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New Box Set Shows Off The Twisted Rhythms Of Jazz Pianist James P. Johnson


This is FRESH AIR. In New York around 1920, three pianists reigned - Willie The Lion Smith, Fats Waller and James P. Johnson. Johnson was considered the greatest of the three. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Johnson was a formidable piano soloist, supportive accompanist and writer of hit songs. A new boxed set shows off James P. Johnson's technique, drive, and versatility. Here's Kevin's review.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Eubie Blake, no slouch himself, once called James P. Johnson the greatest piano player I ever heard. Johnson mentored Fats Waller, and Duke Ellington and Art Tatum studied his style. Johnson was Bessie Smith's best accompanist, and among the few who could nudge George Gershwin off the piano bench at a party. The stride piano style Johnson epitomized grew out of ragtime, but his rhythms were a lot more twisted.


WHITEHEAD: When jazz started cropping up around the country in the 1910s, there were regional variations. Unlike New Orleans, New York was a music-publishing, theater and recording capital. That was James P. Johnson's world - one where pianists prided themselves on their correct technique and versatility, as well as improvising skills. He rarely led his own outfits, but in the '20s he was often recording studios with jazz bands, novelty groups, a couple of blues guitarists, and many singers now forgotten - but also Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith. Here's Smith on Johnson's melody "Lock And Key."


BESSIE SMITH: (Singing) I can see that you and me will have a terrible falling out. No one at the barbers' ball will know what it's all about. They'll hear a shot and see you duck, and when the smoke is cleared away, then the band will crawl from behind the stand, and then you'll hear me say, when I get home I'm going to change my lock and key. When you get home you'll find an awful change in me.

WHITEHEAD: Bessie sounds like she's strutting the stage on that introductory verse. James P. Johnson was a working songwriter. He wrote the dance hit "Charleston" for the Broadway show "Runnin' Wild." Johnson learned early that playing piano for shows was a good way to get his tunes in and get them heard and published. Mosaic Records' six-CD box, "Classic James P. Johnson Sessions, 1921 To 1943," includes a couple of dozen piano solos and a bunch of hot small groups. But it also opens a window on old New York show business with a bunch of songs aimed for the stage. This 1927 dance craze wannabe is by Johnson and Perry Bradford, who sings it. Check out that insane part for Ellington trumpeter, Louis Metcalf.


PERRY BRADFORD: (Singing) Skiddle de, skiddle de, skiddle de scow (ph). Skiddle de, skiddle de, skiddle de scow (ph). Hands on your hips, go way down, come right up and mess around. Then you're going to shoot the stars, load that gun and gaze at Mars. Clap your hands. Then you'll break a leg, oh boy. Do that strut and step. (Unintelligible) 'cause black bottom was a wow, put it in that skiddle de scow (ph). Oh skiddle de scow...

WHITEHEAD: So they weren't all hits, but theater music was much on James P. Johnson's mind. Pianists still use his tricky tune "You've Got To Be Modernistic" as a test piece. But even that finger buster was conceived as a show tune.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) When you start to be modernistic, don't be getting too futuristic. Just keep it up realistic, 'cause it's the one and the only rhythm. If you want to be modernistic, why, you've got to be optimistic. Then you're sure to be characteristic - modernistic, that's all.

WHITEHEAD: At the piano on theater songs, Johnson supports the singers and the material. He's a team player. James P. wasn't the natural entertainer his protege Fats Waller was, and he struggled when the Great Depression hammered the music business. But in the late 1930s, Johnson got a fresh start as pianist on traditional jazz dates. He still had the old up-tempo drive, but his concept was more modernistic. He let in more space on slow tunes and let dissonances hang in the air, pointing the way for Thelonious Monk, another fan. Here's Johnson with trumpeter Frankie Newton in 1939.


WHITEHEAD: James P. Johnson composed concert works too, like his blue rhapsody "Yamacraw." You can find a short film version online. His classical pieces are about the only aspect of James P Johnson's work that Mosaic's new survey doesn't touch on. The box is a crash course in his music, with excellent notes by Johnson scholar and biographer Scott Brown. "Classic James P. Johnson Sessions" paints a portrait of a working virtuoso in all his artistic and commercial glory.


GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and Tone Audio and is the author of "Why Jazz." He reviewed the boxed set "Classic James P. Johnson Sessions: 1921 to 1943" on the Mosaic label. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Zach Galifianakis, the star of the new FX comedy series "Baskets," which he cocreated with Louis CK. Galifianakis costarred in the "Hangover" movies and "Birdman." Also, the writing, directing and producing duo Jay and Mark Duplass will talk about their HBO series, "Togetherness." Season two starts this month. Mark costars in "Togetherness." Jay costers in "Transparent." I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.
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