Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Celebrating James P. Johnson

It's encouraging to know that in the midst of living in the "interesting times" the Chinese viewed as a curse, some heartwarmingly positive things are happening as well. One of the more encouraging I have encountered recently was a concert in a West Village club celebrating and raising money for James P. Johnson (he wrote "Charleston"), the leading exponent of "stride" piano (perhaps along with Willie "The Lion" Smith), a style developed in the 1920s featuring a strong rhythmic left hand giving impetus to sometimes delicate melodies and elaborate riffs in the right hand. Stride was in many ways the transtion between ragtime and jazz as it came to be known in the 1930s and 1940s and beyond. YouTube examples here, here, here and here.

Anyway, it turns that Johnson died in 1955 and while people knew his grave was in Queens somewhere, nobody knew exactly where it was. Recently Scott Brown, a Johnson scholar, found it, and the club Smalls hosted a gathering of a dozen pianists on Sunday,playing and riffing on Johnson classics, to raise money for a headestone. Nice to see an American innovator is still remembered and celebrated.

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