[Dixielandjazz] J P Johnson's "blues opera" unearthed.
M J (Mike) Logsdon
Tue, 03 Dec 2002 18:52:21 -0800
A jazz giant's lost legacy: A U-M musicologist resurrects the
long-forgotten blues opera 'De Organizer' by innovative pianist James P.
Johnson, who married high-brow classical with the rhythms of black
December 1, 2002
BY MARK STRYKER
DETROIT FREE PRESS MUSIC WRITER
Jazz historians and aficionados have always known that James P. Johnson,
the father of Harlem stride piano, devoted much of his later career to
writing orchestral tone poems, a piano concerto, a symphony and an
But even before Johnson's death in 1955, his concert works had become
little more than historical footnotes. The biggest mystery surrounds "De
Organizer," Johnson's one-act blues opera about unionizing
with a libretto by Langston Hughes. The opera vanished after just one
performance at Carnegie Hall on May 31, 1940, as part of a convention of
the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.
Johnson advocates have excavated and performed other unpublished
music from family archives, but "De Organizer" hasn't been heard since
Forces from the University of Michigan are mounting a concert version of
the 35-minute opera this week and next in Detroit and Ann Arbor. The
of the project is U-M professor and early-jazz expert James Dapogny.
years of crack detective work, painstaking compositional surgery and a
lucky break bordering on divine providence, Dapogny has reconstructed
Organizer" from bare-bones vocal and piano sketches unearthed in
and, remarkably, Ann Arbor.
Like all Johnson's concert music, "De Organizer" is based in vernacular
styles -- jazz, blues and popular song -- but aspires beyond them, to
somewhere between, as critic David Schiff once put it, the concert hall
the dance hall. "De Organizer" is sung through, with no spoken dialogue,
and its swooning blues laments and peppy jazz-age rhythms are outfitted
Dapogny's realization is faithful to Johnson's original orchestration --
eight solo voices, chorus and an orchestra of 45, including a
complement of winds, brass and strings, plus four saxophones, piano and
percussion. The only song already known is "Hungry Blues," a bittersweet
lament Johnson recorded in 1939.
"It's a nice piece of music and an interesting piece," says Dapogny.
are many things that are very beautiful and a lot of variety. There's
that's menacing, goofy, jolly, life-affirming, and there are laments,
recitations of wrongs having been done."
It's hard to imagine a musician better suited to the task of
Johnson's opera than Dapogny, a classical composer by training but also
widely respected "hot" pianist specializing in the jazz styles of the
Dapogny's restoration promises to shed new light on one of the most
fascinating figures in American music. Johnson was a critical figure in
early jazz history, as well as the composer of the '20s anthem "The
Charleston." But Johnson also belongs to a constellation of early
20th-Century American composers intrigued by the cross-pollination of
African-American idioms and art-music traditions.
His brethren include Scott Joplin, who wrote a ragtime opera,
"Treemonisha," in 1911; Duke Ellington; William Grant Still; Aaron
and Johnson's closest aesthetic cousin, George Gershwin.
Ellington wrote extended works for jazz band in the early '30s. Still,
dean of black American classical composers, wrote his "Afro-American"
Symphony in 1931. But Still was a product of the classical
while Johnson came roaring out of Harlem's nightspots.
The Gershwin of "Rhapsody in Blue" and "Porgy and Bess" offers Johnson's
closest parallel. The composers were acquaintances,having met in 1920
both were cutting piano rolls. Both had popular music roots; both wrote
Broadway; both harbored classical ambitions; both crafted hybrid works
"high" and "low."
Both also lacked formal training in classical techniques and built their
extended works from a homespun succession of tunes.
Classical conductor Marin Alsop, a Johnson champion who tracked down
of his orchestral works a decade ago and recorded them, says music like
Johnson's four-movement "Harlem Symphony" (1932) suggests a link between
Joplin and Ellington.
"Johnson was always cognizant of exploring black culture and exposing it
a wider audience," she says. "The writing is simple -- it almost sounds
naive to us -- but it was sincere and it has a purity we hadn't
before, with very simple, beautiful melodies and a lot of color.
"I'm not looking to compare him to Beethoven. What I'm looking at is the
mood he's able to capture and the stories he's able to tell."
Alsop was one of the legions who had tried to find "De Organizer,"
the basements of old buildings in Manhattan. The Institute of Jazz
at Rutgers University, which has a copy of Hughes' libretto in its
collection, also came up empty in its search for the music.
"This is a legendary work, and it occupies a special place both in James
Johnson's history but also jazz history," says institute director Dan
When Dapogny began searching in 1989, everyone told him the same thing:
Don't bother. Everyone's looked. It's gone.
The crucial break came in 1997, when the African American Music
at U-M put on display some material never previously exhibited. There in
glass case was a notebook inscribed with the words "De Organizer.
of Eva Jessye."
Dapogny's knees buckled when he saw it. Johnson's heirs didn't even know
about this. Jessye was a choral director who had prepared the original
of "Porgy and Bess" -- and, evidently, the cast of "De Organizer."
The Jessye score was crippled. Only the melody notes and text were
with no indication of harmony, texture or other details of orchestral
accompaniment. But Dapogny had found every single bar of sung music, in
proper order, with choral passages voiced in harmony.
The next stop in Dapogny's quest was the Johnson Foundation in
Calif. Rifling through boxes of material, Dapogny came across
piano sketches that he recognized as part of the opera. The sketches
up about 25 percent of the opera and answered questions of harmony and
texture. Dapogny then assigned pitches and rhythms to instruments in
keeping with Johnson's 19th-Century, Dvorak-inspired approach to
In another stroke of fortune, Dapogny also found in California a piece
paper on which Johnson had indicated the specific instrumentation for
opera. The only music Dapogny had to conjure completely from his own
imagination was instrumental and amounted to about 80 bars out of a
of 1,004 -- including an introduction, coda and connective tissue
"I tried to channel James P. Johnson," Dapogny says. "I don't hear
here that I think James P. Johnson couldn't or wouldn't have written. I
write some of those things, but I threw them away."
The origins of the opera are cloudy. In "James P. Johnson: A Case of
Mistaken Identity" (Scarecrow Press, $55), biographer Scott Brown writes
that Johnson first contacted Harlem Renaissance poet Hughes about
collaborating in 1937. A year later, Johnson wrote to Hughes with a
concrete idea for a libretto based on "Natural Man," a play by Theodore
Brown. Hughes transformed the play into free verse, and Johnson set it
The story takes place on a post-Civil War plantation in the South. A
of exploited sharecroppers have gathered to wait for the Organizer to
arrive and help them form a union. At one point, an Overseer tries to
up the meeting but is chased away by the now unified sharecroppers. The
blatantly progressive political and racial ideas are a far cry from the
minstrel stereotypes Johnson was forced to employ on Broadway.
Finding his style
Born in 1894, Johnson's early training came from his mother and later an
Italian piano teacher who emphasized the classics and proper technique.
young Johnson absorbed the stomp and rag styles of players like Lucky
Roberts and Eubie Blake, but he also attended symphony concerts.
Johnson became an innovator, smoothing out ragtime's two-beat feel into
more relaxed four-beat rhythm of jazz and adding layers of blues and
improvisation. The "stride" style he invented was characterized by
figures in the left hand, dazzling melodies in the right hand and a
virtuosic web of syncopation emerging from the dialogue: He was an
orchestra unto himself.
Johnson's influence was pervasive. Fats Waller was his prize student and
Duke Ellington learned to play Johnson's famous tune "Carolina Shout" by
slowing down the piano roll and following the keys with his fingers.
The '20s were Johnson's heyday. He recorded his own piano solos,
the Harlem scene, wrote numerous Broadway musicals and revues. He also
began experimenting with extended compositions. "Yamekraw," for piano
orchestra, was written in 1927 and orchestrated by William Grant Still.
the '30s, Johnson devoted most of his attention to his classical muse,
writing two symphonies and a piano concerto.
His classical compositions got a few performances around New York; but,
with no conductor or patron from the white establishment willing to
champion his work, the music fell into oblivion. His classical career
peaked in May 1945, when a career retrospective at Carnegie Hall
excerpts from several orchestral pieces. Johnson died in 1955, after a
series of strokes had limited his activities.
The tragedy of Johnson's life was that his ambitions and formal training
were stymied by his color and his jazz pedigree. Who knows what he might
have accomplished had fate bestowed upon him Gershwin's connections or
alliances that helped Still gain a foothold in the concert-music world.
"Johnson always had aspirations to stretch himself," says Alsop. "What
wrote was wonderful, but he also had tremendous potential."
M J "Mike" Logsdon, Cleric, NAORC (http://www.naorc.org)
Chaplain to the Archbishop