[Dixielandjazz] Fwd: [78-L] Headstone for James P. Johnson

Roger Wade rwade1947 at comcast.net
Mon Oct 5 16:06:52 PDT 2009

Posted on the 78-l list but certainly relevant here on the DJML.

Roger Wade
Really Old Records

> Date: October 5, 2009 6:54:28 PM EDT
> To: <78-l at klickitat.78online.com>
> Subject: [78-L] Headstone for James P. Johnson
> Reply-To: 78-L Mail List <78-l at klickitat.78online.com>
> October 6, 2009
> Raising Roof and Headstone for Pioneering Pianist
> A definition of righteousness: about 75 people, crammed into the  
> West Village club Smalls, watching a series of pianists play James  
> P. Johnson on a grand piano in a benefit concert to buy a headstone  
> for his grave.
> Like all the other stride-piano soloists of the teens and 1920s,  
> Johnson has been lodged in a historical second tier, probably  
> because he’s not known for band music and didn’t tour sufficiently.
> But he’s the truest passageway from pre-jazz to jazz-as-we-know-it.  
> He was a pioneering and powerful solo pianist, a composer of short  
> sketches (including “The Charleston,” his era-defining hit, and  
> “Carolina Shout,” his finger-buster étude) and extended orchestral  
> works.
> Duke Ellington learned “Carolina Shout” from a piano roll and  
> finally met Johnson at a concert in Washington in 1921. Afterward  
> they stayed out until 10 a.m. “What I absorbed on that occasion,”  
> Ellington wrote later, “might, I think, have constituted a whole  
> semester in a conservatory.” He homed in on Johnson’s strong,  
> grounding swing and sweet, splashing melodies; to link Scott Joplin  
> and Ellington — or even Joplin and Thelonious Monk — you need to  
> put Johnson between them.
> Johnson died in 1955 fairly isolated after four years of illness,  
> and his body lies in an unmarked grave in Maspeth, Queens. The spot  
> was found in February by Scott Brown, a Johnson scholar, and the  
> idea was hatched for “James P. Johnson’s Last Rent Party,” a  
> daylong blowout of Johnsonia at Smalls on Sunday, with historical  
> talks and performances.
> The day ended with five hours of solo piano — by 12 performers —  
> and a little bit of four-hands playing. Unlike the Harlem rent  
> parties Johnson used to play, it wasn’t remotely a competition.  
> Though several pianists wrestled with the same material (especially  
> the charging “Carolina Shout”), the emphasis was not on besting one  
> another but on beneficially knocking the tunes around, treating  
> fairly neglected music like common repertory.
> Ethan Iverson, the pianist from the Bad Plus, announced that the  
> beginning of his set would be “classical”: an earnest shot at  
> Johnson’s style. He played “Carolina Shout” with sensitivity and  
> clarity, keeping the stride rhythm steady in the left hand. Then he  
> went off into his own updated, posteverything style, full of  
> explicit dissonance, repetition and strange dynamics.
> “The Charleston” was his killer: it started with deliberately messy  
> tone rows, his two hands playing at cross-purposes, the left  
> staccato and slow, the right flowing and medium-tempo. Inevitably,  
> and with humor, he finished in the song’s proper style.
> Mike Lipskin, a pianist based in San Francisco who studied with the  
> stride pianist Willie (The Lion) Smith, played stride-piano songs  
> as if they were his drinking buddies: his versions of Johnson’s “It  
> Takes Love to Cure the Heart’s Disease” and Luckey Roberts’s “Pork  
> and Beans” were rowdy and familiar, and he made Johnson’s “If I  
> Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight)” mellifluous and lovely,  
> smiling at the audience rather than monitoring the difficult  
> variations in his left-hand stride patterns.
> The evening’s revelation was Aaron Diehl, a pianist in his mid-20s  
> who has played with Wynton Marsalis and Wycliffe Gordon. His style,  
> on “Scaling the Blues,” “Over the Bars” and the second movement of  
> Johnson’s “Jazzamine Concerto,” was modest, secure and insinuating,  
> with an iron sense of time. A few different pianists worked in  
> their own tunes as Johnson tributes; Mr. Diehl’s was a slow,  
> gorgeous blues.
> Ted Rosenthal and Dick Hyman closed the night. They performed some  
> pieces together at the keyboard, including “Twilight Rag”; then Mr.  
> Hyman, one of the world’s great specialists in early jazz piano,  
> performed Johnson’s music with well-practiced dynamic shifts,  
> elegant and sometimes a bit too showy for the circumstances. But  
> complaining is pointless. Mr. Hyman smoothly played the entire 10- 
> minutes-plus solo-piano version of Johnson’s “Yamekraw,” a rhapsody  
> with classical flourishes and stride interjections. Who else does  
> that?
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