Faces of the Harlem Renaissance


James P. Johnson

1894-1955 / Pianist, composer

Among the many new types of music that burst forth from Harlem in the late 1920s was stride style. The piano was instrumental to the development of stride. Harlem-stride pianists appealed to wider audiences—both highbrow and lowbrow—by dazzling them with showmanship and innovative, virtuoso compositions.

One of the best stride pianists of the day was James P. Johnson. He fused the rhythms and syncopations of stride's predecessor, ragtime, with the jazz of Jelly Roll Morton and the classical pieces of concert pianists.

Duke Ellington would later use Johnson's intricate piano rolls as study guides. Many of Johnson's most successful works—among them "The Charleston"—became a test for musicians aspiring to the label of "Harlem Tickler."

From orchestra halls to rent parties and bars such as Barron's Little Savoy (a popular integrated joint in Harlem's Tenderloin district), Johnson's sound was heard all over Harlem. In 1927 he composed his famous piano rhapsody Yamekraw, which made its public debut at Carnegie Hall with Fats Waller as the soloist. Johnson's creative outpouring continued into the 1930s, when he composed Harlem Symphony and the opera De Organizer. The latter boasted a libretto, or text, by Langston Hughes.