James P. Johnson: Biography & Music

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

In this lesson, learn about the career and music of James P. Johnson, a New Jersey native who played a mean piano. He originated a style of jazz called stride and wrote compositions in several musical genres.

James P. Johnson: The Early Years

Legendary jazz pianist and composer James P. Johnson (1894-1955) was born in New Jersey to parents of modest means. But his mother sang in a Methodist church choir and made sure her son was exposed to music. As a boy, Johnson began playing piano and learned quickly. He later studied ragtime and classical music and would stay up all hours of the night practicing and playing.

His family moved to New York City in 1908. By 1910, Johnson was playing in the dance halls, saloons, and brothels in Manhattan near Hell's Kitchen. A summer job playing at a resort near Coney Island convinced him to pursue music rather than return to school. He became enamored with the role and style of the "ticklers," expert piano players who had a sense for fashion and were rumored to woo the women as well as tickle the ivory keys. They were sought out by many nightclubs, bars and brothels to entertain clients.

Development of Stride

Johnson became known as one of the best piano players in the city. His skill made him popular, and he played in a way people hadn't heard before. Johnson took ragtime, a music that was written down and included elements like quick right-hand arpeggios (notes of a chord played in succession up or down), and merged it with a flair for improvisation (playing spontaneously without written music), which became a hallmark of jazz.

His style of piano playing became known as stride, and it was popular on the East Coast, particularly in Harlem. Johnson's left hand played a strong bass line of rhythm that provided constant movement (hence the name stride) while his right played a melody that moved and flourished above the moving bass. Johnson had such skill that he could improvise many variations, sometimes at high speed.

James P. Johnson, 1921
James P. Johnson

Johnson's skills were celebrated and in demand. From 1915 until 1920, he made hundreds of piano rolls (prerecorded music for player pianos) in the days before phonographs became common. He also served as an accompanist for singers like Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters.

Popular Songs and Symphonic Works

In addition to improvising, Johnson also composed music. His 1921 recording of "Carolina Shout" was one of his first hits and one of the first jazz piano solos ever to be recorded. In 1923, he composed the score for a musical Runnin' Wild. Out of it came the song for which he's best known: "Charleston." It became one of the biggest dance crazes of the Roaring Twenties. He also wrote other popular tunes including "Snowy Morning Blues" and "Keep Off the Grass." In 1928, he wrote the musical Keep Shufflin' with former student Fats Waller, who would go on to his own acclaim.

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