James P. Johnson, Marty Marsala, Baby Dodds, 1946, by Charles Peterson

James P. Johnson, Marty Marsala, Danny Barker, 1946, by Charles Peterson

When the Student is more dramatically visible than the Teacher, even the most influential mentor and guide might become obscure.  James Price Johnson, pianist, composer, arranger, and bandleader, has become less prominent to most people, even those who consider themselves well-versed in jazz piano.  He was a mentor and teacher — directly and indirectly — of Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Art Tatum. “No James P., no them,” to paraphrase Dizzy Gillespie. But even with memorable compositions and thirty years of recording, he has been recognized less than he deserves.



Fats Waller eclipsed his teacher in the public eye because Waller was a dazzling multi-faceted entertainer and personality, visible in movies, audible on the radio.  Fats had a recording contract with the most prominent record company, Victor, and the support of that label — he created hit records for them — in regular sessions from 1934 to 1943.  Tatum, Basie, and Ellington — although they paid James P. homage in words and music — all appeared to come fully grown from their own private universes.  Basie and Ellington were perceived not only as pianists but as orchestra leaders who created schools of jazz composition and performance; Tatum, in his last years, had remarkable support from Norman Granz — thus he left us a series of memorable recordings.

Many of the players I’ve noted above were extroverts (leaving aside the reticent Basie) and showmanship come naturally to them.  Although the idea of James P., disappointed that his longer “serious” works did not receive recognition, retiring to his Queens home, has been proven wrong by Johnson scholar Scott Brown (whose revised study of James P. will be out in 2017) he did not get the same opportunities as did his colleagues.  James P. did make records, he had club residencies at Cafe Society and the Pied Piper, was heard at an Eddie Condon Town Hall concert and was a regular feature on Rudi Blesh’s THIS IS JAZZ . . . but I can look at a discography of his recordings and think, “Why isn’t there more?”  Physical illness accounts for some of the intermittent nature of his career: he had his first stroke in 1940 and was ill for the last years of his life.

There will never be enough.  But what we have is brilliant.  And the reason for this post is the appearance in my mailbox of the six-disc Mosaic set which collects most of James P.’s impressive recordings between 1921 and 1943.  (Mosaic has also issued James P.’s session with Eddie Condon on the recent Condon box, and older issues offered his irreplaceable work for Blue Note — solo and band — in 1943 / 44, and the 1938 HRS sides as well.)

JAMES P. Mosaic

Scott Brown, who wrote the wise yet terse notes for this set, starts off by pointing to the wide variety of recordings Johnson led or participated in this period.  And even without looking at the discography, I can call to mind sessions where Johnson leads a band (with, among others, Henry “Red” Allen,  J. C. Higginbotham, Gene Sedric, Al Casey, Johnny Williams, Sidney Catlett — or another all-star group with Charlie Christian, Hot Lips Page, Lionel Hampton on drums, Artie Bernstein, Ed Hall, and Higginbotham); accompanies the finest blues singers, including Bessie Smith and Ida Cox, is part of jivey Clarence Williams dates — including two takes of the patriotic 1941 rouser UNCLE SAMMY, HERE I AM — works beautifully with Bessie Smith, is part of a 1929 group with Jabbo Smith, Garvin Bushell on bassoon, Fats Waller on piano); is a sideman alongside Mezz Mezzrow, Frank Newton, Pete Brown, John Kirby, swings out on double-entendre material with Teddy Bunn and Spencer Williams. There’s a 1931 band date that shows the powerful influence of Cab Calloway . . . and more.  For the delightful roll call of musicians and sides (some never before heard) check the Mosaic site here.

(On that page, you can hear his delicate, haunting solo BLUEBERRY RHYME, his duet with Bessie Smith on her raucous HE’S GOT ME GOING, the imperishable IF DREAMS COME TRUE, his frolicsome RIFFS, and the wonderful band side WHO?)

I fell in love with James P.’s sound, his irresistible rhythms, his wonderful inventiveness when I first heard IF DREAMS COME TRUE on a Columbia lp circa 1967.  And then I tried to get all of his recordings that I could — which in the pre-internet, pre-eBay era, was not easy: a Bessie Smith accompaniment here, a Decca session with Eddie Dougherty, the Blue Notes, the Stinson / Asch sides, and so on.  This Mosaic set is a delightful compilation even for someone who, like me, knows some of this music by heart because of forty-plus years of listening to it.  The analogy I think of is that of an art student who discovers a beloved artist (Rembrandt or Kahlo, Kandinsky or Monet) but can only view a few images on museum postcards or as images on an iPhone — then, the world opens up when the student is able to travel to THE museum where the idol’s works are visible, tangible, life-sized, arranged in chronology or thematically . . . it makes one’s head spin.  And it’s not six compact discs of uptempo stride piano: the aural variety is delicious, James P.’s imagination always refreshing.

The riches here are immense. All six takes of Ida Cox’s ONE HOUR MAMA. From that same session, there is a pearl beyond price: forty-two seconds of Charlie Christian, then Hot Lips Page, backed by James P., working on a passage in the arrangement.  (By the way, there are some Charlie Christian accompaniments in that 1939 session that I had never heard before, and I’d done my best to track down all of the Ida Cox takes.  Guitar fanciers please note.)  The transfers are as good as we are going to hear in this century, and the photographs (several new to me) are delights.

Hearing these recordings in context always brings new insights to the surface. My own epiphany of this first listening-immersion is a small one: the subject is HOW COULD I BE BLUE? (a record I fell in love with decades ago, and it still delights me).  It’s a duo-performance for James  P. and Clarence Williams, with scripted vaudeville dialogue that has James P. as the 1930 version of Shorty George, the fellow who makes love to your wife while you are at work, and the received wisdom has been that James P. is uncomfortable with the dialogue he’s asked to deliver, which has him both the accomplished adulterer and the man who pretends he is doing nothing at all.  Hearing this track again today, and then James P. as the trickster in I FOUND A NEW BABY, which has a different kind of vaudeville routine, it struck me that James P. was doing his part splendidly on the first side, his hesitations and who-me? innocence part of his character.  He had been involved with theatrical productions for much of the preceding decade, and I am sure he knew more than a little about acting.  You’ll have to hear it for yourself.

This, of course, leaves aside the glory of his piano playing.  I don’t think hierarchical comparisons are all that useful (X is better than Y, and let’s forget about Z) but James P.’s melodic improvising, whether glistening or restrained, never seems a series of learned motives.  Nothing is predictable; his dancing rhythms (he is the master of rhythmic play between right and left hands) and his melodic inventiveness always result in the best syncopated dance music.  His sensitivity is unparalleled.  For one example of many, I would direct listeners to the 1931 sides by Rosa Henderson, especially DOGGONE BLUES: where he begins the side jauntily, frolicking as wonderfully as any solo pianist could — not racing the tempo or raising his volume — then moderates his volume and muffles his gleaming sound to provide the most wistful counter-voice to Henderson’s recital of her sorrows.  Another jaunty interlude gives way to the most tender accompaniment.  I would play this for any contemporary pianist and be certain of their admiration.

I am impressed with this set not simply for the riches it contains, but for the possibility it offers us to reconsider one of my beloved jazz heroes.  Of course I would like people to flock to purchase it (in keeping with Mosaic policy, it is a limited edition, and once it’s gone, you might find a copy on eBay for double price) but more than that, I would like listeners to do some energetic reconstruction of the rather constricted canon of jazz piano history, which usually presents “stride piano” as a necessary yet brief stop in the forward motion of the genre or the idiom — as it moves from Joplin to Morton to Hines to Wilson to Tatum to “modernity.”  Stride piano is almost always presented as a type of modernized ragtime, a brief virtuosic aberration with a finite duration and effect. I would like wise listeners to hear James P. Johnson as a pianistic master, his influence reaching far beyond what is usually assumed.

JAMES P. postage stamp

I was happy to see James P. on a postage stamp, but it wasn’t and isn’t enough, as the Mosaic set proves over and over again. I would like James P. Johnson to be recognized as “the dean of jazz pianists”:


Listen closely to this new Mosaic box set six compact discs worth of proof that the genius of James P. Johnson lives on vividly.

May your happiness increase!


  1. Michael Bank

    Nice piece, Michael. Thanks. Happy New Year

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Gah! You already got your copy? I pre-ordered mine ages ago, waiting patiently!

  3. I wonder why the Arto recording of “Carolina Shout” was not included.

  4. Ahhhh, yes. I ordered my copy yesterday.

    James P. had a delicate touch unmatched by any of his stride comrades at the time. The polite parlor room delicacy of ragtime married to the power of Harlem stride. Nobody else like him.

  5. You got it all. ‘Nuff said. Thank you, Michael.

  6. We are most fortunate to have at least 3 known versions of James P. Johnson recordings of ” If Dreams Come True .” The best known is of course the June 14, 1939 solo recording, which was first issued on the 1962 Columbia LP, CL 1780, Father of the Stride Piano. It has been re-issued several times, both on LP and CD. The piece was apparently a favorite of Johnson’s, as there is also an air shot from an Eddie Condon Town Hall concert from 1944 . This has been issued both on LP ( Pumpkin ), and CD ( Jazzology). The rarest version, is an alternate take from of the aforementioned John Hammond Columbia session. The story of how it came to public attention is as follows:

    It would have been the Fall/Winter of 1980/81 when I first started to go hear Mike Lipskin play at the Washington Square Bar and Grill in SF. I was 20, and in my senior at Stanford, and just beginning to develop an interest in stride piano. After much strenuous effort, I had managed to locate a copy of the by then rare and out of print ” Father of the Stride Piano “. It did not take me long to learn every one of the 18 or so tracks on the LP by heart. The very first cut on the record was, ” If Dreams Come True “. I eventually got to know Mike, who as many of you will know, had worked as a producer at RCA, and got to know many of the recording engineers, who recorded James P., and especially Fats, who had worked at Victor.

    At this stage of my life, I was beginning to develop an insatiable appetite for all things James P., and quickly came to internalize the published James P. discography ( at the time, the listings in Rust and in Jepsen ). I asked Mike if he happened to have any of the Johnson recordings that I still had not heard, and therefore was looking for, and also casually asked if he had any alternate takes or other un-issued John Hammond material. He subsequently gave me a cassette tape, containing the entire Hammond solo session, with the alternate version of ” If Dreams Come True”, in place of the issued version. The alternate is instantaneously identifiable as being distinct from the issued take. Naturally, I was curious as to if there were yet more alternates. The answer turned out to be ” No “, although over the years, multiple alternates of the Johnson/ Hammond band sides have emerged. The best, most extensive compilation, was issued on a Moon records CD, MCD082-2, entitled, James P. Johnson and His Orchestra: Harlem Woogie.

    In the fall of 1981, I moved to New York, to attend medical school. I sat on the alternate of “If Dreams Come True “, for a year or 2, until I casually mentioned to Brooks Kerr, who I went to hear that night, that I had this rare gem. Brooks immediately called his friend Jerry Valburn, who scheduled a ” listening session ” with Brooks, and Ken Noble ( an ophthalmologist and Johnson collector ) to confirm what they must have thought was something of a bold ( and dubious ) claim on the part of this obscure young medical student. I played the tape, and the jury was immediately convinced. I then arranged for the tape to get to Jerry Valburn, who issued the recording on his Merritt Label, Merrit LP 25 c. 1984. Jerry sent the tape to Bob Hilbert, who was then preparing the most up to date Johnson discography, for his blessing. In gratitude, Bob sent to me, completely unsolicited, a tape of the still un-issued ? 1954 Donald Lambert solo session for Circle. There were 8 tunes( the matrices, if I recall correctly were centered around NY 230 ), and according to the discographies, which were planned to be issued on a 10″ LP. Circle went out of business before the tracks came. I am guessing that they are now owned by George Buck/Jazzology. Hope springs eternal that all of the Buck owned /controlled Lambert sides will one day appear on CD. An example of a good deed, which, at least so far, has gone unpunished.

  7. The alternate of ” If Dreams Come True ” can be heard here.

  8. The more inclusive, James P. Johnson / Jazz Rhythm webpage, can be found, here.

  9. Interesting to compare the 3 distinct James P. recordings of Blueberry Rhyme, 2 of which are on the Mosaic Set. The first, done in 1939 was before Johnson had his first stroke. The Signature version, with an understandably slightly heavier touch, was done on December 18, 1943, 3 days after the death of Fats Waller on December 15. James P. most likely had just just heard the news the previous day. On the flip side, he improvised his ” Blues For Fats “, which incorporated melodies from ” Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” and ” Honeysuckle Rose ” . The third preserved version of Blueberry Rhyme was recorded as part of James P’s solo set at the Spirituals to Swing Concert on December 24, 1938. Of the 3, this is arguably the best. James P’s playing is relaxed, inventive, and wonderfully swinging. People who knew him and heard him play, have said that he tended to indeed sound better in person, than on record, largely due to the optimization of these 3 variables It may be found on the 3 CD Vanguard set devoted to the Spirituals to Swing Concerts, described here
    An audio recording of Johnson’s 1938 solo of Blueberry Rhyme, may also be found in part 2 of the Jazz Rhythm radio program which I did with producer Dave Radlauer, devoted to James P. in the 1930s. It may be heard, here.

  10. For the record, James P. died, 61 years ago, today.

  11. As far as the Arto recording of Carolina Shout is concerned, James P. is inaudible, except for the coda.

  12. The band version of Carolina Shout by Jimmie Johnson’s Jazz Boys, is re-issued on ( Smithsonian ) Folkways, Toe Tappin Ragtime.

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