James P. Johnson (1894-1955) was the leading pioneer of the exciting and influential stride piano style. Born in New Jersey, his proximity to New York allowed a young Johnson the opportunity to be influenced by a tremendous range of musical experiences. Johnson was a self-taught pianist who grew up singing in his church choir and listening to the ragtime of Scott Joplin. (He was so influenced by Joplin that he even recorded versions of Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag and Euphonic Sounds.)
Johnson’s music career officially began in 1912 when he was just 16 years old. For nearly the next half-century he would continue his career as a dedicated student of the instrument and influential teacher, and eventually cement himself into the history of music.
Stride piano, or “stride” for short, was an important style in the transition from ragtime to jazz. Stride pianists took the challenging style of ragtime and made it even harder. As stride technique gained in complexity, it required the use of a broader range, requiring pianists to not just walk, but literally jump or “stride” up and down the keyboard with their left hand.
By nearly all accounts, Johnson is credited as “The Father of Stride” by taking the “straight” feeling of ragtime and recasting it with a modern swing and more sophisticated harmonies. Johnson’s You’ve Got to Be Modernistic, composed in 1923, is a showcase for the composer’s “stride” technique.
Johnson composed one of the most popular songs of the Roaring 20’s, The Charleston. Johnson and Cecil Mack were charged with writing the musical score for the all African-American Broadway musical, Runnin’ Wild. One of the resulting compositions was The Charleston, which was so influential that it eventually became the unofficial anthem of the decade. More recognized as a dance style these days, The Charleston sparked an international dance craze in the 1920s and is often described as the physical embodiment of the uninhibited attitudes of the era. Due to its “provocative” movements it was particularly popular with “Flappers” and many dance halls across the country banned the dance.
It’s arguable that Johnson’s most important contribution to music was the role he played in the transition from ragtime to jazz. Carolina Shout (1921) is considered by many to be the first recorded jazz piano solo in history and as such, it’s wholly appropriate to recognize Johnson as both the last major pianist of the classic ragtime era and the first major jazz pianist. He stands as an indispensable bridge between these two major keyboard-oriented styles. As the instructor for a young Thomas “Fats” Waller, Johnson had an even more direct effect on the next generation of jazz piano masters.
Not as well-known today as major pianist-composers before him, such as Scott Joplin, or the many who have come after him, the music of James P. Johnson should be of particular interest to piano students. His story illustrates the importance of adaptability, proven by his ability to succeed as a musician across multiple decades and to even pioneer his own style along the way. Johnson also reminds us that music is a lifetime practice, proven by his dedication to continued learning even as master of the piano.