Thursday, July 17, 2014

James P. Johnson: The Father of Stride Piano

James Price Johnson was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey, in 1894. He was a ragtime turned stride pianist whose composition, “The Charleston,” became one of the anthems of the “jazz age” of the Twenties. Johnson and Jelly Roll Morton were probably the two pianists most responsible for taking ragtime music and turning it into jazz via the piano.

Although he started out playing ragtime music in the tradition of Scott Joplin, Johnson became the innovator of a jazz subgenre of piano playing that was dubbed, “stride.” This piano style got its name from the walking or “striding” sound produced by the pianist’s left hand. Stride piano incorporated elements of the blues and it allowed for on the spot improvisation which is an essential characteristic of jazz music. Ragtime was a rigidly composed form of music which stifled improvisation.

A future jazz star, Fats Waller, would become Johnson’s protégé’, adopt his stride style, and later expose it to the masses.

Johnson was a prolific composer, and he wrote some of the most familiar compositions of the roaring Twenties. Aside from the Charleston, he penned, “You’ve Got to Be Modernistic,” “If I Could Be with You One Hour Tonight,” “Carolina Shout,” “Keep Off The Grass,” and “Old Fashioned Love,” among others. In addition to jazz and pop tunes, Johnson wrote waltzes, ballets and symphonic pieces.

Johnson’s finest recordings can be found on a number of compilation albums including the multi-volume “Chronological Classics: James P. Johnson” (1996) series and “Snowy Morning Blues” (1991), “Harlem Stride Piano” (1992), and “Father of Stride Piano” (2001).

The Father of Stride Piano