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Harlem Party Piano

Jazz Archives #1000(10”) 


Piano solos, recorded in New York; Johnson on June 5, 1947; Roberts on May 21, 1946

Side 1

James P. Johnson

  1. Mama and Papa Blues (2:50) (Johnson)

  2. Aincha Got Music (3:28) (Johnson)

  3. Old Fashioned Love (2:44) (Johnson)

  4. I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby (3:06) (Fats Waller)

Side 2

Luckey Roberts

  1. Railroad Blues (2:39) (Roberts)

  2. Ripples of the Nile (2:48) (Roberts)

  3. Pork and Beans (2:29) (Roberts)

  4. Shy and Sly (2:55) (Roberts)

   Back in the 1920s, any Harlem |rent party” that could count on the services of either James P. Johnson or Luckey Roberts - let alone both in the same night – could be considered fortunate indeed. Several things would be assured; a good crowd on hand; a good deal of satisfying, leaping jazz produced; and a very thorough work-out for the piano.

   These two men were, quite deservedly, among the most notable names of a period that abounded in fine piano men. They were familiar figures in the night clubs of the area during the late 1910s and the ‘20s, but they are most closely associated with that peculiar institution that flourished in Harlem (and on Chicago’s South side, and in the Negro districts of such other jazz conscious towns as St. Louis and Detroit, as well); the rent party. As the term indicated, the supposed original purpose of such gatherings was for the host’s friends and for the privilege of hearing whatever musicians could be induced to work out on the piano. Harlem piano players such as Johnson, Roberts and their colleagues needed little inducement; generally, free drinks and the chance to compete with each other in endless “cutting contests” could keep them at it most of the night. As a result, such parties developed into a regular sideline for many apartment-dwellers whose furnishings included a piano in a reasonable state of repair, whether or not they were specifically in need of rent money.

   The mid ‘40s, when these particular recordings were made, were of course long after the hey-day of this kind of activity and of the showy, freewheeling music that prevailed at such parties. But neither of these kings of the rent party era would seem to have lost any of his skill, or any of the enthusiasm that is so vital a part of this form of jazz. And the music itself, as heard now in the 1950s, remains exciting and compelling, with an appeal that is not at all outdated.

   Probably, the most important reason for the death-lessness of this material is the talent of these two performers. The two men, it should be noted, have strikingly similar backgrounds and abilities … and there’s even something of a physical resemblance. Roberts, being the older, was a celebrity in the Harlem musical world somewhat sooner; but James P. quickly overcame that advantage and eventually turned out to have more staying power and musical adaptability. Johnson has been described as a “pupil” of Roberts, but it’s doubtful that this should be interpreted in a strict lesson-ranking sense of the world. What is more likely is a master-protégé relationship; the already established performer offering the relative newcomer guidance and advice, teaching him some of the tricks of the trade, and helping him over the early rough spots in his career. Johnson himself did much the same a few years later, in the early ‘20s, for a younger pianist named Tom Waller, becoming his friend and guide during his formative ears and helping him to work his way into the professional in group.

   Both, Roberts and James P. began as, basically, ragtime pianists, but both added to that popular style of their day liberal doses of the blues, and more than a touch of the flash and brashness of Broadway – for both were successful composers of musical comedy scores. This combination of influences produced a form of virtuoso show-piece known as a “shout:” piano jazz ideally suited to the technical skills that Roberts and Johnson possessed, and equally well-suited to commanding attention through the standard uproad of a rent party.

   James P.’s four selections here exhibit the typical ringing sound and rolling chords of his ‘stride piano’ style. The first three selections are his own compositions; a slow blues; Aincha Got Music – a constantly changing piece that moves from a moody opening into a driving yet light stomp and finally slowing down again; then yet another version of his classic Old Fashioned Love. The fourth tune, played very much in the style of its composer, Fats Waller, indicates just how similar the musical approaches of these two close friends could be. Of these four, three are preciously entirely unreleased selections, while Aincha Got Music has been issued only in Europe.

   Luckey Rovers (the first name, incidentally, is not a nickname, but merely a contraction of his full given name: Kuckeythe) performs four of his own compositions, all of which display, in varying tempos, his resounding full-chord trills, and his ability to achieve intricate effects without keeping the music from being highly melodic. The most famous of these pieces is Ripples of the Niles – although it did not achieve fame under this title or in this tempo. The story goes that no one other than the composer could ever master these incredibly difficult right-hand figurations; so he slowed it down and turned it into a tune that Glenn Miller recorded and made one of the big hits of 1942: Moonlight Cocktail. The four selections have been issued, in 78 rpm form, on the Circle label.

   James P. Johnson can be heard on three other Riverside LPs, the first two of which are collections transcribed from early piano rolls:

JAMES P. JOHNSON: Early Harlem Piano (RLP-1011)

JAMES P. JOHNSON: Volume 2 (RLP-1046)

YANK LAWSON’s Dixieland Jazz – featuring Pee Wee Russell, Eddie Condon, James P. Johnson (RLP-2590)

   Several other albums in the Riverside Jazz Archives Series feature the work of outstanding jazz and ragtime pianists, including:

RAGTIME PIANO ROLL, Vols, 1, 2 and 3 (RLPs 1006, 1025, 1049)

THE AMAZING MR. WALLER, Vols, 1 and 2 (RLPs 1021, 1022)

Rediscovered FATS WALLER Solos (RLP-1010)

Rediscovered JELLY ROLL MORTON Solos (RLP-1018)

JELLY ROLL MORTON: Classic Jazz Piano, Vols, 1 and 2 (RLP-1038, 1041)

JIMMY YANCEY: a lost recording date (RLP-1028)

CRIPPLE CLARENCE LOFTON: a lost recording date (RLP-1037)

Jumpin’ with PETE JOHNSON (RLP-1054)

WILL EZELL’s Ginmill Jazz: piano rags and blues (RLP-1043)

JIMMY BLYTHE: South Side Blues Piano (RLP-1031)

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Tape editing by J. Roberts Mantler

Notes by Orrin Keepnews

Cover by Gene Gogerty


418 West 49th Street New York 19, N.Y.

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