Sunday, December 28, 2008

James P. Johnson, King of Stride

In the first 16 years of the 20th century, before most americans had heard of the word "jazz", American Popular Music was a mashup of different styles - ragtime in a degenerate, fast, and not very interesting evolution, sweet string orchestras playing waltzes and sentimental ballads crooned by irish tenors, players of a hybird 'banjo-mandolin' together with violin players forming "gypsy orchestras", Sophie Tucker and Al Jolson belting out "blackface" tunes on the vaudeville circuit and the Ziegfield Follies, brass bands playing Souza marches. The blues had become well known to americans since 1912 due to the popularity of W.C. Handy's Dallas Blues and St. Louis Blues, but only through sheet music - most americans would not learn what a real blues note sounded like until Mamie Smith recorded "Crazy Blues" in 1920, unleashing the second wave of blues popularity. The general level of "heat" found in american music was pretty tame.

But up in Harlem in the teens, the locals were re-invigorating the ragtime style with something faster, harder-edged, and bluesier, which they called "Stride". And James P. Johnson was the greatest of the stride masters. He also wrote The Charleston, and another tune that didn't become popular until WWII, "If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight" (which i first heard from the lips of that great interpreter of swing, Bugs Bunny). He can be heard backing Bessie Smith in many of her classic recordings, and Fats Waller studied under him.

By the late 20s James P was behind the times and out of style, but his influence had already pervaded the jazz piano style and dominated it until the late 30s. Here he is back in the old days and at his best, playing "Harlem Strut"...

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