Jazz, Social Commentary, and the Harlem Renaissance

James P. Johnson, the Emergence of Stride, and the Rent Party

19 May 2020

James P. Johnson, the Emergence of Stride, and the Rent Party


James P. Johnson, the Emergence of Stride, and the Rent Party


During the following years, Johnson would meet several musicians who would have a substantial influence on his playing–Willie “The Lion” Smith, Richard “Abba Labba” McLean, Luckey Roberts, and Eubie Blake. Each of these men provided invaluable informal training, encouragement, and direction to their friend and protégé. Johnson, who was gifted with perfect pitch and an astonishing tonal memory, was able to assimilate their styles while in the process of developing his own:

I was starting to develop a very good technique. I was born with absolute pitch and could catch a key that a player was using and copy it, even Luckey’s. I played rags very accurately and brilliantly running chromatic octaves and glissandos up and down with both hands. It made a terrific effect.

According to Johnson’s account with Davin, a Mr. Fay from the Aeolian Piano Company contacted him in 1916 to cut ragtime piano rolls. However, no tangible evidence is extant to corroborate the pianist’s claims. The following year, however, James P. was afforded the opportunity to document a series of piano rolls, the first of which was in May, a William Farrell composition, “After Tonight,” for the Universal company. Sixteen additional hand-played rolls followed, including nine original compositions: “Caprice Rag,” “Daintiness Rag,” “Fascination,” “Innovation,” “Mama’s Blues,” “Monkey Hunch,” “Steeplechase Rag,” “Stop It,” and “Twilight Rag.”

The process of cutting piano rolls was tedious but paid well. Using a “recording” piano, Johnson would perform his composition in real-time. As he depressed the piano keys, “pencil marks were made by eighty-eight tiny carbon markers. When the ‘recording’ was finished, the result was a marked-up preliminary master roll. The next operation consisted of manually cutting out the marked spots with special die punches.” Copying machinery would mass-produce rolls that would be ready for public purchase. Using a player piano, or pianola, the user could entertain friends and family by “performing” rags and classics; pumping pedals on the piano would force air into the instrument, thus causing the roll to move. As the roll rotated, the perforated marks in the paper would trigger a mechanism to initiate a hammer to strike the strings, thus producing the correct pitch and its duration.

Johnson’s transmutation from the straight ragtime style vis-à-vis Joplin to the looser, swinging approach for which he is renowned, transpired after February 1918 and prior to May 1921. The evolution was likely an organic one, with no singular moment lucidly marking his transformation. The former date, however, documents James P.’s initial piano roll for his masterpiece, “Carolina Shout,” while the latter marks his subsequent cut of the tune. The transfiguration is remarkable. The 1918 version is stiff in comparison and rife with an undemonstrative character. The 1921 rendering embodies the fervor and prowess for which Johnson had been striving—the hallmarks of the Harlem stride aesthetic. The music was steeped in the countrified, agrarian spirit of his past while capturing the ebullient, cosmopolitan ethos of his present. “Carolina Shout,” which became the étude for all aspiring stride pianists, in its capacity to raise the proverbial bar for vernacular piano playing and composition, should have quelled the bemoaning voice of the black intelligentsia. In his article, “Balancing Composition and Improvisation in James P. Johnson’s Carolina Shout,” Martin illuminates the essence of the style and thusly, the import of Johnson’s seminal composition:

Stride piano developed from a blend of three musical genres: ragtime, the blues, and the ring shout. From the blues, stride took blue notes (or bent notes) and used note clusters to approximate them. From solo piano ragtime, stride took formal structures and harmonic and textural elements. From the ring shout, a dance of African origin, stride took its exciting effect, call-and-response formulas, short melodic patterns, and ‘groove.’

Duke Ellington shared his experience with Johnson’s 1921 tour de force:

My first encounter with James was through the piano rolls, the Q.R.S. rolls. Percy Johnson, a drummer in Washington told me about them, took me home with him, and played “Carolina Shout” for me. He said I ought to learn it. So how was I going to do it, I wanted to know. He showed me the way. We slowed the machine and then I could follow the keys going down. I learned it! And how I learned it. I nursed it, rehearsed it…Yes, this was the most solid foundation for me… “Carolina Shout” became my party piece.

Ellington’s reference to a “party piece” explicates a part of Harlem’s history that is inextricably bound to the inequity and malevolence with which the black community was forced to withstand and one that was central to the need for their art as a respite—discriminatory housing practices.

The first decade of the twentieth century saw a mass exodus of African Americans fleeing the unspeakable circumstances manifested by the tyranny of Jim Crow. While the first World War may have facilitated the necessity for black labor in northern industrial cities, the impetus for the Great Migration was assuredly self-preservation. Harlem’s African American populace, for example, more than quadrupled between 1910 and 1920; 9.89% of central Harlem’s entire population of 181,949 swelled to 32.43% of 216,026 by the time of the second census. This induced white property owners to punitively increase the cost of apartment rentals to black Americans by twenty to thirty dollars more than what was charged to white residents. In its 1927 report on 2,326 Harlem apartments, the Urban League found that 48% of the [black] renters spent an average of $55.70 per month compared to $32.43 by white tenants. In order to subsist, the African American community determined its resiliency and resisted the display of fiscal injustice by devising a “unique social and entertainment phenomenon known as the rent party.”

As the name implies, the rent party served as a social gathering where attendees would be provided food, drinks, and entertainment for a nominal admission fee. The money raised during the event would help offset the cost of the tenant’s rent. Below, is a lithograph entitled, Harlem Rent Party, by Mabel Dwight that depicts a scene from the Wallace Thurman play, “Harlem,” from 1929. The following figure illustrates how a typical rent party was promoted.

Fig. Harlem Rent Party, Mabel Dwight lithography from 1929.

Fig. Rent Party Cards from the Langston Hughes Papers (Courtesy of James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of African American Arts and Letters, Yale Collection of American Literature).

The tagline, the “music won’t quit,” was apropos for the rent party setting, since the central figures were the “ticklers.” The “Big Three,” James P., Willie “The Lion” Smith and Thomas “Fats” Waller had a ubiquitous presence throughout Harlem. Through the night and into the following morning, partygoers would be entertained by each man attempting to “cut” the other with incessant, musical invention. Duke Ellington recalled:

Before you knew it, James had played about thirty choruses, each one different, each one with a different theme. By then, The Lion would be stirred up. ‘Get up and I’ll show you how it’s supposed to be done,’ he’d say. Then, one after the other, over and over again they’d play, and it seemed as though you never heard the same note twice…You know, [James] normally played the most, and in competition a little bit more.

In the next installment, we tackle “Carolina Shout.”

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