JAMES P. JOHNSON / Early Harlem Piano (VOLUME 2)
Eight selections never previously issued on records – transcribed from piano rolls
Jazz Archives #1000(10”)
1. Carolina Shout (3:17) (James P. Johnson)
2. Back Water Blues (3:29) (Bessie Smith)
3. Daintiness Rag (2:07) (James P. Johnson)
4. Caprice Rag (1:50) (James P. Johnson)
5. Baltimore Buzz (2:31) (Sissle Blake)
6. Gypsy Blues (3:17) (Sissle Blake)
7. Don't Tell Your Monkey Man (3:12) (Lukie Johnson)
8. Railroad Man (3:16) (Schoebel – Erdman – Meyers)
This is the second Riverside collection of "rediscovered" piano solos by JAMES P. JOHNSON - performances that date back thirty years or more, but that are now appearing on records for the first time. These numbers were originally made as piano rolls, and while many of Johnson's rolls were best-sellers in their day, at the very least it's safe to say that there's a whole generation (or more) of listeners who have never before been able to hear these. A few of the sixteen tunes on these two LPs* also turn up, in different versions, on other recordings by James P., but in most cases this marks his only setting down of these remarkable samples of the Harlem style he has always played so well.
Jimmy Johnson has long been a strangely under-rated musician. As the notes to the first volume of his piano rolls pointed out, there is such a thing as being so good that everyone takes you for granted. He has probably never played a superficial or tasteless note in all of his long career. He is a pianist who ahs fitted in with a remarkable variety of jazzmen and jazz styles, a composer who was turning out hit show tunes in the earliest 1920's, and a teacher and influence of great importance (you need only say that Fats Waller was his protege to prove this point). Jimmy Johnson has been all this, and yet he has never really been rated among the headliners - at least not by the public at large - which only seems to show that a great many people need a strong lesson in comparative values. Perhaps these LPs, by presenting these great solos from the tumultuous early days of his long career, can provide such a lesson.
This is not to say that Johnson has lacked for recognition and respect. An impressive roster of jazz artists have indicated their appreciation of his talents. Particularly in the early and middle 1920s, in the hey-day of the spirited and hard-pounding "rent party" school of piano-playing, Jimmy Johnson was the acknowledged master. His vigorously striding, joyous style set the pace at the all-night doings that took place as often as possible in just about every Harlem apartment that owned a battered upright and could provide drinks for a passing piano player (and that obviously included a lot of apartments). Those piano men were a talented and lusty crew; they spent a lot of time with each other, absorbing much from each other's styles and sharpening their skills through the competition of a hundred "cutting contests," Luckey Roberts, Willie the Lion Smith, youngsters like Fats Waller and Duke Ellington - an impressive collection, and some mighty left hands, but James P. was definitely established as the "king," the one whose concepts and performance the others must match. He was one of Bessie Smith's favorite accompanists, and in later years he went on play with musicians of just about every style from Dixieland through jam-session Swing. Illness has kept him comparatively inactive in the past few years, but as long as records such as those on this LP are still around to be heard, James P. will still be making vital contributions to traditional jazz.
The eight tunes included here belong largely to the '20s, the period of Johnson's greatest success. Most of them were "QRS" piano rolls (the initials stand for "Quality Reigns Supreme," and they were surely never more aptly used). With the passage of time, of course, and the almost total replacement of the player piano by such modern devices as the phonograph and the radio, piano rolls such as these just about disappeared from the scene, totally neglected, eventually forgotten by just about everyone. Riverside Records is now engaged in a program of "resurrecting" as large a portion as is possible of this great treasure-chest of early piano roll music. On other Riverside LPs can be heard the music of Scott Joplin and other fabulous ragtimers, (RAGTIME PIANO ROLL, Volumes 1, 2 and 3 - RLPs 1006, 1025, 1049); and long 'lost' selections by two jazz immortals: Rediscovered FATS WALLER SOLOS (RLP 1010) and Rediscovered JELLY ROLL MORTON SOLOS ((RLP 1018).
As both James P. Johnson collections testify, his piano rolls are among the most important of these 'discoveries.' It is clear from these early selections that he has always been a man who could make a piano do just about anything he wanted it to. The material included here covers a wide range of moods and perhaps a decade in time. The earliest are the two rags: Caprice was written in 1916, when he was twenty-two; Daintiness about a year later. (Information on these piano rolls doesn't permit definite conclusions at to when they were actually made, but indications are that these are quite certainly among Johnson's first rolls, predating his early - '20s association with QRS.) These surely indicate the importance of the ragtime tradition as a continuing influence on his style. Born in Brunswick, New Jersey, and quickly a part of the New York musical world, Johnson began playing in the hey-day of ragtime and Scott Joplin. But there is, of course, a difference between what he plays here and traditional ragtime, perhaps best expressed by saying that in structure and the precise bass played by the left hand, it is ragtime, while in all other respects - including the spirit and the characteristic "strides" with the right hand - it is "Harlem piano." The same holds true for Carolina Shout, a slightly later composition, although by then ragtime was a less dominant influence.
Other elements in James P.'s style are strongly present throughout - a substantial feeling for the blues, a touch of the brittle gaudiness of Broadway, a great deal of the rollicking spirit of the crowd that gathered around the party piano. Gypsy Blues and Baltimore Buzz, for example, are from the 1921 hit show, "Shuffle Along," written by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle who, like Johnson, helped bring jazz-tinged compositions to the attention of the Broadway public. Back Water Blues is, of course, the Bessie Smith classic, recorded by her with James P. as accompanist. (This is, admittedly, an uncertain Johnson item: the roll does not show his name - a not-uncommon omission - but aural evidence is strongly in support of the belief that Jimmy is the pianist here.)
A note on the original piano rolls. Daintiness Rag and Caprice Rag were both made for the obscure Metro-Art label, bearing the respective numbers 203106 and 203176 - probably made shortly after 1920. Back Water Blues is Imperial 06522, made in June, 1927. The others are all QRS rolls, with the following numbers and dates: Monkey Man (1338), April 1921; Carolina Shout (100999), May 1921; Gypsy Blues (1674), Sept. 1921; Baltimore Buzz (1738), Nov. 1921; Railroad Man (2392), July, 1923.
This material is issued by special arrangement with Imperial Industrial Company, manufactures of QRS piano rolls.
James P. Johnson: Early Harlem Piano (RLP-101), the companion volume to this album, contains: Charleston – I’ve Got My Habits On – Harlem Strut – Vampin’ Liza – Harlem Chocolate Babies on Parade – Make Me a Pallet on the Floor – Loveless Love – It Takes Love on Cure the Heat’s Disease
Produced by Bill Grauer
Notes by Orrin Keepnews
Cover by Robert J. Lee
RIVERSIDE RECORDS are released by BILL GRAUER PRODUCTIONS
418 West 49th Street New York 19, N.Y.