In the mid 1920s, dances such as the Fox Trot, The Shimmy, The Black Bottom and The Varsity were sweeping America. One dance in particular epitomized America during this decade: “The Charleston”, written by James P. Johnson, the father of stride piano.
Composer and pianist James Price Johnson, the father of stride piano, was born on February 1, 1891 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He attended New York public schools and received private piano study. His professional debut as a pianist came in 1904. In the early 1910’s, Johnson worked as a pianist in summer resorts, theatres, films and nightclubs before forming his own band in 1920, called the Clef Club. The Clef Club toured throughout Europe with the vaudeville show Plantation Days.
Returning to the States, Johnson was the accompanist for such renowned singers as Bessie Smith, Trixie Smith, Mamie Smith, Laura Smith andn Ethel Waters. In the 1930’s, he took his stride style to the movie screen and composed scores for films including Yamacraw.
The stride style that influenced such legends as Duke Ellingon and Fats Domino, stresses a strong "swinging" bass while moving in a "stride fashion" with a single treble melody. Introduced in 1924 with "The Charleston", combined Ragtime syncopation and the smooth progression of jazz with livelier upbeat rhythms and a swinging bass that helped usher in the next decade's genre.
Johnson’s discography is equally distributed with serious works as well as hit jazz standards. His works include “Symphonic Harlem”, “Symphony in Brown”, “African Drums”, “Piano Concerto in A-flat”, “Mississippi Symphonic Suite on St. Louis Blues”, “Yamacraw”, “City of Steel”, “De Organizer”, “Dreamy Kid”, “Kitchen Opera”, “The Husband”, “Manhattan Street Scene” and “Sefronia’s Dream.”
His popular catalog includes the hit songs “Old Fashioned Love”, “Don’t Cry Baby”, “Charleston”, “If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight”, “Stop it Joe”, “Mama and Papa Blues”, “Hey, Hey”, “Runnin’ Wild”, “Porter’s Love Song to a Chambermaid”, “Snowy Morning Blues”, “Eccentricity Waltz”, “Carolina Shout” and “Keep Off the Grass”.
A member of the League of Composers and the NAACC, Johnson composed primarily by himself but did have a few collaborations with lyricists including Mike Riley, Nelson Cogane and Cecil Mack.
James P. Johnson died in New York City on November 17, 1955, however the stride musical style he introduced continues to reinvent music of every genre.