Jazz, Social Commentary, and the Harlem Renaissance

James P. Johnson

15 May 2020

James P. Johnson




All the licks you hear, now as then, originated with musicians like James P. Johnson. And I mean all the hot licks that ever came out of Fats Waller and the rest of the hot piano boys. They were all just faithful followers and protégés of that great man, Jimmy Johnson.

    – Ethel Waters


Much of the history of jazz is canonized by writers and critics, many of whom lack the formal training necessary to adequately discern the musical, historical, sociological, and humanistic significance of those who contributed to the development of the art form. Consequently, many musicians are cast to the periphery of the narrative or worse, never discussed at all. Perhaps the most egregious offense has been perpetrated on James P. Johnson, whose artistry, impact in the development of jazz piano, and his substantial contribution to American musical theater are often overlooked; consequently, he has been referred to by Reed College musicologist David Schiff, as “the invisible composer.”

James Price Johnson was born on February 1, 1894, in his parents’ home at 6 City Alley, New Brunswick, New Jersey. Jazz historiography, however, is mired in ineffectual research and, as such, perpetuates the insouciance with which Johnson is treated; unfortunately, such research is not relegated to writers and critics. For example, renowned composer, musician, and jazz historian Gunther Schuller, cited Johnson’s birthyear as 1891 in his tome, “Early Jazz.” Johnson’s registration for selective service, which states February 1, 1894, as his date of birth, clearly repudiates Schuller’s claim. Moreover, Johnson’s name is conspicuously absent in a book entitled, “Tunes of the Twenties (and All that Jazz): The Stories Behind the Songs.” The author seems to have forgotten “Charleston,” a song composed by Johnson, which is considered to be the metonym for the 1920s.

Fig.James P. Johnson’s Registration for Selective Service.

Johnson, the youngest of five children, was raised in a loving home that was steeped in the tenets of the Methodist faith. His mother, Josephine, exposed her children to traditional church hymns as she accompanied herself on their upright piano; a young James sat at her feet and played with the instrument’s pedals. On weekend evenings, after church, the Johnsons commonly entertained friends by hosting parties at their home. Cotillion, set, and shout dances were performed for the guests–many of whom were transplanted laborers from southern states such as Georgia, Virginia, and the Carolinas. James P. recalled the events in an interview with Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis:

The Northern towns had a hold-over of the old southern customs. I’d wake up as a child and hear an old-fashioned ring shout going on downstairs. They danced around in a shuffle and then they would shove a man or woman out into the center and clap hands. This would go on all night and I would fall asleep sitting at the top of the stairs in the dark.

The music and dancing to which James P. was exposed during these festivities had a profound impact on his later musical development; suffused in African traditions and customs, they would prove to be the foundation of not only his mature piano style but of his overarching musical aesthetic. The ring shout was central to this footing.

The ring shout, which had become more secular in nature by the time James P. was exposed to it, had its origins in a West African dance ceremony.  The participants shuffled counterclockwise, ostensibly around a deity. It was considered reverent to move in the direction whereby the participants’ hearts were closest to their god. SterlingStuckey elucidates, “the dancing and singing were directed to the ancestors and gods, the tempo and revolution of the circle quickening during the course of the movement.”

Upon their forced uprooting to the New World, African slaves created a syncretistic ritual that fused African traditions and Protestant Christianity. Baraka expounds on its development, “Since dancing was irreligious and sinful, the Negro said that only ‘crossing the feet’ constituted actual dancing. So, the ring shout developed, where the worshipers link arms and shuffle…” The impassioned shouters, moving gradually at an increased tempo, often reached heights of exhaustion and ecstasy. As they sang in antiphonal fashion, they were accompanied by intensely syncopated hand clapping and the pounding of a wooden broomstick against the floor. The figure blow., “Wade the Water to My Knees,” is an exemplar of the time-honored ring shout.

Wade the Water to My Knees. Author’s transcription from Spirituals and Shout Songs from the Georgia Coast (Bolden Home Lodge, 2015).

The essence of the ring shout would not be lost on Johnson. As he matured musically, he retained myriad elements of the secular performance. The call and response patterns, short melodic phrases, repeated motivic fragments, and fervent syncopation would be principal to his compositional and improvisational practices. The image below, The McIntosh County Shouters Performing the Ring Shout in Bolden Home Lodge, 2015, is a photograph taken by Margot Newmark Rosenbaum for the liner notes of Spirituals and Shout Songs from the Georgia Coast: The McIntosh County Shouters, an album produced by the Smithsonian Institute’s Folkways project. It is an authentic icon of what James P. experienced as a child.

Image. The McIntosh County Shouters performing the ring shout in Bolden Home Lodge, 2015.

In 1902, the Johnson family relocated to Monmouth Street in Jersey City, New Jersey. The area, known for its unsavory establishments such as barrelhouses, would prove to be an inspiration for young James. While too young to be permitted to enter the bawdy saloons, he sat outside and was able to pick up popular tunes of the day such as, “She Got Good Booty” and “Baby, Let Your Drawers Hang Low”–all of which were being performed by a pianist referred to as a “tickler.” Johnson recalled his interest in becoming a “tickler” in a series of interviews with Tom Davin. The journalist queried, “How did you get launched as a professional pianist?”

I told you before how I was impressed by my older brothers’friends. They were real ticklers–cabaret and sporting-house players. They were my heroes and led what I felt was a glamorous life–welcome everywhere because of their talent.

While in his early teens, the Johnson family moved to the African American section of Manhattan called San Juan Hill. This area, north and west of Columbus Circle in the lower sixties, was referred to as “The Jungles.” James P. described this neighborhood as “the Negro section of Hell’s Kitchen and ran from 60th to 63rd west of 9th Avenue. It was the toughest part of New York. There were two or three killings a night.” The violence did not deter Johnson’s passion for exploring the music of the metropolis:

In New York, a friend taught me real ragtime. His name was Charley Cherry. He played Joplin. First he played, then I copied him, and then he corrected me…I used to go to the old New York Symphony concerts…I didn’t get much out of them, but the full symphonic sounds made a great impression on me.”

During the summer of 1912, Johnson sojourned to the beach resort town of Far Rockaway, Queens; it was there where he, now in possession of an orchestral approach to the piano, began his cabaret career in earnest. He played regularly in a saloon that he described as:

…a couple of rooms knocked together to make a cabaret. They had beer and liquor, and out in the back yard was a crib house for fast turnover…It was a rough place, but I got nine dollars and tips, or about eighteen dollars a week overall. That was so much money, I didn’t want to go back to school.

In fact, Johnson did not return to school. He spent his time gaining valuable experience in the vast array of sporting-houses and cabarets that peppered Manhattan and the remaining boroughs of New York City. But it was in the “Jungles Casino,” a club located at Sixty-first Street and Tenth Avenue, where he found his home.

The dances they did at the Jungles Casino were wild and comical–the more pose and the more breaks, the better. These Charleston people and the other southerners had just come to New York. They were country people and they felt homesick. When they got tired of two-steps and schottisches…they’d yell, ‘Let’s go back home!’ … ‘Let’s do a set!”… or ‘Now put us in the alley!’ I did my ‘Mule Walk’ or ‘Gut Stomp’ for these country dances… Breakdown music was the best for such sets, the more solid and groovy the better. They’d dance, hollering and screaming until they were cooked. The dances ran from fifteen to thirty minutes, but they kept up all night long or until their shoes wore out—most of them after a heavy day’s work on the docks.

The vernacular songs performed in the “Jungles Casino” would likely be derided by Locke and the black intelligentsia of the “New Negro” movement—they were the apotheosis of the low-brow, musical comportment against which they were combatting.   However, Johnson was aware of the music’s capacity to heal the “homesick.” This is the paragon of racial uplift—possessing the empathy with which to comprehend the austere actuality of a people twice-displaced and, in spite of that reality, buoying their spirits and giving hope to his community.

In the next installment, we’ll continue to James P. Johnson’s development as a tickler!



Leave a Reply