A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

The first song by James P. Johnson I remember hearing was “If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight),” when Jack Lemmon lasciviously warbled it on shipboard as an excited overture to anticipated amorous escapades in the 1955 WWII film Mister Roberts. I suspect the next one was “Charleston,” probably part of a dance number fronted by flapper Dorothy Provine in the early ‘60s television series The Roaring Twenties. At the time I had no idea who the uncredited composer was – and likely neither did the rest of America. The fact that these two songs have been enjoyed by millions of people – though just the tip of the iceberg in terms of his career achievements – and yet Johnson today receives only minor attention in the histories of American theater, popular music, and even worse, jazz, says a lot about our culture, but also something about Johnson himself, and perhaps the nature of genius.


Who was James P. Johnson, and why isn’t he a household name? He was one of the primary innovators of what we recognize today as jazz piano, a manner of playing that evolved out of the composed and controlled elements of ragtime into a malleable process of formal improvisation, spontaneous and swinging – probably the most respected of the wave of so-called Harlem “ticklers” who, with dazzling technique, devised startling effects, loosened the rhythmic feel, and brought, in Duke Ellington’s words, “real invention” to every performance. As such, he was a keyboard mentor to Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and especially Fats Waller, and a best-selling recording artist, originally on piano rolls, then vinyl. He was a creative and empathetic accompanist to popular singers, equally fluent with the down home blues of Bessie Smith or the sophisticated urbanity of Ethel Waters. He was musical director for hit theatrical productions (Plantation Days and Negro Nuances, among them) and nightclub revues. And, foremost in Johnson’s own mind, he was a composer – at first, in the 1920s, of successful Broadway shows including Runnin’ Wild (the source of “Charleston,” an immediate sensation), Keep Shufflin’, Moochin’ Along (which included “If I Could Be With You”), and Messin’ Around – does anyone sense a formula here? – but later in life even more ambitious tone poems, concertos, and symphonic works, which are neglected or lost today.


Fortunately, Mosaic Records, with its typical historical wisdom and care, has issued a selection of Classic James P. Johnson Sessions (1921-43), six CDs which provide the best and most thorough – albeit, realistically, still incomplete – portrait of this great artist to date. Johnson was enormously prolific; he recorded dozens of piano rolls beginning in 1917 and more than 400 subsequent performances on disc, composed over 200 “jazz” pieces and popular songs as well as those musicals and concert works. Mosaic picks up the story with Johnson and his unidentified Harmony Seven in 1921 accompanying one Lavinia Turner, indicative of his bulging catalogue of work with blues and popular – that is, vaudeville, cabaret, and theatrical – singers. This aspect of Johnson’s career was a reliable source of income over the years, and produced a fair share of audience-pleasing if now outdated hokum, like the novelty numbers with topical and often embarrassing banter between Johnson and Spencer Williams or Clarence Williams and the latter’s ridiculous vocal effects; Roy Evans’ yodeling (apparently there was a brief craze); many tunes oozing with sexual innuendo; and those recorded to obtain publishing rights and royalties. But there were gems too, for example, Ida Cox’s macabre “Death Letter Blues;” performances where the enthusiasm or imagination of the accompaniment overshadowed the vocal effort, such as the mixture of grit and hot licks in Perry Bradford’s “Fare Thee Honey Blues” and the rambunctious “Skiddle De Scow,” both enlivened by Louis Metcalf’s trumpet; and most notably the 15 powerful sides with Bessie Smith, where Johnson almost off-handedly inserts wry and inspired details, such as the ominous descending line, soon thereafter to be common property, in “Back Water Blues,” his ironic melodic contrast to Bessie’s forthright indignation and her trumpet-like growl of “Lord, Lord, Lord” in “Dirty No-Gooder’s Blues,” and his “spooky” background to “Blue Spirit Blues.”


Among the 158 performances collected here, 60 feature Johnson as vocal accompanist, 22 are piano solos (more about those later), and the remainder are band numbers without or mostly with vocals. The earliest of these, such as those of the Harmony Seven and, a few months later, Harmony Eight, are more show band than jazz ensemble, with only an aggressive attitude and some characteristically rowdy timbres – braying trombone, piping clarinet, stentorian trumpet – to suggest future directions. By 1927, however, Johnson’s Original Jazz Hounds, with players like trumpeter Metcalf and clarinetists Bob Fuller or Ernest Elliott, had the routine down, though the pianist was the most advanced. Mention should be made of the 1928 Louisiana Sugar Babies session, as its four-piece instrumentation – cornet, bassoon/clarinet/alto sax, piano, and organ – is almost unimaginable even by today’s standards, but obtains a fascinating blend of tonal colors and subtle lyricism, and was the first of several recordings to team up Johnson and his protégé, Fats Waller. Leaping forward a decade, three separate groups under the leadership of clarinetist and viper Mezz Mezzrow, trumpeter Frankie Newton, and Johnson himself are spry and saucy, sometimes spectacular, examples of small group swing, a gathering of stylistic equals varying established players like trumpeters Sidney DeParis or Red Allen, trombonist J.C. Higginbotham, saxists Pete Brown or Gene Sedric, guitarists Teddy Bunn or Al Casey, and top-notch drummers Zutty Singleton, Cozy Cole, and Big Sid Catlett respectively. Johnson is the sole common denominator. The ‘30s and ‘40s were his most active period as a jazz band presence, but the majority of that material, as sideman or leader, recorded for Commodore, Blue Note, and other labels, must be found elsewhere.


Which brings us to the pure, unadulterated James P. In his piano solos it’s possible to trace a line from Scott Joplin to Cecil Taylor. Sidney Bechet wrote in his autobiography that Duke Ellington sounded like Johnson as early as 1922, and after listening to a playback of his solo “Functional” in 1957, Thelonious Monk famously said, “I sound like James P.” In an interview with Tom Davin published in The Jazz Review in 1959 (four years after his death), Johnson characterized his breakthroughs as being dance-related. Ragtime may have been the foundation for those initial advances, but Johnson acknowledged that he drew from cakewalks, two-steps, schottisches, ring-dances, charlestons (although not necessarily known by that name at the time) and other styles for the various rhythms and syncopation in his playing, and also ... ”Sometimes  I would play basses a little lighter than the melody and change harmonies. When playing a heavy stomp, I’d soften it right down – then, I’d make an abrupt change like I heard Beethoven do in a sonata. ... Once I used Liszt’s Rigoletto Concert Paraphrase as an introduction to a stomp.” Johnson’s genius was in his conceptualization, as a composer, of these various resources – whether predetermined or spontaneously – in tandem with his ability to play whatever came to his mind. He has been called the Father of Stride, due in large part to the strength and surprise of his left hand patterns, but pianist Ethan Iverson made a broader assessment of Johnson on his blog Do The Math: “Part of the real Harlem stride style is how single notes do not dominate the melody; instead, constant constellations of double notes (and sometimes chords) brassily sing on top,” and that, as an improvising composer, “Johnson created veritable rhapsodies out of nearly nothing.”


The first solo in the Mosaic box, “Keep Off the Grass,” from 1921, is traditionally rag-like in its form, but Johnson’s buoyant attack, clear phrasing, and energetic drive make it obvious that Scott Joplin’s admonishment “It is never right to play ragtime fast” no longer applies. A new style was emerging, and the jaunty descending opening theme and complex rhythmic alterations on that disc’s flip side made “Carolina Shout” an instant and permanent classic. The six surviving solos he put down in 1923 give additional evidence of the authority and ease with which he was re-imagining the possibilities available to pianists. “Worried and Lonesome Blues” shows off his amazing technique – orchestral in its fullness – in succeeding choruses, especially his flashing left hand as it walks, tumbles, stomps, and flows, while in the first chorus his right hand repeats chords in fast triplets (in 30 years Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis will rock this style to stardom). He double-times and half-times one hand or the other at will; “Scouting Around” introduces ideas that he’ll pursue with more vigor a few years later in “All That I Had Is Gone,” with a remarkable Monkish skittering and off-kilter accents in the closing chorus. The flamboyance, propulsion, and rhythmic hiccups of “Riffs” evoke fireworks, yet it is constructed with an uncanny perfection. Following this session in 1929, it was a year before Johnson recorded any more solos, and those four, for Brunswick, are not included here. Another eight years passed without solos, but the 1939 session with six (and one alternate take) – five of his own tunes and a joyful romp through Edgar Sampson and Benny Goodman’s “If Dreams Come True” – is here, and shows him at full prowess. A year later, in 1940, he suffered the first of the strokes that would gradually incapacitate him and eventually cause his death in 1955. But there were periods of strong playing in between. In 1943 and ‘44 he revisited some of his greatest pieces, as well as eight Fats Waller hits, for Blue Note and Decca; none of them are in this box, however, nor are the sessions he recorded for Moe Asch’s label between 1942 and ‘45 that included a solo version of his piano-and-orchestra composition Yamekraw, and the second movement of his Jazzamine Concerto, plus a rollicking account of Gershwin’s “Liza” that breaks up phrases, leaves out chunks of melody, and syncopates deftly. I’d bet real money that Monk knew this one intimately before he recorded his own version in 1964. But Mosaic does include, as a coda, two pieces from an otherwise unissued 1943 session, where Johnson invents on the spot a heartfelt “Blues for Fats,” three days after his close friend had passed away.


James P. Johnson created so much great music, did so much, so well, in most cases before anyone else, why doesn’t he have the reputation of a Jelly Roll Morton, or an Art Tatum, or even his friend Fats Waller? It’s true, those were each distinctive artists, but so was Johnson. Perhaps he was a victim of his versatility; the musicals and revues he composed were outside of the jazz world, and those few classical pieces that have been resurrected – Yamekraw and the Harlem Symphony – are closer to Gershwin than to Ellington’s extended works. It’s ironic that Johnson was so great a jazz artist, but had much more music than that in him, dying to come out. He was too well-rounded, too exceptional, too ambitious to be limited by a single style. I like the word Sidney Bechet used. James P. Johnson was, in all senses, a musicianer.


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Speaking of brilliant pianists, when I was a much younger man first investigating the classical piano repertory, I quickly became mesmerized by Glenn Gould, primarily for his idiosyncratic interpretive perspective, which ranged from insightful to perverse. It started with Bach, of course; Gould’s ability to project the densest counterpoint with absolute transparency and purpose, while sustaining the long, circuitous lines with a flair that avoided the rhythmic regularity of what was at one time called “sewing-machine” Bach, was seductive and enlightening. From there it was a short hop to his Schönberg; though the lines were somewhat more tangled, the harmonies labyrinthine, he plotted a steady, sure-footed path. And only then Mozart, which is where the perverse imp of Gould’s nature ran wild with dizzying tempos and fractious phrasing. I had no need for his Beethoven, since Schnabel held that patent – that is, on those rare occasions when Beethoven didn’t seem like a bore. (I wonder, had he lived past age 50 and expanded his repertoire, what Gould would have done with the Boulez Second Sonata or, perversely, any of Morton Feldman’s late, epic piano works.)


But lately, in my dotage, I’ve desired to explore other avenues of expression in music I now know well. Gould’s unrelenting intensity and keen focus occupies a young man’s one-dimensional perfection; it’s time to slow down, cast a cold eye on alternative points of view, contemplate. Which is how I – more than a half-century after everyone else – started paying attention to Sviatoslav Richter. In my defense, I knew of him but had no need for the music he was best known for: Schubert or Chopin, Liszt or Rachmaninoff, his legendary version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition or his vivid take on (ugh) Beethoven. (Rumor had it his late Prokofiev war sonatas were explosively vicious, however, so maybe ...) Nevertheless, impeccable, effortless technique. Didn’t make his debut in the West until 1960 (he was 45), with performances in Finland and ... Chicago. Anti-Soviet protesters disrupted an appearance at Carnegie Hall in 1970, and he never returned. He died in 1997, age 82. Ironically, Richter could be thought of as the reverse mirror image of Gould; where the Canadian gave up performing live in favor of the laboratorial isolation of the studio, the Russian thrived on the spontaneity and drama of concerts. As a result, Richter’s live recordings – from official releases and bootlegs, in acceptable or abysmal sound quality, on disc, video, and in the apparently limitless domain of YouTube – far outnumber, and outshine, his studio efforts. Collectors can be a fervent and forgiving lot.


So, bypassing the usual points of entry, I came to appreciate Richter initially though chamber music, and modern music at that. He is soloist in the most convincing performance I know of Stravinsky’s late-period Movements, outlining the angular intervals and pointed rhythms with a committed, crisp, yet fluid attack, and creating tension by alternately softening a sequence of notes and jolting the next with a diamond-hard tone. With Oleg Kagan and the thirteen winds of the Moscow Conservatory Chamber Ensemble, he brings a powerful, tenacious determination to the fanciful ebb and flow of Berg’s Chamber Concerto. His spellbinding contribution to Shostakovich’s bleak, bitter violin (accompanying Kagan) and viola (with Yuri Bashmet) sonatas holds the music in a death grip.


Naturally, curiosity led me to listen to Richter playing Bach. He’s recorded both books of the Well-Tempered Clavier, and his recitals are peppered with excerpts or an occasional English or French Suite. Temperamentally, he fits into the Bach tradition of Russian pianists like Samuil Feinberg, Maria Yudina, and Tatiana Nikoleyeva, that is, emphasizing a sense of nobility and lyricism, and exploiting the full resources of the piano (no trace of Gould’s pedal-free pseudo-harpsichord here). At times under Richter’s hands this can translate into a rhythmic stodginess, a uniformity of style that seems uninvolved and calls to mind his comment, related by Bruno Monsaingeon, that “It does no harm to listen to Bach from time to time, even if only from a hygienic standpoint.” But when he relaxed this undifferentiated consistency, he could also develop a fugue, typically those in minor keys, with a profound depth of feeling, as in the WTC Book One’s No. 12 in F minor and No. 8 in E minor. In so doing, Richter would introduce the fugal theme slowly, cautiously, as if discovering the notes at that moment and pulling them out of silence, heightening the impact of their shape. He uses the same effect in the first and third of Robert Schumann’s rarely encountered and bewildering Four Fugues, op. 72, composed 95 years after Bach’s death and long after the form was considered an antique notion. Actually they are more a hybrid of fugue and 19th century Romantic song, unified by a sonata-like overview; still, Richter graces the third fugue with an especially poignant, thoroughly Bach-like, grandeur.


Likewise, it’s understandable that Richter, like Gould, was drawn to the exquisitely crafted and frequently captivating, if otherwise less-than-fashionable music of Paul Hindemith, since his piano compositions were based on clear, neo-Baroque proportions and contrapuntal schemes. Both pianists favored the sonatas, but Richter went several steps further by tackling the hour-long compendium of fugues and interludes, Ludus Tonalis, which Gould surprisingly stood clear of, as well as offering a dynamic account of the concerto-in-all-but-name Kammermusik No. 2, op. 36/1. But despite Richter’s accomplishments with 20th century scores (and he even fearlessly ventured into Webern’s Variations), it’s hard to interpret what music was closest to his heart. Not being intimate (yet, maybe someday) with his Schubert or Liszt, it’s impossible for me to know if any secrets are revealed therein. But I can speak of one particular Haydn sonata, No. 33, again in a minor key (C minor), performed live in Moscow in 1991 (you can watch him play it on YouTube), where he ever-so-briefly lets his guard down and shows an approach as emotional as it is analytical. His tempi in the second and third movements conform to common practice, but he plays the first movement with a somber undercurrent, about one-third slower than did noted interpreters like Alfred Brendel and his countryman Emil Gilels. When he reaches the transitional passage between the first and brighter second section, he slows to a crawl and whispers the notes, as if lost in thought, exaggerating the effect most pianists apply discreetly. It’s a small gesture, but dramatically chilling. What does it signify? I don’t know, but I can say that while those notes linger in the air, time stands still.

Art Lange©2016

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