Jazz, Social Commentary, and the Harlem Renaissance

James P. Johnson and the Soundtrack to the Jazz Age

1 Jun 2020

James P. Johnson and the Soundtrack to the Jazz Age

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James P. Johnson and “Charleston.”

If James P.’s contributions to the history and tradition of jazz ended with “Carolina Shout,” he would assuredly be included in the pantheon of the music’s elite. However, his humanity—his desire to provide a salve for the homesick denizens from the Carolinas—served as a compelling impetus for him to continue composing. While entertaining the exiled African American community in the “Jungles Casino,” James P. recalled:

The Charleston, which became a popular dance step on its own, was just a regulation cotillion step without a name. It had many variations—all danced to the rhythm that everybody knows now. One regular at the Casino, named Dan White, was the best dancer in the crowd and he introduced the Charleston step as we know it. But there were dozens of other steps used, too. It was while playing for these southern dancers that I composed a number of Charlestons—eight in all—all with the same rhythm. One of these later became my famous Charleston when it hit Broadway.

On October 29, 1923, a black musical theater production entitled, Runnin’ Wild, opened at a location in San Juan Hill not too distant from the “Jungles Casino.” A decade after exultantly entertaining the longshoremen in a cellar where, “when it rained, the water would run down the walls from the street so [the dancers] all had to stop and mop up the floor,” Johnson had made it to the Colonial Theatre on the corner of Broadway and 62nd Street. Runnin’ Wild, a musical revue that would become the only all-African American Broadway production to rival the success of Shuffle Along by Eubie Blake and Nobel Sissle, ran for two hundred and thirteen performances on Broadway before closing on May 3, 1924. The show was a musical comedy in two acts with a total of ten scenes. The book was by Flournoy E. Miller and Aubrey L. Lyles, who incidentally wrote Shuffle Along and were the stars of the production. James P. composed the score, Cecil Mack (a pseudonym for Richard McPhearson) provided the lyrics, the choreography was arranged by Lyda Webb, and George White (of the George White’s Scandals fame of 1919) was the producer. Like its predecessor in Shuffle Along, Runnin’ Wild was based on a paltry plot that was connected by the nucleus of the revue—its music. Two crowd-pleasing numbers received critical acclaim—”Old Fashioned Love” and the epoch-making “Charleston.”

“Charleston,” the late theater historian Gerald Bordman exclaimed, “ultimately expressed and symbolized the whole gaudy era about to explode. It pronounced the beat for the ‘lost generation’ and liberated the whole jazz movement.” Indubitably, James P., as a testament to his humility, had no reason to believe that the rhythmic allure and lyrical nature that were featured in “Charleston” would procure international renown. In 1913, when he first played the tune at the “Jungles Casino,” his aim was to entertain himself and his community and provide an experience that would vanquish the social, racial, and economic bigotry that confronted them.

Considering the esteem with which “Charleston” is held and its nexus to the “Roaring Twenties” and the “Jazz Age,” Johnson only recorded the song on three occasions—all of which moved away from the two-beat rhythm of ragtime; the first document of the tune is from the QRS piano roll from March 24, 1924, where James P. performs a medley from Runnin’ Wild: “Charleston,” “Old Fashioned Love,” “Open Your Heart” and “Love Bug.” The second recording, another QRS piano roll, was from June of 1925. Lastly, Johnson took part in the Rudi Blesh broadcast, This is Jazz. This final version of “Charleston” was an aggregate setting with James P. on the piano being accompanied by Dixieland staples Muggsy Spanier, cornet; George Brunis, trombone, vocals; Albert Nicholas, clarinet; Danny Barker, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Baby Dodds, drums and Sidney Bechet, soprano sax.

The next installment will examine the musical form and harmonic foundation of James P. Johnson’s seminal composition.

In the meantime, enjoy this recording!

From This is Jazz. This final version of “Charleston” was an performed by Rudi Blesh’s All-Star Stompers with James P. on the piano being accompanied by Dixieland staples Mugsy Spanier, cornet; George Brunis, trombone, vocals; Albert Nicholas, clarinet; Danny Barker, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Baby Dodds, drums and Sidney Bechet, soprano sax.



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