Along with “Charley “Luckey” Roberts, James Price Johnson (1894-1955) originated the stride style of jazz piano-playing,* which is probably the justification of titling the Concordia Orchestra disc of symphonic music by him “Victory Stride,” although that piece occupies only four of the seventy minutes of playing time.
Johnson–who taught “Fats” Waller and was the favorite accompanist of Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters and made more than 400 piano rolls, some of which can be heard at http://redhotjazz.com/JPJohnson.html–was a central figure in the transition from ragtime to swing. He is most famous for writing “Charleston” (which was included in the Broadway show “Runnin’ Wild”” in 1923, although seemingly written earlier). Before reading the disc’s program notes, I had not known that the defining dance of the “Roaring 20s” (also known as “the Jazz Age”) was launched by a particular piece of music.
In part because the dexterity of his left hand for which he had been celebrated was affected by a series of strokes beginning in 1930, and in part from a wish similar to that of George Gershwin and Scott Joplin to be taken seriously, Johnson moved from performing on and writing for piano and writing show tunes to writing jazz-inflected symphonies, concertos, tone poems, and opera (the 1940 “De Organizer” with a libretto by Langston Hughes).
I find “Victory Stride” and “Charleston” the least engaging cuts on the disc, although the orchestration of “Charleston” and the slow tempo (in contrast to that of the piano roll cut by Johnson) turn the first half into mournful blues for first saxophone, then clarinet, then trumpet, and, finally some arpeggio-laden piano. The second half is faster, swinging in a way that sounds Dixielandish to me.
I’d have titled the disc “Harlem Symphony,” the longest (21 minutes) piece and the most atmospheric. After all, the recording is attempting to make the case for Johnson as a writer for symphony orchestra rather than as a stride pianist.
Harlem Symphony (1932) is a four-movement programmatic piece, starting on the subway pulling out of Penn Station, through the Jewish neighborhood around 110th street, the Spanish Harlem neighborhood around 116th street, into the black Harlem around 135 Street. Finally, in the “Seventh Avenue Promenade” the train returns to Penn Station (and the opening theme) rather more quickly.
The second (and longest and most lyrical) movement, “April in Harlem” is considerably more languorous, beginning for woodwinds and thickening the harmony without losing the slow, bluesy melody. Its affinities to Gershwin orchestral music are audible (though I would not hazard a guess about who influenced whom!)
The tempo picks up–and the style flashes back to ragtime of “Luckey” Roberts and Johnson’s beginnings, though with swinging trumpet (sounding a bit Dixielandish to me).The last minute seems good music for trapeze performers. The movement closes with a fervent clarinet riff.
The final movement, “Baptist Mission” is considerably more subdued. The theme (reportedly “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me,” a hymn I don’t recall ever hearing) played by strings is followed by seven variations, “run[ning] from quiet reverence to roaring worship. I think that I hear “Frere Jacques” played with about a minute before the final climax. (Johnson’s piano playing was noted for lots of changes in key; this is not particularly notable in his orchestral writing, except at the very end of “Baptist Mission.”
The third movement of the “Piano Concerto in A-Flat” from 1934 has been lost. Johnson recorded a solo piano version of the second movement in 1945 as “Blues for Jimmy.” as Concerto Jazz A Mine (my guess is that this is “of mine” rather than fission of “Jasmine”) is a show piece of different jazz piano styles (ragtime, stride, blues, and boogie-woogie). In its setting piano against orchestra, it is a “concerto” in the classical sense.
The “Allegro” seems rather slow and mournful to me for the first 5 minutes, then picks up tempo and has what I’d label a cadenza rather than a riff for the piano. I like both the melody and the orchestration and the big finish (Gershwin’s 1924 “Rhapsody in Blue” comes to mind for this ending, Gershwin’s 1925 “Concerto in F” for piano elsewhere throughout it).
The “Adagio” is (as convention would have it) slower, but not at all lugubrious. None of it reminds me of “Rhapsody in Blue”–more of Duke Ellington, who was influenced by Johnson.
The American Symphonic Suite (1932) also originally had three movements, but only one survives. It is a chromatic reworking of W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.” The movement (performed along with the third by the Brooklyn Civic Orchestra in 1942) was labeled “Lament,” a title that IMO would better fit some other tracks on the disc. It sounds fairly bold and assertive to me, though not without melancholy between its assertions. It has a “Hollywood” finish.
The percussive 1932 “symphonic poem” is aptly titled Drums,” and begins with a timpani solo. A quite lively (swinging) piece may have been included in “Harlem Hotcha” with lyrics by Andy Razal. Langston Hughes wrote lyrics to/for the music (which are, alas, not included in the CD booklet). There are more drum solos between orchestral developments of two main themes. The orchestration is quite interestingly varied. Though one does not expect someone who began performing his own piano works to be a master of orchestration, Johnson clearly became one. I don’t doubt that he studied and worked hard at mastering the skills of orchestration, but IMO he had a talent for it. Despite its amply justified title, “Drums” has some notable employment of strings (not otherwise a Johnson strength and not a strength of other jazz pianists-turned-composers, either). It also has a quite interesting drum/flute duet.
Although not having any other recordings of Johnson orchestral music with which to compare this one, I think that conductor Marin Alsop+ and Leslie Stifelman had not only the determination to rescue and present this music, but the necessary skill and sympathy with what Johnson was trying to do to make the album of more than “historic” interest for documenting the ambitions of a musician connected to the Harlem Renaissance/Jazz Age… And the more I listen to the first half of “Charleston,” the more I like it.
I can’t say that I understand why the disc is not ordered chronologically. It begins with the last piece written and ends with the first, but does not proceed backward in chronology either. .. But with programmable CD-players, iPods, iMusic, et al., the recordings can be reordered… My favorites are “April in Harlem” and “Drums.”
* The anonymous author of the Wikipedia article explains “stride” as follows:
“The pianist’s left hand may play a four-beat pulse with a bass note or tenth interval on the first and third beats, and a chord on the second and fourth beats, or an interrupted bass with 3 single notes and then a chord while the right hand plays melodies and chords. The over-simplistic name “stride” comes from the “striding” left-hand movement. Pedal technique further varies the left hand sound. Stride is one of the most difficult styles of jazz piano playing, takes years to master, and is often confused with other jazz piano where the left hand alternates. One does not play “some” stride, but plays a full several minute piece in the idiom, with many variations along the melodic line.”
+ In 1993 Alsop led the Concordia Orchestra in the world premiere recording of George Gershwin’s 1922 opera “Blue Monday.” She has recorded a lot of Samuel Barber music and the new (second) Philip Glass violin concerto.
Tracks and Timings
Harlem Symphony: Subway Journey3:59
Harlem Symphony: April in Harlem7:44
Harlem Symphony: Night Club3:45
Harlem Symphony: Baptist Mission6:21
Concerto Jazz A Mine I: Allegro9:13
Concerto Jazz A Mine II: Adagio8:14
American Symphonic Suite: Lament8:53
Drums: A Symphonic Poem9:25