Marshall Stearns on James P. Johnson's major works

"Scott Joplin had indicated the ultimate goal, however, when he composed a ragtime opera, Treemonisha, which was performed once only (1915). Similarly, the late James P. Johnson composed coral works, concertos, and symphonies in the same idiom. The inner drive of ragtime composers -like that of most jazzmen- was toward musical respectability, which means one thing: European concepts. But the time was not ripe.

In the early fifties, James P. Johnson, old and sick, often wondered what could have happened to his beloved ragtime. For a brief moment, it seemed that the large compositions on which he had been working were about to be accepted and played, along with the time-honored classics of Mozart and Beethoven. Johnson's concertos were quite as complex and, in a sense, twice as difficult to play as Mozart's. Perhaps his Afro-American folk origins betrayed him, for the average classical musician is utterly incapable of the rhythmic sensitivity that is necessary to play Johnson's pieces. Only an orchestra composed of Smiths [Willie The Lion], Wallers, and Johnsons could have done it."

[Marshall W. Stearns, The Story Of Jazz (Oxford University Press, 1956)]


"Sin embargo, Scott Joplin había señalado el objetivo final, al componer una ópera ragtime, Treemonisha, que sólo se representó una vez (en 1915). De igual modo, el difunto James P. Johnson compuso obras corales, conciertos y sinfonías con el mismo lenguaje. El empuje interior de los compositores de ragtime -como el de la mayoría de los músicos de jazz- se encaminaba hacia la respetabilidad musical, lo que significa una única cosa: conceptos europeos. Pero no era el momento propicio.

En los primeros años cincuenta, James P. Johnson, viejo y enfermo, se preguntaba a menudo qué le podía haber pasado a su amado ragtime. Por un breve instante parecía que las composiciones extensas en las que había estado trabajando estaban a punto de ser aceptadas e interpretadas, del mismo modo que los clásicos consagrados de Mozart y Beethoven. Los conciertos de Johnson eran tan complejos y, en cierto sentido, el doble de difíciles de interpretar que los de Mozart. Quizá sus orígenes afroamericanos le traicionaron, ya que el músico de clásica medio es absolutamente incapaz de tener la sensibilidad rítmica necesaria para tocar las piezas de Johnson. Sólo una orquesta compuesta de Smiths [Willie The Lion], Wallers y Johnsons lo podría haber hecho."

[Marshall W. Stearns, The Story Of Jazz (Oxford University Press, 1956)]


Coleman Hawkins in Madrid (October 13, 1964)

In my post from February 25, I recalled the story of the two Coleman Hawkins concerts in Barcelona that took place on October 14, 1964 and November 11, 1967 at the Palacio de la Música, both of them musically unsuccessful.

In the former, Hawkins played as part of the Mainstream Jazz Group, one of the ensembles integrated in the European Tour of the Newport Jazz Festival, being the rest of the musicians Harry 'Sweets' Edison (trumpet), Sir Charles Thompson (piano), Jimmy Woode (bass) and Jo Jones (drums).

This group had played the day before in Madrid, at the Carlos III theatre, with similar almost chaotic results. It was Juan Pedro Bourbon, owner of the mythical Whisky Jazz club, who did manage to bring this Mainstream Jazz Group to Madrid.

Juan José González, veteran jazz enthusiast and faithful reader of this blog who attended this concert 45 years ago, recalls how Jo Jones left the stage a few minutes after the concert started, reportedly saying "I don't want to play with that old man!". According to Juan José, Hawk got on the stage walking clumsily and started the concert playing in kind of a bebop style, very different from the way this group had been playing before, and this infuriated Jo Jones. Harry Edison, on his feet, took one of the sticks and started to keep the rhythm on the cymbals, while Coleman Hawkins and Sir Charles Thompson soloed, and then he played his solo choruses with a two-men rhythm section, no drums.

In the November issue of Aria Jazz magazine, an article called "Two Empty Seats" was published, in reference to Jo Jones' and Juan Pedro Bourbon's, who went to the police to report Jo Jones for breach of contract. Bourbon wrote "I regret to say that the great Coleman Hawkins turned up at the Carlos III completely drunk" in the Aria Jazz article.

According to the ABC (Spanish newspaper) TV listings, the following two programs of Discorama (Sunday, October 18 and Sunday, October 25) were dedicated to Coleman Hawkins. Discorama used to be recorded at the studio and, so far, I haven't been able to find any confirmation whether these programs were telecasts of the concert at the Carlos III or they were studio recordings. Any help would be much appreciated.


Battling the Jersey Rocket

Regarding my post on Willie The Lion Smith, Eubie Blake and Donald Lambert playing at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival, superb stride pianist Mike Lipskin, who was Eubie's and The Lion's protégé, has written in the Stride Piano Yahoo group:

"The many times I was with Eubie at home, recording a 10 hours interview for the Rutgers Jazz Institute, he would often praise some pianist, and always do so about James P. Johnson, but just as often would talk of others and not praise them. I never heard him go overboard about Jelly Roll Morton or Scott Joplin as pianists, though he liked their compositions.

He loved Luckey Roberts and respected him very much. They were close friends. However, he once commented with a laugh that Luckey "ruined the voice of many singers" by not modulating if their range was in another key, but simply playing down or up one octave.

When he and Willie the Lion were on the bill with Donald Lambert at the Newport Jazz Festival, Lambert performed before they did. Eubie said to Willie "How the hell are we going to follow him?""

That's how even such stride/ragtime masters were scared of battling the Jersey Rocket!


James P. Johnson transcriptions

Paul Marcorelles has just published a book with transcriptions of 17 original piano solos by James P. Johnson. It is available from this website, both on paper and as a pdf file.

It includes classics like "Carolina Shout", "Keep Off The Grass", "Mule Walk Stomp" (does it ring any bell?) or "The Harlem Strut".

Paul Marcorelles had previously published three books with transcriptions of Fats Waller and Willie The Lion Smith piano solos, to be found here, here and here.

Stomping off with Chris Albertson

At this point you may have read it elsewhere, but anyway it's worth mentioning that jazz scholar, producer and critic Chris Albertson has started a new blog called Stomp Off, Let's Go... where he will share some of his multiple and invaluable jazz experiences. Just to make a slight idea of his contributions to jazz, check this website.

For me, he will always be the author of the definitive biography of Bessie Smith, Bessie (don't forget to get the revised and expanded edition published by Yale University Press in 2003) and the producer of many Prestige and Riverside recordings rescuing old jazz and blues masters such as Lonnie Johnson, Elmer Snowden or Cliff Jackson, but, above all, a honest and hearty man and a source of jazz knowledge. Let's stomp off, Chris!


Jimmie Lunceford photograph

Here's another jazz quiz for the faithful readers of Mule Walk & Jazz Talk.

This photograph was published in the Afro American (September 30, 1939) and it shows Jimmie Lunceford and his orchestra as they boarded the American Airlines flagship for a trip to Chicago. Could you identify all the musicians/arrangers? Graphic quality is substandard, but I hope it won't be an obstacle for your perceptive eyes.


Ellington and his "freak chords"

This article was published in the Afro American on May 3, 1930. One Dance Halls reminds us that Duke Ellington, called here by the not so known nickname of "The Emperor Of Jazz" (as opposed to Paul Whiteman being "The King Of Jazz") was known for writing "weird melodies" and was always experimenting with "freak chords". Weird freakin' adjectives for such a genius!

[EDIT: I have been reminded by Arne Neegaard that the American Emperor of Jazz was Art Hickman. Of course he is absolutely right: this white bandleader was stylistically much closer to Paul Whiteman. By the way, and talking about nobility, Duke Ellington was in fact the Harlem Aristocrat of Jazz. There is even a book with that title: Duke Ellington: Harlem Aristocrat Of Jazz, by Jean de Trazegnies (Hot Club, 1946).]


Gunther Schuller on Satchmo and true jazz creativity

"Armstrong's capacities in this respect [referring to his "intuitive grasp of musical logic and continuity, coupled with an imaginative sense of variation"] ought to lay to rest the strange notion held by many jazz musicians and jazz buffs that structural logic, a conscious sense of variation and development, is an intellectual preoccupation incompatible with true jazz creativity. Louis Armstrong never was and never will be an intellect. Yet there is no question that his music comes not only "from the belly" but also from a mind that thinks in musical terms and ideas"

[Gunther Schuller: Early Jazz. Its Roots And Musical Development (Oxford University Press, 1968)]


"El potencial de Armstrong en este sentido [refiriéndose a su "conocimiento intuitivo de la lógica y continuidad musical, junto con su sentido imaginativo de la variación"] debería enterrar para siempre la extraña noción que defienden muchos músicos y entusiastas del jazz de que la lógica estructural, un sentido consciente de la variación y el desarrollo, es una preocupación intelectual incompatible con la auténtica creatividad jazzística. Louis Armstrong nunca fue ni será un intelecto. Sin embargo, no hay duda de que su música sale no sólo de "la barriga", sino también de una mente que piensa en términos e ideas musicales"

[Gunther Schuller: Early Jazz. Its Roots And Musical Development (Oxford University Press, 1968)]


Jazz and animals - have you ever worked in a circus?

Este divertido artículo se publicó en el ABC de 22 de junio de 1921 en la sección “Verdades y Mentiras”, firmada por un tal Raph Ruddy.

“La Jazz Band y los animales

[sic] jazz, esa música de negros que priva en los restaurantes de moda y en los conciertos y los bailes de los grandes hoteles, tiene, entre otras, la virtud de enfurecer a los animales.

Así lo aseguran respetables hombres de ciencia de la Universidad de Columbia, profesores del Museo Americano de Historia Natural, que han hecho experimentos
ad hoc en el parque de Nueva York.

Las pruebas comenzaron, dice el Daily Chronicle, con un
fox-trot, ejecutado en la casa de los monos. En las jaulas de los inteligentes cuadrumanos se armó un jollín espantoso. Los simios, enloquecidos, aullaban y sacudían furiosamente las barras de hierro de su prisión. Algunos, en cambio, mostraban un descorazonamiento y una desesperación que casi arrancaba lágrimas a los espectadores.

A los leones, cuando la
jazz band empezó a sonar, se les erizaron las crines de sus hermosas melenas; las magníficas fieras, con rugidos iracundos y saltos formidables, se lanzaban contra los barrotes de las jaulas con la evidente intención de hacer una matanza de músicos.

A los primeros compases de un
one-step, el joven hipopótamo Caleb y su señora madre, Murphy, se zambulleron en su estanque y no volvieron a la superficie hasta que la banda se alejó.

Solamente dos de los elefantes oyeron la
[sic] jazz sin enfurecerse. Luego se supo que habían trabajado en un circo durante algún tiempo.”


This funny article was published in ABC on June 22, 1921 (“Truths and Lies” by a Raph Ruddy).

“The Jazz Band and the animals

Jazz, that negroes music which is in fashion at restaurants and at concerts and dances in big hotels, has, among others, the virtue of infuriating the animals.

Respectable scientists from the University of Columbia, teachers at the American Museum of Natural History, have carried out ad hoc experiments in the park of New York, and maintain this theory.

The Daily Chronicle reports that the experiments started by playing a fox-trot at the monkeys’ home. A terrible racket was made in the cages of the intelligent four-handed animals. The apes went mad and began howling and furiously shaking the iron bars from their prison. However, some of them showed a disheartening behaviour and a desperation that almost brought tears to the spectators’ eyes.

The lion’s beautiful manes bristled when the jazz band began to play; the magnificent wild animals, with irate roars and formidable jumps, threw themselves against the iron bars of the cages with the obvious intention of slaughtering the musicians.

In the very first bars of a one-step, young hippopotamus Caleb and its mother Murphy dived into their pond and didn’t surface until the band went away.

Only two elephants heard jazz without getting furious. Later we knew that they have worked in a circus for some time."


A little Tatum-credo

A few weeks ago, while doing some research through the Afro-American archives (Baltimore edition), I came across an article by Franklyn Frank, published May 23, 1936, where Frank picks a sixteen-piece all-afroamerican jazz band and his choice for piano is Teddy Weatherford:

"Weatherford is the only person closing the door to young Teddy Wilson, who is way ahead of Earl Hines (...) and Art Tatum, who generally sounds as if he is using twenty fingers trying to play ten symphonies in five minutes".

This negative comment on Art Tatum prompted me to post a message in the Stride Piano Yahoo Group, asking for any other contemporary published sources (30's-40's) with such kind of humorous criticism on Tatum's overwhelming technique.

I got several replies from some respected pianists and critics, almost unanimously praising Tatum and, in one of them, George Croll wrote a succint but, in my opinion, very accurate description of Tatum's pianism, which he called his "little Tatum-credo". Under his permission, I'm reproducing it here:

"Talking about speed and virtuosity is missing the essence of Tatum completely. Of course most people, especially Tatum-novices, are overwhelmed or dumbfounded by Tatum's dexterity, but the wonder of Art Tatum is his tremendous musicality.

Some of his assets are:

- Unique "sound" and incredible touch: no one else had/has that "contact" to the keys that sounds like playing legato and staccato at the same time.

- "Inaudible" pedal work, if he used the pedal at all.

- Absolutely infallible time and great swing-feeling.

- Unique, new way of playing with voicings.

- Ability to "compose spontaneously" (highly complex, but always musical).

- Endless inventive talent concerning melodies.

... He just had the "complete package" like no one else!

Even with Tatum there are shortcomings, too:

- His often mentioned inability to comp/to submit in a group-context.

- Quite un-original repertoire.

- Sometimes lack of taste.

Nobody is perfect, even God Tatum!"