James P. Johnson (born James Price Johnson, also known as Jimmy Johnson; 1 February 1894 – 17 November 1955) was an American pianist and composer.
One of the great jazz pianists of all time, Johnson was the king of stride pianists in the 1920s and one of the most important pianists – along with Jelly Roll Morton – to bridge the ragtime and jazz eras. As such, he was a model for Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum and Fats Waller.
He also composed many hit tunes – including the theme song of the Roaring Twenties, ‘The Charleston’, and ‘If I Could be With You One Hour Tonight’ – and a dozen musical scores.
Johnson was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey and grew up in New York. With perfect pitch and excellent recall, he was soon able to pick out the piano tunes that he heard around him.
He started playing in New York clubs as early as 1913 and began making piano roll recordings in 1917. Duke Ellington learned from these by slowing them down to half-speed, and a few years later, Johnson became Fats Waller’s teacher and inspiration. Johnson made dozens of piano rolls from 1917 to 1927. It was during this period that he met George Gershwin, whose ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ inspired Johnson to compose ‘Yamekraw: A Negro Rhapsody’.
Johnson’s recordings of his own compositions, ‘Harlem Strut’, ‘Keep Off the Grass’ and ‘Carolina Shout’, were among the first jazz piano solos to be put onto record. He wrote some of his most famous compositions during this period and for the 1923 Broadway show Running Wild, he composed ‘The Charleston’ and ‘Old Fashioned Love’. Johnson was also an expert accompanist for blues singers and he starred on several memorable Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters recordings.
In the depression era, Johnson’s career slowed down. He had a hard time adapting his music to the swing era and instead concentrated on writing for musical revues and composed many orchestral music pieces, such as ‘Harlem Symphony’, ‘Symphony in Brown’ and a blues opera. Unfortunately much of this music has been lost.
With a revival of traditional jazz in the late 1930s, Johnson began to record again, with his own and other groups, and appeared at the Spirituals to Swing concerts at Carnegie Hall in 1938 and 1939.
In 1940, Johnson suffered a stroke, which put him out of action for a couple of years. When he returned in 1942, he began a heavy schedule of performing, composing and recording, leading several small groups, often with racially integrated bands led by musicians such as Eddie Condon, Sidney de Paris, Sidney Bechet and Edmond Hall.
In the late 1940s, Johnson had a variety of jobs, including jam sessions at Stuyvesant Casino and Central Plaza, and on Rudi Blesh’s radio show. He suffered another, paralysing, stroke in 1951, forcing him to retire from performing. He died four years later.
In this audio recording from 1944, Johnson performs the fourth and final part of his Negro rhapsody, ‘Yamacraw’. This work was his attempt to create something a little more ‘serious’ and classical in structure, within the stride idiom.