American composer & pianist | February 1894 – November 1955
The Harlem Stride piano style of James Price Johnson transformed Ragtime into Jazz. Stride piano was so-named because the left hand “strides” up and down between bass notes and chords, sort of in the middle range of the piano, while the right hand creates syncopated melodic figures. He laid the cornerstone of jazz piano before 1920, influencing Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Art Tatum, and Thelonious Monk. An absolute master of the keyboard with perfect pitch, Johnson is recognized as the foremost proponent of Harlem Stride piano. His protege Fats Waller recalled learning more in his first afternoon with Johnson than the previous 10 years.
As a band player and accompanist to singers, he was in great demand for sessions during the 1920s, 30s and 40s. A list of his collaborators included Bessie Smith (her favorite piano accompanist), Ethel Watters, King Oliver, Sidney Bechet, and Eddie Condon.
He exemplified the larger-than-life flamboyant persona of the era’s piano professors only superficially. Johnson was a sober, disciplined, middle-class, church-going family man. He cut some 55 piano rolls for a half-dozen companies—the finest of their kind. His “Charleston” became the signature tune of the Roaring Twenties. Johnson recorded hundreds of sides for the most important labels of his time confirm his exceptional composing, arranging and pianistic skills equal to the masters of any musical tradition.
Johnson should have been hailed as one of the greatest composers, jazz musicians, and song writers of his era. Yet despite his achievements, he remains almost unknown to general audiences.