James P. Johnson is one of those great unsung American creators who, for various reasons, led a life under the radar. He suffered several strokes during his lifetime and was a quiet, retiring personality in a field of extroverts. But his talent, both as pianist and as composer, was bigger than life. He essentially invented what we today call stride piano style, whereby the pianist's left hand jumps absurd distances to cover the entire lower half of the piano.
Johnson's piano roll of his hit tune "Carolina Shout" became the measuring stick for every up-and-coming piano player. Duke Ellington learned his fingerings from feeling along as Johnson's piano roll played in slow motion, and Johnson himself blew everyone away in "cutting contests" (the virtuosic piano-playing marathons) up until Art Tatum emerged on the scene.
After his friend George Gershwin had such success with "Rhapsody in Blue," James P. Johnson thought he'd try his hand at writing a piece for jazz piano and orchestra. Johnson's piece is called "Yamekraw, A Negro Rhapsody." It has some of the same exuberent bubble and bounce you might know from the Gershwin and it makes a fascinating counterpoint to "Rhapsody in Blue."
Concert performance by pianist Gary Hammond, with Richard Rosenberg conducting the Hot Springs Festival Chamber Orchestra from Hot Springs, Ark.
Treasures In The Attic: Finding A Jazz Master's Lost Orchestral Music
In addition to composing the singular piece of music that came to symbolize the 1920s in America, "The Charleston," Johnson aspired to compose music for symphony orchestra and had actually written several orchestral pieces that were premiered at Carnegie Hall in the early 1940s.
This was the long-lost music from that Carnegie Hall concert!