[Monday Notes no. 119] James P. Johnson was one of the greatest pianists of the 1920s, also famous for his composition The Charleston, which contributed to the spread of the dance of the same name. James P. Johnson's music marks the transition between ragtime and stride piano, the earliest form of jazz piano. Let us listen to and analyse his composition The Carolina Shout.
Ragtime is a musical form usually based on four different motifs, in the sequence AABBACCDD. This is for instance the case with Scott Joplin's best known ragtime, Maple Leaf Rag. The Carolina Shout has a not very different form, that is, AA B CC DD.
The first theme [A] is based on a descending harmonic progression, with the bass descending diatonically along the scale. The second theme [B] is played only once and insists on the G and C chords.
More than in the form, which maintains a strong similarity with ragtime, the difference between The Carolina Shout and Scott Joplin's songs is in the performance. In fact, the different recordings made by James P. Johnson show clear differences.
In particular, the pianist only partially respects the theme and performs different variations each time. Especially the second of the parts [A], [C] or [D] is played very freely, almost improvised.
James P. Johnson's original manuscript confirms that the author thought of The Carolina Shout as a melody to be interpreted, and not as a piece to be performed always the same. Instead of a complete piano score, as was the case for ragtime, James P. Johnson wrote only the lead sheet.
James P. Johnson was a transition figure and was considered a master by musicians such as Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Art Tatum. That is why his music constituted a crucial shift from ragtime to the first authentic form of piano jazz: the stride piano.
Until next Monday!