JAMES P.’S SPACIOUS UNIVERSE

Someone unknown to me — a generous anonymous benefactor — has posted on YouTube two of the irreplaceable 1939 piano solos by James P. Johnson.  I think they are uplifting creations that never grow over-familiar.

BLUEBERRY RHYME, Johnson’s own musing original composition, has not only several strains but feels multi-layered, as if two moods were moving along in time and sound throughout the piece.  One is sweetly, sadly ruminative — thoughts of a solitary seeker in a meadow, perhaps, with calm and loss intermingled.  The other is joyous — all of James P.’s most elegant trickeries offered to us at half-speed and half-volume, so that we could think, for an evanescent moment, “Hey, I could play the piano like that if I only practiced.” In this stratum, we hear what so many pianists — Tatum, Fats, Basie — worshipped and borrowed from him.  (There’s a tinkling figure at :20 that Tatum nipped off with and made his own.)

Is BLUEBERRY RHYME sweet thoughts of home, or of a love that might have been, musings on a pie, or something private to James P.?  We cannot know, but we can enter this world for a few minutes, its gently rocking motions and lingering melodies both comforting and elusive.

BLUEBERRY RHYME is followed by one of my favorite interludes, a joyous yet stately romp on Edgar Sampson’s IF DREAMS COME TRUE.  This recording has been one of my consolations and dear musical friends for perhaps forty-five years, and it not only provides happiness but embodies it.  Within the first ten seconds — that prancing bassline, the treble chords announcing the melody — we know we are somewhere elation is the common language, where all will be given over to the dance.

Each chorus is a complete utterance in itself, and each chorus’ variations look backwards to its predecessor and anticipate what is to come.  Stride piano is also misunderstood by some as a metronomic left hand with a freer but rhythmically-obedient right hand creating variations in its own realm, but notice the playful elasticity between the steady bass lines and the widening rhythmic freedom of the treble, in a playful push-and-pull that we feel as the performance continues. The dance gets more and more ambitious, but James P.’s time and volume are both steady delights, and form is never abandoned.

Compare, for instance, the opening chorus where the melody is explicitly stated in contract to what happens at 5:30, magical in itself. Although the performance has offered a certain ornateness, the thrilling competitive display the Harlem players loved, here James P. seems to pull back into softer enigmatic utterances, offering space and an abstraction of what he has been playing instead of attempting to dazzle the hearer even more.  And the three ascending chords at 6:19!  So simple and yet so memorable.  On my admittedly untuned piano, they are a C, D, and E — the first do re mi of a beginning student, but what ringing sounds they are here.

Should I end my days in a hospice, I hope I will have these recordings with me to take on the journey.  And I exult in them now.

Hear for yourself:

Coincidentally, James P. was the subject of a brief cyber-discussion the fine pianist Michael Bank and I were having, and Michael (lyrical in prose and music) wrote that James P. “creates a portal to the universe.”  James P. Johnson was and is his own universe, vast, inviting, heartfelt.  How fortunate we are to hear such beauty!

(Blessings on the often-imperious John Hammond, who booked the studio time in 1939 to make these recordings and treasured them when Columbia Records would not issue them, saving them for future generations.)

I have heard that Mosaic Records is preparing a James P. Johnson set.  Talk about DREAMS coming true.

May your happiness increase!

8 responses to “JAMES P.’S SPACIOUS UNIVERSE

  1. Joe Barnett

    Thank you. I’ve subscribed to this newsletter but have not read much. I’ll listen to this record.

  2. DDn "Zoot" Conner

    Wonderful!one of my favorites,
    nice post,Michael-Steer of that hospice-PLEASE.

  3. I ‘ve shared this precious post with a Fats Waller fan.

  4. Spread joy, Lee! (You know how to do that, I know.)

  5. A few years back, I was both curious and intrigued, to read the posts on the Yahoo Stride Piano e-mail group, of a mysterious man , who claimed to have known James P. Johnson and Willie the Lion Smith in the 1940s. He had been to their homes, and heard them as often as he could, during their now legendary run at the Pied Piper in 1944. I very quickly initiated a direct correspondence. It turns out that he was a teenager at the time, and would within an few years move to Canada ( Toronto ), and then later to Mexico and Malaysia ( the home of his wife, Margaret ). I was initially somewhat skeptical about the man’s claim, but as our correspondence developed, it was clear that he knew what he was talking about.
    His name was David Gellman ( Also sometimes spelled Gilman, as we shall see ). It turns out that David was also a friend of Don Ewell, and had been responsible for a 1966 short film production for the CBC ( an early music video, if you will ), titled, ” You Can Always Lean Something From a Lady “, in which Don and Willie ” the Lion Smith ” are featured, playing together, both solos and duets, while for part of the time, Willie rides around Toronto, at the piano, on the back of a truck, driven by a uniformed chauffer. Kind of charming. There is an allusion to the film in this article about the Canadian Collector’s Congress, in the IAJRC Journal, from Sept 1, 2014. http://www.readperiodicals.com/201409/3603679641.html
    David honored us with a visit to the Bay Area a few years back, during which time, Mike Lipskin, Dave Radlauer and I, arranged for his reminscences of his days at the Pied Piper to be recorded. I also put David in touch with James P’s biographer Scott Brown, as, at the time, c ? 2005, he was one of the last people living with any significant recollections of James P., who, on the basis of what he discussed with us, he apparently knew very well.
    The last I heard from David was 2010, via communication with the Stride Piano e-mail group ( the brainchild of Canadian Stride pianist Grant Simpson , who is still residing in the Yukon, where his messages are archived.

  6. One of the points that David made to us, was that James P. was usually self conscious in a recording studio, and felt that he played his best at live venues. I would not disagree. Case in point: the 3 extant recordings of Blueberry Rhyme ( all to be found on You tube ). Michael has shared the Columbia studio recording from June 14, 1939. James P. also did a 1944 version for Signature. Unquestionably, his best version was the one he did at the Sprituals to Swing Concerts, currently available on a Vanguard CD.
    http://www.amazon.com/Spirituals-Swing-Various-Artists/dp/B00000JT6C/ref=sr_1_1?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1430499488&sr=1-1&keywords=spirituals+to+swing
    The You Tube link to the live version of Blueberry Rhyme, is here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=whSJhrRXQNA Dave Radlauer and I also included it on our Jazz Rhythm program on James P. Johnson in the 1930s http://jazzhotbigstep.com/24264.html I will let James P.’s playing do the talking.
    Lastly, the upcoming 6 CD issue from Mosaic, of James P. Johnson’s recordings, will include the very rare alternate take of ” If Dreams Come True”, given to me my Mike Lipskin, previously available only on a limited pressing, Merrit LP, and also to be found on the Jazz Rhythm program above.
    The standard take of ” If Dreams Come True ” is the one included in the Jazz Lives post.

  7. I listen to this man play the piano in complete awe of his ability to get to me whether playing something slow and beautiful, or something fast and yet still beautiful. Thank you for the wonderful post, NM.

  8. I am currently speaking with the folks at Mosaic, in the hope of maximizing the number of sides that they will be able to issue in the upcoming James P. set. This may entail a seventh CD. Stay tuned. ! Mark Borowsky

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