James P. Johnson was one of the great jazz-musical-classical
composers of 1920s America; he was eclipsed only by George Gershwin.
It was a Johnson-made Broadway show that created the decade’s
signature tune and dance: the Charleston. Johnson was a pioneer
of stride piano jazz, wrote the song “If I Could Be With You
(One Hour Tonight)” - preserved in the soundtrack to Casablanca
- and, according to this disc’s liner notes, made “the first
recorded jazz piano solo.” Fats Waller and Duke Ellington studied
with him. All this success is made even more remarkable by the
fact that James P. Johnson was black.
A leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance, Johnson pursued
classical musical forms in a parallel course, even writing a
short opera with Langston Hughes. In the early 1930s, his career
plummeted, partly because of the arrival of the Depression,
partly because of a retreat to the suburbs to study classical
technique more seriously, and partly because in performance
he was being overshadowed by a fresh arrival from Toledo, Art
Tatum, very possibly the best jazz pianist of all time. Johnson’s
star has been dim ever since, everyone loving the Charleston
without knowing who wrote it, and this 1994 MusicMasters album,
reissued now on Nimbus, is a brave attempt to right that wrong.
Here we have all sides of James P. Johnson. The Victory Stride
is a big band number from 1944 with solo licks for trumpet,
trombone, and clarinet; the Harlem Symphony and piano concerto
are two of his most determined efforts to fuse jazz and classical
styles; Drums is a total blast of a symphonic poem with great
percussive abandon; the Charleston is here too. The good fortune
here is that very little of the music feels second-rate or uninspired,
and although the tunes and structure might not be on the American
in Paris level, this is all delicious stuff.
The Harlem Symphony is a pretty substantial work, 22
minutes long, and I find the second two movements much more
successful than the first two. The scherzo is a ‘Night Club’
scene where Johnson really abandons his inhibitions and lets
the jazz out in full force. ‘Baptist Mission’ is almost exactly
the opposite: a set of variations on a hymn tune into which
syncopation and swing gradually seep.
The Piano Concerto, titled “Jazz A Mine,” is quite wonderful,
which it makes it all the sadder that the third movement has
not survived - the notes tell us. Leslie Stifelman has a grand
time with the first-movement piano part, with its extensive
ornamentation and several quasi-cadenzas; once the big jazz
tune emerges at 1:15 we know we’re in good compositional and
pianistic hands. This is an episodic piece to be sure, but the
opening movement is splashy and full of good moments - including
a brilliantly-done muted trombone line beginning at 3:20 and
an ending cadenza that’s effectively a new solo stride number
- and the slow movement’s eight minutes are absolutely gorgeous,
with a beautiful melody at its heart well-rendered by Stifelman.
This piece definitely belongs on the jazz piano concerto shortlist
with Gershwin’s in F, Ravel’s in G, Szpilman’s Concertino,
and Suesse’s Concerto in Three Rhythms.
The bluesy Lament doesn’t feel too much like a lament,
not in the classical sense (it’s no Barber adagio): it’s a very
free indeed adaptation of W.C. Handy’s legendary “St. Louis
Blues.” One gets the impression that Johnson improvises this
riff with the entire orchestra, the way he previously had improvised
with the piano - which does make some solo appearances.
Two splashy orchestral bits round out the disc: the nine-minute-long
Drums, which wastes no time living up to its billing
- the beginning is a huge timpani solo - as a very spicy evocation
of Afro-Caribbean drumming moods. The number of great tunes
is simply unfair, and the Concordia percussion section really
delivers every bit of vigor it has. And, finally, we’ve got
the Charleston. The opening trumpet solo, maybe the tenderest
moment on the whole CD, steals the show, and then lightning-fast
tap dancer Frederick Boothe does his best to steal it back,
intelligently set against a light accompaniment (banjo, drums,
bass) so as not to be drowned out by the orchestra.
The Concordia Orchestra, of Concordia College, Minnesota, is
certainly very much in the jazz spirit, even if the string section
doesn’t have a particularly full or energized sound and if some
of the wind players are a bit tentative too - the good brass
players, understandably in this music, heavily favored by the
recording, and the clarinetist in Charleston has some great
moments. Marin Alsop is the conductor, and as sympathetic to
the idiom as we would expect from her.
If you’d like to have a bit of jazzy fun in the Harlem Renaissance,
this will be a budget-price treat, and there’s not likely to
be another recording of this music anytime soon.
See also reviews by Tony
Augarde and Rob