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Joplin & Johnson: Back to Back

The MHS Review 239 Vol.3, no. 5 • May 7, 1979

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David M. Greene


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One of the burdens of aging is retrospection. No matter how much one tries to savor the passing moment, one finds increasingly that something about it picks one up and drops one in that great garbage-dump that is one's past. (I'm sorry about all those "one's" but the new edition of Strunk and White frightened me so badly that I don't dare mix "one" and "his" anymore--much less "hers.") Anyhow. so it was that encountering the name of James P. Johnson. my mind suddenly fixed on a faded but still discernible photograph of three stout. smiling black men sitting at a piano keyboard. One of them, I reasoned, must be James P .. but who on earth were the other two and why were they there? I gnawed at the problem for hours until finally I remembered that another of the figures--the one in the middle. I think--was Meade "Lux Lewis. Lewis. you may recall. was touted by RCA in the '30's as the boogie-woogie pianist. largely on the strength of his Honky-Tonky Train Blues.

In my nonage. having got over the musical snobbery instilled in me by my mother (good taste did not extend to popular music of any kind). I set out to collect jazz records, and in a few months. on very limited means. I had amassed about twenty choice records. consisting mostly of piano solos (Yancey, Waller. Lewis. Tatum. Hines) and New Orleans combos. One weekend a friend borrowed them for a party (to which he did not ask me). and the next I heard of him, he had -moved to Idaho or the Virgin Islands, and I never saw my records again. In the face of such perfidy. I gave up jazz-collecting for the penitential Psalms of Orlande de Lassus, but I used occasionally to stop by a local record store and sneak a listen to the expensive Blue Notes and Commodores that featured the likes of James P. and Willie the Lion.

Checking the shelves. I see I have two cuts that include James P.--a couple of gospel numbers in which he is pretty well obscured by the trumpet tones of Bessie Smith and the accompanying Bessemer Singers. There is no mention of boogie-woogie there. and I find the term the Messrs. Albright and Bolcom use to characterize him is now "stride piano." And. indeed. these selecions sound considerably less limited than I remember most boogie-woogie being. John­son. who was born in New Brunswick in 1894 and moved to New York City twelve years later, not only absorbed Black jazz in situ, but was also a trained musician. In the '20's he was at his height--a virtuoso performer who was in constant demand, cut many piano-rolls. and collaborated on Black revues. He faded in the Depression and spent a good deal of time writing "serious" compositions--an orchestral rhapsody, a piano concerto. a symphony--that no one bothered to look at. (I wonder what became of them). The records I recall, he made for connoisseur labels when he was almost forgotten. For my money. his is, for inventiveness and energy, the choice side here. The concluding Carolina Shout is glorious and you'll be amused at the Debussyan opening (and the other funning) in Modernistic.

I don't mean to shortchange Scott Joplin, but there's little left to say after the saturation-level revival of a few years ago. I might confess that it was only then that I became aware of Joplin as a musical force. In my jazz days. he was merely a name attached to Maple Leaf Rag in the Victor catalog. I looked it up last night: it was pl:iyed by the piano duo of Phil Ohman and Victor Arden, and listed under "Tap-Dance Records." Joplin's connection with the five rags included here is. to be generous. only partial. They represent collaborations with two fellow Sedalians (Sedalia. Mo .. that is)--­young Arthur Marshall. with whose family he roomed for a while. and Scott Hayden, his future brother-in-law. Both were obviously strongly influenced by Joplin. and not even Mr. Bolcom is certain who wrote which parts of these pieces. Hayden died young, of tuberculosis: Marshall. after a not very spectacular career. died eleven years ago at 87.

William Bolcom and William Albright. both on the faculty of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. are noted both as composers and as performing authorities on American popular music. (If you don't know the records by Bolcom and his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris. count yourself among the deprived.) In Bolcom's handling of the rags. I wonder if they were really that player-piano metronomic. But. as we say. he's the doctor--and I've no problems at all with Mr. Albright's readings. _____ _

Review of Joplin and Johnson: Back to Back

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