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.)
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.
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!