JAMES P. JOHNSON: EARLY HARLEM PIANO
Jazz Archives #1000(10”)
Eight selections never previously issued on records, Transcribed from piano rolls
1. Charleston (2:12) (James P. Johnson)
2. I’ve Got My Habits On (2:50) (Smith – Schafer – Durante)
3. Harlem Strut (2:21) (James P. Johnson)
4. Vampin’ Liza Jane (2:53) (Dickerson)
5. Harlem Choc’late Babies on Parade (2:50) (James P. Johnson)
6. Make Me a Pallet on the Floor (3:33) (Brooks)
7. Loveless Love (3:30) (W. C. Handy)
8. It Take Love to Cure the Heart’s Disease (2:40) (James P. Johnson)
There is such a thing as being so good that everyone takes you for granted. JAMES P. JOHNOSN is perhaps the finest example in all of jazz of this rather unfortunate talent.
James P. has always approached the piano with great vigor and authority, and it is safe to say that he has never played a superficial or a tasteless note in allof his long career. He is a pianists who has fitted in with a remarkable variety of jazzmen and jazz styles, a composer who was turning out hit show tunes in the earliest 1920s, and a teacher and influence of great importance (you need only say that Fats Waller was his protégé to prove this point). Jimmy Johnson has been all this, and yet he has never really been rated among the headliners – at least not y the public at large – which only seems to show that a great many people need a strong lesson in comparative values. Perhaps this LP, which presents some of the most remarkable piano solos from the tumultuous early days of his career, can provide such a lesson.
This is not to say that Johnson has lacked for recognition and respect. There is in baseball a type that gets to be called a “ball-player’s ball-player,” implying that only the real professionals can appreciate the full depth and range of his skills, that he performs with such deceptively simple grace and apparently casual ease that the average onlooker is only imperfectly aware of his importance and his unique contributions. The parallel is perfect; it takes no stretching of these circumstances at all to define James P. as a musician’s musician.
The roster of jazz artists who have indicated their appreciation of his talents is an impressive one. 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 he all-night doings that took place as often as possible in just about every Harlem apartment that owned a battered upright and would provided drinks for 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 other must strive to match.
At the same time, Johnson – or at least his composition – was known downtown, too. Charleston, which was part of the score of the 1923 hit musical show. “Runnin’ Wild,” was perhaps his most famous number, but the sheet music and player piano rolls of the day had the benefit of more than a few of his tunes. He was one of Bessi 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.
These eight tunes belong to the ‘20s, the period of Johnson’s greatest success – although they now appear on records for the first time. They were originally cut as piano rolls way back when he was one of the best sellers on the “QRS” label (the initial stand for “Quality Reigns Supreme,” and they were never more aptly used.) With the passage of time, and the almost total replacement of the player piano by such modern devices as the phonograph and the radio, piano rolls such as these disappeared from the scene, totally neglected, eventually forgotten by just about everyone. These selections are part of a great treasure-chest of early piano music that Riverside Records is now engaged in “resurrecting.” On other Riverside LPs can be heard the music of Scott Joplin and other fabulous ragtimers (RLP 1006: Ragtime Piano Roll), and eight Fats Waller solos (RLP 1010). Now these rediscovered rolls make possible the recreation of the amazing qualities of James P. Johnson’s early piano style.
As these selections testify, James P. could make a piano do just about anything he wanted it to. He is rhythmic, brilliant and equally awe-inspiring through a full range of emotions that run from the near-blues of Pallet on the Floor to the leaping Charleston – with the emphasis, however, decidedly on the good-time tempos.
Johnson has always been very much a big city jazzman. Born in New Jersey, and quickly a part of the New York music world, he very obviously began in the ragtime tradition (as a solo like Harlem Strut indicates). To this he added 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. The combination becomes something unique; no matter what he played, the power and the lilt marked them as his own. The selections on this LP date from 1922 to 1926; four of them are his own compositions; the others include such widely separated song-writers as Jimmy Durante and W. C. Handy. But all eight share the essential flavor, all share the remarkable technique and the infectious spirit of Jimmy Johnson that so many jazz pianists have followed, but none (not even Waller, who learned so much from him) could hope to surpass…
A note for discographers, on the original QRS numbers of the piano rolls, and the moths in which they were made: In 1921 – Heart’s Disease (1339) and Loveless Love (1340), April; Harlem Strut (101014), May. In 1922 – I’ve Got My Habits On (1814), January; Vampin’ Liza Jane (1836), February. In 1925 – Charleston (3143), June. In 1926 – Harlem Choc’late Babies (3526), July; Pallet on the Floor (3626), September. Riverside Records is indebted to collector Stanley Blachman for having provided the roll used for #5, and is most grateful to J. Lawrence Cook – who has surely cut more piano rolls than any other man – for his invaluable aid in transcribing this material from the original rolls.
This material is issued by special arrangement with Imperial Industrial Company, manufactures of QRS piano rolls
Produced by Bill Grauer
Notes by Orrin Keepnews
Cover by Robert J. Lee
RIVERSIDE RECORDS are released by BILL GRAUER PRODUCTIONS
125 LaSalle Street, New York 27, New York