[Dixielandjazz] "Trav'lin'" previewed, J.C. Johnson

Robert Ringwald rsr at ringwald.com
Wed Oct 13 13:33:28 PDT 2010

"Trav'lin'" previewed

A Harlem Hero Gets a Tune-Up
Theater festival showcases J.C. Johnson
by Will Friedwald
Wall Street Journal, October 11, 2010

J.C. Johnson was an African-American songwriter whose music was an integral part
of the Harlem Renaissance. But although many of his songs are now standards of jazz
and blues ("Dusky Stevedore" is one of the few numbers recorded by both Louis Armstrong
and Bix Beiderbecke), the man himself is barely known.
On one hand, his name was too similar to that of his illustrious colleague, the stride
piano pioneer James P. Johnson (no relation). But on the other, J.C. Johnson (1896-1981)
tended to let himself be overshadowed by such larger-than-life contemporaries as
Fats Waller, Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith, all of whom were his collaborators. This
week starting Monday, a new show built around Johnson's songs, "Trav'lin'," promises
to be a highlight of the ongoing New York Musical Theater Festival, which continues
through Oct. 17.
"Trav'lin'" is the brainchild of producer-playwright Gary Holmes, who, as a teenager,
was a friend to Johnson in the last decade of the songwriter's life. The show, which
is billed as a "rediscovery" of Johnson's music, follows a 1930s Harlem mover and
shaker named George, who befriends a stranger who may not be what she seems. The
ensuing story follows three couples as they contemplate love to the sounds of Johnson's
According to Mr. Holmes, Johnson's reticence to take the spotlight was almost legendary:
At the height of the jazz age, Johnson and Waller would hit all the Harlem hot spots;
but while Waller, with his prodigious skills as a pianist and entertainer, reveled
in being the center of attention, Johnson would sit happily on the sidelines.
Johnson was primarily a pianist in his early years in Chicago, but when he arrived
Harlem in the early 1920s, he was so overwhelmed by such prodigious piano monsters
as Waller, Johnson and Willie "The Lion" Smith that he decided to concentrate on
composing instead. In 1923, he wrote his first notable song, "You Can't Do What My
Last Man Did"; Ethel Waters recruited him to play behind her on the recording, but
he was so nervous and so unaccustomed to accompanying a vocalist that she allegedly
had to wrap a carpet around his leg to muffle the noise of his shaking foot. The
song was subsequently recorded by Waller, James Johnson, Alberta Hunter and others.
Before long, he was a beloved fixture in Harlem, and his songs are all over the map
of early jazz. "Louisiana" may be his best-known song (it was immortalized by Bing
Crosby and Bix Beiderbecke with Paul Whiteman's Orchestra, and performed by Duke
Ellington, Fred Astaire and Lester Young and Count Basie), and is still played by
traditional bands today. For some songs, Johnson wrote music (as on "Louisiana,"
with Andy Razaf's words), and on others he wrote lyrics, particularly when he worked
with Waller. According to Mr. Holmes, Johnson was flexible enough to write both,
but actually preferred working alone. His most famous blues tunes, including Bessie
Smith's "Empty Bed Blues," "Me and My Gin" (later sung by Dinah Washington), and
"Travelin' All Alone," associated with both Billie Holiday and Mildred Bailey, were
solo efforts.
After settling in the St. Albans section of Queens in the 1940s, where he wrote his
two full-length shows (one of which, "Jazz Train," toured extensively in Europe),
Johnson moved to Wurtsboro, a small town in the Catskill Mountains, in the early
1970s. It was there that he met Mr. Holmes, who was then about 10, and the son of
the manager of the local bank. "I would visit him almost every Saturday," Mr. Holmes
said. "He would tell me stories about Harlem in the '20s, and about the fabulous
characters he had known."
Mr. Johnson lived to see his songs revived in the Broadway productions "Me and Bessie"
and "Ain't Misbehavin'." One of the composer's unrealized dreams, Mr. Holmes said,
was to have his own hit musical on Broadway, so Mr. Holmes began work on such a production
shortly after Johnson's death in 1981, then put it aside for 15 years and came back
to it about five years ago. After a few public readings at the York Theater, "Trav'lin'"
will play six performances this week at the TBG Theater on West 36th Street.
According to Mr. Holmes, even near the end of his life, when J.C. Johnson was surely
entitled to take a bow, he still refused. After "Ain't Misbehavin'" became a hit
on Broadway, Johnson and his wife bought tickets (without even asking for a pass)
and sat next to a woman who was enjoying "The Joint Is Jumpin'" so much that she
practically fell out of her seat. "Why don't you tell her that you wrote that song
with Fats?" his wife asked. He answered: "Just to know that she liked it is enough."

--Bob Ringwald
Fulton Street Jazz Band
Amateur (Ham) Radio K6YBV

"Last night my wife met me at the front door. She was wearing a sexy negligee. 
The only trouble was, she was coming home."  --Rodney Dangerfield

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