My first encounter with the name James P. Johnson was a fleeting reference to the composer in a liner note for a Gershwin recording, but it was enough to pique my curiosity. I contacted Robert Kimball, the author of the notes, and he gave me some intriguing background on Johnson.
In addition to composing the singular piece of music that came to symbolize the 1920s in America, "The Charleston," Johnson aspired to compose music for symphony orchestra and had actually written several orchestral pieces that were premiered at Carnegie Hall in the early 1940s. I was beyond eager to get my hands on that music, but Kimball was quite discouraging. He told me that all of the parts and scores were long gone; there was no existing recording of the Carnegie Hall event, and there was no chance that I could find that music. He said many people had tried unsuccessfully over the years.
Little did he know that "can't" is my four-letter motivator!
I became obsessed with James P. Johnson, and my quest to find, restore and revive his orchestral music led me — along with my dear friend and willing collaborator Leslie Stifelman (currently music director of Chicago on Broadway) — on a six-year odyssey in search of Johnsons' long-lost orchestral music.
My passion for that unique period in America's musical history, when popular music and "serious" music collided and cross-pollinated to create a whole new art form, drove me forward on my quest. The possibility of discovering a missing musical link between Scott Joplin and Duke Ellington was too exciting a prospect to resist at least trying.
James P. Johnson is one of those great unsung American creators who, for various reasons, led a life under the radar. He suffered several strokes during his lifetime and was a quiet, retiring personality in a field of extroverts. But his talent, both as pianist and as composer, was bigger than life. He essentially invented what we today call stride piano style, whereby the pianist's left hand jumps absurd distances to cover the entire lower half of the piano.
Johnson had big aspirations to write "serious" symphonic music and join the ranks of Gershwin. But being African-American in 1930s America meant that you could only compose for popular venues, so Johnson wrote numerous hit shows for black Broadway.
Johnson's piano roll of his hit tune "Carolina Shout" became the measuring stick for every up-and-coming piano player. Duke Ellington learned his fingerings from feeling along as Johnson's piano roll played in slow motion, and Johnson himself blew everyone away in "cutting contests" (the virtuosic piano-playing marathons) up until Art Tatum emerged on the scene.
Fortunately for Leslie and me, we teamed up with Scott Brown, a medical student at Yale who was writing a biography on Johnson and willingly joined our investigative hunt for his music. It was truly a detective's challenge, especially in the days before the Internet. Together we visited all of Johnson's surviving relatives, and eventually gained their trust enough to be shown a treasure trove of memorabilia stored in the attic of his daughter, Arceola Glover, in Riverside, Calif.
After years of searching, the moment when she brought out stacks of sheet music wrapped in plastic, preserved like an old photo album, was unbelievable. We gently pawed through the yellowed pages. This was the long-lost music from that Carnegie Hall concert! While the music clearly needed attention — and some was obviously missing — we could see its greatness and understood even more profoundly the enormous talent of this great American creator.
We painstakingly restored the scores and recopied all of the music in preparation for performances at Lincoln Center, under the auspices of the Lincoln Center jazz program at Avery Fisher Hall, and a recording for the MusicMasters label (now reissued on Nimbus). We have made all of the music available to orchestras for performance and are incredibly proud to have played a part in preserving this important piece of our shared American legacy.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
As Black History Month gets underway, we'd like to spend some time listening to one of our country's most influential African-American composers: James P. Johnson. His romping tune, "The Charleston," became a soundtrack for the Roaring Twenties. As a pianist, he prepared the way for jazz and influenced everyone from Count Basie to Duke Ellington to Art Tatum. His most famous student was Fats Waller. Now, we're listening to a 1994 recording of James Johnson's music. It's performed by the Concordia Orchestra and led by our friend Marin Alsop. The maestra went on a quest to unearth some of James P. Johnson's lesser-known symphonic music, including his "Harlem Symphony" from 1932.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "HARLEM SYMPHONY")
SIMON: Of course, Marin Alsop is now music director of the Baltimore Symphony. And she joins us from the studios of WYPR in Baltimore. Thanks so much for being with us, maestra.
MARIN ALSOP: Great to be here, Scott.
SIMON: And what set you off on this search?
ALSOP: Well, I've always had a love for American jazz and a real curiosity about it. My father, in addition to being concertmaster of the New York City Ballet, he played saxophone in the Fred Waring Band. So, he was always playing swing music as I grew up. And I tried to be a snob about it most of my life, but I eventually fell in love with it. So, I started listening to as much as possible. And one day I was listening to a Gershwin recording and reading the liner notes. And Robert Kimball, who's a Gershwin expert, was writing about this composer named James P. Johnson and how he had written all this music. But it was played once in Carnegie Hall and then no one knows what happened to it. And that was the first time I had ever heard the name James P. Johnson.
SIMON: Well, let's listen to another stretch of the "Harlem Symphony", if we could. And this is from the fourth movement. It's called "Baptist Mission."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "BAPTIST MISSION")
SIMON: Help us understand some of the crossover between Gershwin and James P. Johnson.
ALSOP: Well, of course, historically, being African-American during that time period, the 1920s, '30s, '40s, the avenues that were open to George Gershwin were simply not open to James P. Johnson. He aspired to write music for symphony orchestra, to be a serious composer. He studied diligently with most of the leading composition teachers of the day. And he, like, George Gershwin, ended up being a recording artist making piano rolls for the Aeolian Piano Company, among others. And I think there is a record of them actually having met under that auspices at some point.
SIMON: Let's listen to one of those piano roll composition. This is James P. Johnson playing one of his most famous pieces, "Carolina Shout."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "CAROLINA SHOUT")
JAMES P. JOHNSON: (Playing)
SIMON: So, this is called stride piano-style?
ALSOP: That's right. And Johnson is really known as the father of the stride piano style. The stride style is really that jumping left hand. You know, I imagine that one day his bass player didn't show up, so he had to play all the parts, you know. But it required amazing dexterity, which Johnson had. And he used to participate in what were called at the time cutting contests. They were like little piano competitions, you know, in the back room. And he would always win. And he won for years and year until Art Tatum showed up.
SIMON: Oh, well.
SIMON: That's understandable, that's understandable.
ALSOP: As a matter of fact, pianists like Duke Ellington, they learned how to play the piano by slowing down the piano rolls of James P. Johnson and sort of feeling their way on the keyboard.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "CAROLINA SHOUT")
SIMON: Johnson's music seems to kind of bridge the ragtime and jazz eras. I gather he grew up on the music of Scott Joplin, but he helped usher in the age of jazz, especially as a pianist, but was less recognized - at least in his lifetime - for the superb composer of orchestral music that he was. What else should we listen to?
ALSOP: Well, he wrote several piano concertos, you know, formal piano concertos, one that he called "Jazzamine," and it's rarely played. So, perhaps we should hear a little bit of that.
SIMON: Yeah, please.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "JAZZAMINE")
SIMON: Did you just walk into somebody's attic and there was this sheet music? How did this happen?
ALSOP: Well, the pianist who you hear on this recording, Leslie Stifelman, my good friend and I, we set out to try to find this music. And we thought it would be impossible, but we were able to find all of this incredible music in an attic of one of his only surviving children. And the family, I think they were justifiably suspicious of people who, you know - a lot of people had taken advantage of Johnson during his lifetime. But I think after she got to know and realized that we were all about the music, believe it or not, she went up to her attic and brought down boxes and boxes of music. And I opened it up and, you know, I immediately knew that this was the missing music. And a lot of it was not in great shape, but I realized that we could reconstruct most of these pieces. And, I don't know, it was like Christmas times 100 for me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIMON: Has the music caught on? Are there orchestras performing it?
ALSOP: Oh, I'm happy to say that many orchestras now perform this music. The Baltimore Symphony has played several of the pieces. And what's nice is it's something to play. You know, you compare it with Gershwin. There are real opportunities to program this music in the great concert halls of the world. And it just makes me feel so great to know that James P. Johnson's aspirations are finally being realized.
SIMON: What do we want to hear going out?
ALSOP: Well, this is a tune - if I put this piece on the concert, no matter what concert it is, the audience goes wild. Maybe I should just play this at the concert and nothing else. This is a tune called "Victory Stride."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "VICTORY STRIDE")
SIMON: Marin Alsop is music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and an accomplished swing musician herself. Maestra, thanks for being with us.
ALSOP: Thank you, Scott.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "VICTORY STRIDE")
SIMON: And you can hear more music by James P. Johnson and read an essay by Maestra Alsop about the composer all on our website, nprmusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.