James P. Johnson has secured a place in jazz history as one of the great piano players and composers. He was the outstanding practitioner of his day in the style known as "stride," a virtuoso music that succeeded ragtime. Some even credit him as stride's originator. Ragtime was born in Kansas and Missouri. Stride centered mainly in New York City. It's much more frenetic and "off-balance" than the "cool" poise of ragtime. Perhaps its faster tempo reflects its big-city, rather than small-town, environment. Formally, ragtime based itself on the brass-band march. Almost all rags show this form. Stride was more innovative and varied. It required a player's technique beyond that of ragtime, and it gave new emphasis to inner voices, rather than harmonized, syncopated melody against a "regular" bass. The great practitioners include Johnson, Thomas "Fats" Waller, Willie "The Lion" Smith, and early Art Tatum. Johnson led a dance band and even penned that anthem of the Twenties, "Charleston," from a black review called Runnin' Wild, which afficionados will recognize as the title of another fine tune from that era.
To me, Johnson's best work consists of the stride pieces for solo piano, particularly "Carolina Shout," "Mule Walk Stomp," "Modernistic," and "Snowy Morning Blues." Gershwin admired them and indeed pays tribute to Johnson's style in his piano paraphrase of "I Got Rhythm" from George Gershwin's Song Book. Gershwin in turn inspired Johnson to want to write concert music. At the end of the Twenties, Johnson had retired from nightclubs to devote himself to further musical study – harmony, orchestration, and counterpoint – and by at least 1932, had turned out his first works, including Harlem Symphony and Yamekraw (1927). All sorts of claims have been advanced for this music, usually at the expense of Gershwin, and it really does Johnson no good. For example, scholar and historian Rudi Blesh called the fourth movement of the Harlem Symphony a "syncopated passacaglia on the hymn 'I Want Jesus To Walk with Me." Well, in the first place it's not a passacaglia, but a straightforward set of variations on the tune. If "passacaglia" is insisted upon, then it's a passacaglia at a lower level than the final movement of Franck's violin sonata is a canon. Blesh wants us to pay our respects by his use of the term: this is no novice, but a master the equal of any concert composer. Unfortunately, we think immediately of the Bach Passacaglia in c or the final movement of Brahms' fourth symphony or Brahms' peroration to his Variations on a Theme by Haydn - that is, to the best of the genre – and Johnson's work suffers greatly in the comparison. Johnson remained in many ways a beginner.
For me, Johnson's great difficulty as a concert composer is getting over the dance band number as a model of form, just as Gershwin's problem was getting beyond the 32-bar song. Gershwin reached that goal fairly early. Johnson apparently never did, except in fits and starts, although his later work improves on the early. In terms of Gershwin's formal development, Johnson falls somewhere between Blue Monday and Rhapsody in Blue. The Harlem Symphony is loosely named. There's no sonata-allegro or even development. The movements consist of dance numbers strung together, or blues strung together. Johnson also never really figured out how to use strings as inventively as he used brass and wind, a failing common to many jazz composers and arrangers. Strings either play melody, double melody in winds or brass, or fill harmony with block chords. Gershwin's concert pieces stand out in this regard: the strings do real work.
You might say "predictably," I feel the best pieces are the pure jazz numbers – "Victory Stride" and "Charleston" – although neither represents pure Johnson. "Victory Stride" adapts the original small-ensemble Blue Note recording to symphonic proportions (arrangement uncredited) and adds strings here and there. It comes across as more big-band than symphonic, and Alsop's performance is far livelier than similar efforts from organizations like the Boston or the Cincinnati Pops. David Rimelis arranged "Charleston," based on a radio performance from 1947 (Johnson never recorded the piece commercially), and fares less well. Again, the strings have little to do and though the wind soloists try their best, there's little real jazz feel, especially from the wind players. The arrangement also features a tap dancer, but really hasn't figured out what to do with him. Tap dancers generally acted as percussion soloists. Here, the other instruments overpower the dancer, so the dancing comes across as pointless background.
The other works live in fits and starts. "Concerto Jazz A Mine" takes some surface gestures, mostly transitional in function, from Gershwin's earlier "Concerto in F." The third movement apparently has too many parts missing to be reconstructed. The most interesting movement is the second, with a theme reminiscent of "I Cry All Day Sunday," a blues idea that Johnson at one point turns into a waltz. Still, the variations are pretty conventional. However, the pianist, Leslie Stifelman, puts in a beautifully singing performance. The "Lament" uses W. C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" as the seed of variations. Again, however, the treatment – although assured – sparks less musical interest than either Gershwin or Ellington.
The most intriguing work on the program is the symphonic poem "Drums." Johnson has something unique to say about jazz and African drumming. The harmonic and orchestral ideas seem the most advanced, even though an occasional borrowing from Gershwin flits through and the main idea comes from the type of pop song exemplified by Berlin's "Steppin' Out with My Baby." Most important as a sign of artistic development, Johnson gives something functional to the strings, even though brass and winds still dominate. I would also point out a neat passage for solo flute and drum set.
Alsop and her colleagues make the best case they can for Johnson's work with meticulous, lively performances. If they don't swing quite as much as their jazz counterparts, they don't creak either. The recorded sound is noteworthy – clear, natural, and suited to the modest dimensions of the music itself.
For recordings of Johnson himself playing piano and leading his dance orchestra, I recommend Feelin' Blue (Halcyon DHDL 107) and, for a wonderful sampler of Johnson's stride pieces, MusicMasters 016172-67135-2, with pianist Willam Albright. The latter also contains piano pieces by Scott Joplin.
Copyright © 1997, Steve Schwartz