One of the bridges between ragtime and jazz is a piano style known as stride. There were many who mastered the style including Fats Waller and Earl Hines, but the father of stride piano was James Price Johnson. Born in New Jersey, Johnson decided early that life as a "tickler" was for him. Dressed out with the finest attire a tickler or piano professor was a performer first, then a musician. This exclusive cadre of piano players with colorful nicknames like Abba Labba, The Lion, and The Bear were able to play hot jazz from dusk to dawn without coasting, and best all comers with their dazzling style and finesse.
Johnson's first professional job was playing at a local sporting house for two hours straight. After taking lessons to improve his technique and spending years honing it, Johnson soon emerged as the best piano player on the East Coast. He played cabarets, rent parties, jams and toured in vaudeville. Johnson made over 400 recordings and wrote some 230 popular tunes including The Charleston and If I Could Be With You, One Hour Tonight. His recording of Carolina Shout, in 1921, is considered the first jazz piano solo on record. His fame spread via piano rolls, at his peak he recorded a new one every other week. As an accompanist on recordings of early blues singers, Johnson backed up such talented blues divas as Ida Cox, Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith
Johnson also had a great interest in classical music, composing many works including Yamecraw: A Negro Rhapsody that premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1928. Overall, he wrote nineteen symphonic pieces and scored eleven musicals, an impressive amount for someone who is considered primarily a jazz pianist. Johnson continued to play piano into the 1950s despite health problems.
CDs in Print
- James P. Johnson's recordings on CD
- GRP/Decca Records: James P. Johnson: Snowy Morning Blues