LOOK. LISTEN.

Considering the context — James P. Johnson, solo piano, playing his own HARLEM STRUT — the advertising exhortations seem reasonable.

BLACK SWAN

Over a twenty-five year period, James P. was recorded — in the studio, on radio, and in concert — alongside Bessie Smith, Clarence Williams, the Blue Note Jazzmen, Henry “Red” Allen, Sidney Catlett, Pee Wee Russell, Freddie Green, Dicky Wells, Max Kaminsky, Zutty Singleton, Perry Bradford’s Jazz Phools (with Louis, Buster Bailey, Kaiser Marshall), Lavinia Turner, Trixie Smith, Fats Waller, Sadie Jackson, Louis Metcalf, Cootie Williams, Garvin Bushell, Jabbo Smith, Gene Sedric, Johnny Dunn, Ethel Waters, King Oliver, Teddy Bunn, Spencer Williams, Cecil Scott, Roy Smeck, Mezz Mezzrow, Tommy Ladnier, Eddie Dougherty, Rod Cless, Sterling Bose, Pops Foster, Omer Simeon, Ida Cox, Pete Brown, Frank Newton, Walter Page, Jo Jones, Hot Lips Page, J.C. Higginbotham, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Christian, Al Casey, Yank Lawson, Pee Wee Russell, Brad Gowans, Eddie Condon, Wild Bill Davison, Jimmy Rushing, Vic Dickenson, Vernon Brown, Sidney Bachet, Tommy Dorsey, Baby Dodds, Dave Tough, Johnny Windhurst, George Brunis, Albert Nicholas, Bunk Johnson, George Wettling . . . which sounds as if he recorded with everyone in creation.

Here is his 1923 solo, BLEEDING HEARTED BLUES:

And his 1930 romp, JINGLES:

And the musing 1944 ARKANSAW BLUES:

From the middle of the Twenties, James P. (1894-1955) was comfortably earning money because of royalties on his most famous compositions (consider CHARLESTON, ONE HOUR) but he wasn’t satisfied to be a composer of hit songs.  He wanted to be known and respected as a serious composer of extended works, perhaps the race’s answer to George Gershwin.  He didn’t gain the respect and attention he desired, which hurt him. Both his discography and biography suggest that he was not always in good health — another good reason for our not having even more recorded evidence.

I wonder if James P. was more than the cliche of the popular entertainer yearning for serious acceptance, but a man who knew that he had more to offer than writing thirty-two bar songs and playing piano, solo or in bands.  Did he distance himself from “the music business” or did it ignore him because he would not fit in to one of its tidy categories?

James P.’s pupil Fats Waller died younger, but received more attention because of his ebullient personality: hundreds of recordings, radio broadcasts, film appearances.  Willie “the Lion” Smith outlived them both and was always ready to play, sing, and talk.

I wish James P. had recorded more, had received more attention of the kind his talents deserved. If someone uncovers a James P. trove, I’d like to know about it.

Because this blogpost threatens to slide into the morose, I will offer a recording that has never failed to cheer me up: the duet of James P. and Clarence Williams on HOW COULD I BE BLUE? What a pleasure to hear James P. somewhat awkwardly negotiate the vaudeville dialogue . . . and then to hear his intense rhythmic lead, his melodic inventiveness, in the duet that follows:

May your happiness increase!

3 responses to “LOOK. LISTEN.

  1. Not morose at all! ” James P. J.” is one of many musicians /composers on my list. And can’t promise, but, will check, may have a James P J “trove” to share. Will send it along if so.
    My Grandpa Bob played us his Vinyl LP’s and told stories about making music w/ these fellows: James P.J”, Fats Fletcher Henderson & the Dixie Stompers & the infamous red head (Gingy) “Red Nichols and his 5 Pennies” Pennies”. Oy vey memories and keeping track of these tracts & facts!
    Thanks a million for the memories!

  2. I have seen that early photo of Mr. Johnson (the one used in the “Bleeding Hearted Blues” clip) many times. I’m not sure if it’s just a period pose, but he looks so serious as well as sincere, as though telling the viewer just how much he can really do with that instrument in front of him.

    “Jingles” might be my favorite Johnson tune, and Clarence Williams’s small group and Dick Hyman’s big band (on the album Jelly and James) perform two of my favorite versions.

  3. “Jimmy if he would have given you what he was waving at your coattails, he would would have CUT YOUR FRIENDSHIP OUT..!”

    James Price Johnson was the greatest of them all. Fascinating to hear his evolution from the raggish, somewhat stiff BLEEDING HEARTED BLUES to the perfect virtuosity, touch and swing of “Jingles”.

    Even Duke had to live 70 years to begin to be accepted as a “serious” composer.

    I have this recurring dream of walking down a Harlem street in 1935, hearing “The Art Of Fugue” being played in a church and being drawn in to find Fats Waller at the organ and James P sitting in the pews.

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