Raising Roof And Headstone For Pioneering Pianist
By BEN RATLIFF Of The New York Times
Originally Appeared @ This Link:
A definition of righteousness: about 75 people, crammed into the West Village club Smalls, watching a series of pianists play James P. Johnson on a grand piano in a benefit concert to buy a headstone for his grave.
Like all the other stride-piano soloists of the teens and 1920s, Johnson has been lodged in a historical second tier, probably because he’s not known for band music and didn’t tour sufficiently.
But he’s the truest passageway from pre-jazz to jazz-as-we-know-it. He was a pioneering and powerful solo pianist, a composer of short sketches (including “The Charleston,” his era-defining hit, and “Carolina Shout,” his finger-buster étude) and extended orchestral works.
Duke Ellington learned “Carolina Shout” from a piano roll and finally met Johnson at a concert in Washington in 1921. Afterward they stayed out until 10 a.m. “What I absorbed on that occasion,” Ellington wrote later, “might, I think, have constituted a whole semester in a conservatory.” He homed in on Johnson’s strong, grounding swing and sweet, splashing melodies; to link Scott Joplin and Ellington — or even Joplin and Thelonious Monk — you need to put Johnson between them.
Johnson died in 1955 fairly isolated after four years of illness, and his body lies in an unmarked grave in Maspeth, Queens. The spot was found in February by Scott Brown, a Johnson scholar, and the idea was hatched for “James P. Johnson’s Last Rent Party,” a daylong blowout of Johnsonia at Smalls on Sunday, with historical talks and performances.
The day ended with five hours of solo piano — by 12 performers — and a little bit of four-hands playing. Unlike the Harlem rent parties Johnson used to play, it wasn’t remotely a competition. Though several pianists wrestled with the same material (especially the charging “Carolina Shout”), the emphasis was not on besting one another but on beneficially knocking the tunes around, treating fairly neglected music like common repertory.
Ethan Iverson, the pianist from the Bad Plus, announced that the beginning of his set would be “classical”: an earnest shot at Johnson’s style. He played “Carolina Shout” with sensitivity and clarity, keeping the stride rhythm steady in the left hand. Then he went off into his own updated, posteverything style, full of explicit dissonance, repetition and strange dynamics.
“The Charleston” was his killer: it started with deliberately messy tone rows, his two hands playing at cross-purposes, the left staccato and slow, the right flowing and medium-tempo. Inevitably, and with humor, he finished in the song’s proper style.
Mike Lipskin, a pianist based in San Francisco who studied with the stride pianist Willie (The Lion) Smith, played stride-piano songs as if they were his drinking buddies: his versions of Johnson’s “It Takes Love to Cure the Heart’s Disease” and Luckey Roberts’s “Pork and Beans” were rowdy and familiar, and he made Johnson’s “If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight)” mellifluous and lovely, smiling at the audience rather than monitoring the difficult variations in his left-hand stride patterns.
The evening’s revelation was Aaron Diehl, a pianist in his mid-20s who has played with Wynton Marsalis and Wycliffe Gordon. His style, on “Scaling the Blues,” “Over the Bars” and the second movement of Johnson’s “Jazzamine Concerto,” was modest, secure and insinuating, with an iron sense of time. A few different pianists worked in their own tunes as Johnson tributes; Mr. Diehl’s was a slow, gorgeous blues.
Ted Rosenthal and Dick Hyman closed the night. They performed some pieces together at the keyboard, including “Twilight Rag”; then Mr. Hyman, one of the world’s great specialists in early jazz piano, performed Johnson’s music with well-practiced dynamic shifts, elegant and sometimes a bit too showy for the circumstances. But complaining is pointless. Mr. Hyman smoothly played the entire 10-minutes-plus solo-piano version of Johnson’s “Yamekraw,” a rhapsody with classical flourishes and stride interjections. Who else does that?
Copyright 2009 The New York Times