by Tom Davin titled, “This is Our Story of The Father of Harlem Stride Piano, and first published in Jazz Review magazine.”
James P. Johnson is the musical genius most often credited with originating the uniquely East Coast style of piano playing known as “Stride.” In his lifetime, Johnson composed and recorded jazz tunes, show music, movie scores and major symphonic works. Johnson was the first black artist to breakthrough the color barrier and cut his own piano rolls for a major label. The great singer Ethel Waters said of him, “All the licks you hear now originated with James P. Johnson—and I mean all the hot licks that ever came out of Fats Waller and the rest of the hot piano boys; they’re all faithful followers and protégées of that great man, Jimmy Johnson.”
Before World War I, in the first decade of the century, a piano could be found in almost every home in America. At the time, it was as common to own a piano, as it is to have a television set or Internet access, today. Most people couldn’t imagine living without one. Newspaper ads pitched pianos with the hard sell, “What is a home without a piano?” A good piano player was always popular; after all not everyone who owned a piano could play it well.
James Price Johnson was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1894. He grew up to be an unassuming man with a gentle disposition. He had perfect pitch and a powerful left hand; he was a quick learner at the piano and he practiced hard. Johnson said he would spend hours playing piano in a dark room to become completely familiar with the keyboard. He would sometimes put a bed sheet over the keyboard and force himself to play difficult pieces through the covering in order to develop his sense of touch. Some of these tales may be apocryphal, but Johnson’s originality and virtuosity stand out over a century later.
James P. Johnson recalled his early life:
“When we lived in Jersey City I was impressed by my older brother’s friends. They were real ‘ticklers,’ cabaret and ‘sportin’ house’ players. They were my heroes. They led what I thought was a glamorous life; they were welcome everywhere because of their talent. If you could play piano, you went from one house to another. Everybody made a fuss about you. They fed you ice cream and cake, all sorts of food and drinks. In fact some of the biggest men in the profession were known as the biggest eaters. At an all-night party you started eating at 1:00 AM, had another meal at 4:00 AM, and sat down to eat again at 6:00 AM. Many of us suffered later because of the eating and drinking habits started in our younger socializing days. But that was the life for me when I was seventeen.
“When a real smart ‘tickler’ would enter a place, say in winter, he’d leave his overcoat on and keep his hat on, too. We used to wear military overcoats, or a coat like a coachman’s—blue double-breasted fitted to the waist and with long skirts. We’d wear a light pearl-grey Hamburg hat set at a rakish angle, then a white silk muffler and a white silk handkerchief. Some carried a gold-headed cane. Players would start off sitting down, waiting for the audience to quiet down, then they’d do a run up and down the piano of scales and arpeggios, or if they were real good they might play a set of modulations, very off-hand as if there was nothing to it. Some ‘ticklers’ would sit sideways at the piano, cross their legs and go on chatting with friends nearby. It took a lot of practice to play this way. Then without stopping the smart talk or turning back to the piano, he’d attack without warning, smashing right into the regular beat of the piece. That would knock them dead.”
“We moved from Jersey City to New York in 1908 when I was 14 and still going to school in short pants. We lived on 99th Street in Manhattan, and I used to go to a cellar run by a fellow named Souser. He was a real juice hound. They had a four or five-piece band there, but after 2:00 AM they pulled the piano out to the middle of the floor and Souser would play terrific rags. Times he’d let me play, and I hit the piano until 4:00 AM. I kept my schoolbooks in the coal bin there, and I went to school after a little sleep.
“In the same year, I was taken to Baron Wilkins’ place in Harlem. Another boy and I let the legs of our short pants down to look grown-up and we sneaked in. Who was playing there but Jelly Roll Morton! He had just arrived from the West and he was red-hot. The place was on fire. We heard him play ‘Jelly Roll Blues.’ I remember he wore a light brown Melton overcoat with a three-hole hat to match it. He had two girls with him.
“In Jersey City I heard good piano from all parts of the South and West, but I heard real ragtime when we came to New York. Most East Coast playing was based on Cotillion dance tunes, stomps, drags and ‘set-dances.’ They were all country dance tunes, like my ‘Carolina Shout.’”
“In New York, a friend taught me real ragtime. His name was Charley Cherry. We played Joplin, then I copied him, then he corrected me. When I went to Public School #69 I was allowed to play for the assembly and for the minstrel shows put on there. In New York, I got to hear a lot of good music for the first time. Victor Herbert and Rudolph Friml were popular, and I used to go to the old New York Symphony concerts. A friend of my brother who was a waiter used to get theater tickets from its conductor (Josef Stransky) who came to the restaurant where he worked. That was when I first heard Mozart, Wagner, Beethoven and Puccini. The full symphonic sounds made a big impression on me.
“The other sections of the country never developed the piano as far as the New York boys did. The people in New York were used to hearing good piano played in concerts and cafes. The ragtime player had to live up to that standard. They had to get orchestral effects, sound harmonies, and all the techniques of European concert pianists who were playing their music all over the city. New York ‘ticklers’ developed the orchestral piano—full, round, big, widespread chords in tenths, a heavy bass moving against the right hand. The other boys from the South and the West played in smaller dimensions like thirds played in unison. We wouldn’t dare do that, because in New York the public was used to better playing.”
By 1912 Johnson was making a living playing piano for rent parties and cabarets in a tough neighborhood in Manhattan where Lincoln Center is today. Johnson soon rose to prominence in the highly competitive world of New York piano players, who were inventing a new form that came to be known as “stride piano.” This solo piano style combined the strong left hand of Boogie-Woogie with the lyrical right-hand arpeggios of ragtime.
Johnson was well established in the relatively small world of Harlem Stride Piano by the 1920s, when he took a talented teenager by the name of Fats Waller under his wing, gave him piano lessons and a home away from home. Fats Waller’s bubbling show-biz personality captured the imagination of the nation, and he soon became swept up in the bright light of fame and fortune. A deep bond of affection remained between the two giants of stride piano until Waller’s death at an early age. Johnson’s influence can be readily heard in the Waller tune “Smashing Thirds,“ performed here by Dick Hyman and The Jim Cullum Jazz Band.
In the 1920s Johnson accompanied top stars like Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters. He toured Europe with the Plantation Revue, and in 1923 composed the score for a hit Broadway show, Runnin’ Wild. Two hit tunes came out of this show: The title tune, “Runnin’ Wild,” is often widely played by jazz and string bands today, and “The Charleston.” Johnson recalled first seeing the Charleston danced at a dive called the Jungles Casino in New York in 1913. Johnson recalls:
“The Jungles was just a cellar without fixings. The people who came…were mostly from Charleston, South Carolina. Most of them worked…as longshoremen or on the ships. They danced hollering and screaming until they were cooked. They kept up all night or until their shoes wore off, most of them after a heavy day’s work on the docks. The Charleston was a regulation cotillion step without a name. While I was playing for these Southern dancers I composed a number of “Charlestons”—eight in all, all with that damn rhythm. One of these later became my famous “Charleston” on Broadway.
Willie “The Lion” Smith was one of the formidable stride piano players James P. Johnson faced in the hot competition of “cutting contests” at Harlem clubs and parlors in the 1920s. Johnson said “The Lion” earned his nickname fighting on European battlefields in World War I. But “The Lion” claimed it was James P. Johnson who gave him the moniker. To prove the point, “The Lion” took to calling James P., “The Brute.” In turn, Smith and Johnson joined forces to come up with a nickname for their young protégé Fats Waller; they called him “Filthy.” “Fingerbuster“ is an aptly named virtuoso piece by “The Lion,” which he undoubtedly used at “cutting contests” to establish his dominance. Here, Dick Hyman takes it at its intended prestissimo tempo.
In 1917 James P. Johnson cut the first in a series of historic piano rolls for the Aeolian and QRS Music Roll companies. Three years later in 1920, Johnson met George Gershwin while both artists were making piano rolls at a hundred dollars a session. These two great figures of American music came from vastly different backgrounds—separated by enormous racial barriers, but they shared a mutual ambition to write “serious” music on large American themes. Both continued to study classical music while playing and composing jazz and popular tunes. Gershwin was a great admirer of Johnson, and the rest of the Harlem piano men, and Gershwin frequently crossed the race barrier to hear them play. George Gershwin acknowledged his high esteem for Johnson and the enormous influence Johnson’s work had on his own by including the “Charleston” theme in his Concerto in F.
In 1928, four years after Gershwin presented his first serious work Rhapsody in Blue, Johnson debuted his first symphonic work in concert at Carnegie Hall with Fats Waller at the piano. Yamekraw, a Negro Rhapsody is dedicated to a black community near Savannah, Georgia called Yamekraw. You can hear strains of down-home blues, stomps, church meetings and spirituals in this ambitious work. Our show features a rare recording of the piece, performed by the composer himself, followed by the band’s original arrangement for The Jim Cullum Jazz band and Dick Hyman.
More about the music on this show:
“A-flat Dream“ dates from 1939, and is performed here as a Dick Hyman/John Sheridan duet. The tune starts off with a boogie-woogie bass line in the first section, and switches to a more typically Johnsonesque texture.
“Ain’tcha Got Music?” and “You’ve Got to Be Modernistic” are both examples of what Johnson refers to as a broad “orchestral” style of stride piano, heard here filled out in arrangements created by John Sheridan for Dick Hyman and The Jim Cullum Jazz Band. A further example of the “orchestral style is “Caprice Rag,“ performed as a two-piano Hyman/Sheridan duet here. Johnson’s “Snowy Morning Blues“ is given a meditative solo reading by Dick Hyman, evoking a feeling true to its title.
Photo credit for homepage image: James P. Johnson, public domain.
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick ©1997