Jazz, Social Commentary, and the Harlem Renaissance

Diggin’ into “Charleston” – The Introduction

7 Jun 2020

Diggin’ into “Charleston” – The Introduction


Diggin’ into “Charleston” – The Introduction

As published in 1923 by Harms Incorporated of New York, “Charleston” is an infectiously syncopated composition built on a verse-chorus (AB) song form. From the onset, Johnson presents the audience with the primary rhythmic motive and his harmonic invention within an eight-bar introduction. The “Charleston rhythm,” as it has been ubiquitously dubbed for decades, was simply a syncopated, duple rhythm which alludes to jazz’s foundations in ragtime:

Fig. Charleston Rhythm as published in 1923.

James P., however, performed the rhythm in a simple-quadruple meter as can be seen in measures five through seven in Johnson’s introduction to his March 24, 1924, piano roll for QRS, (QRS 101027):

Fig. Charleston Rhythm from piano roll QRS 101027. Author’s transcription.


Harmonically, “Charleston” is much more complex than its rhythmic counterpart. There exists a certain irony here; while the syncopation within the context of the tune is exultant, the composition’s success is assuredly not singularly contingent upon it. The harmony not only supports the melodic framework of the song but adds sustenance to the rhythmic comportment as well.

Johnson introduces the tune on the submediant of B♭ major, G-minor. In the second bar, he employs the secondary dominant of the subdominant (V7/IV), B♭7, and progresses, as expected, to the IV chord on the downbeat of the subsequent measure. On the second beat in the third measure, Johnson plays an Italian-Augmented Sixth chord, It+6 , (G♭—B♭—E♮). This simultaneity is not common in the jazz canon, which illustrates James P.’s proclivity for assimilating unconventional, musical elements into his compositions—his “modernistic” approach. The It+6 moves to a second-inversion tonic triad, rather than the expected dominant chord.

On the downbeat of the fourth measure, Johnson restates the It+6 and advances to a French-Augmented Sixth chord, Fr+6, (G♭—B♭—C♮—E♮). While some may attempt to analyze the latter sonority as a C7(♭5), a more common spelling in the jazz idiom, it is was not a part of early jazz nomenclature. More importantly, as a student of Joplin’s compositions, James P. would likely be familiar with his rag, “Binks’ Waltz” from 1905, which contained a German-Augmented Sixth chord in measure ninety-six:

Fig. “Binks’ Waltz,” Scott Joplin. 1905.

Binks' Waltz


In the fifth bar, James P. begins with a G-minor-seventh chord in second inversion and prolongs the dominant harmony by using a leading-tone-seventh chord of F, or a vii°7/V in third inversion (e°7/Db). The movement to the dominant, F7, is temporarily delayed by a half-diminished-seventh chord in first inversion, Aø7/C. The remainder of the sixth measure functions with the V7 chord as it moves to the tonic in the penultimate bar. Johnson cleverly sustains the outer voices here, while employing standard voice-leading techniques within the inner voices to change the harmonies with a crescendo-building sequence of V7/iv (mode-mixture)—vi(add 6) —V7/iv—vi(add 6). This movement settles on the tonic harmony for the closing bar of the introduction. Johnson rests for half a beat and then sets up the verse with a sforzando-marked V7/vi chord:

Fig. “Charleston,” James P. Johnson, 1923. Author’s analysis.


In the next installment, we’ll breakdown the oft-neglected verse!



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