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Album Review

These are the last recordings made by James P. Johnson, accomplished composer, pianist, bandleader, and mentor to Thomas "Fats" Waller. Unlike certain other reissues, this collection presents the precious material most carefully, without a lot of excessive surface noise. Poetically speaking, "Blues for Jimmy" is a sort of self-portrait, even an open letter from Johnson to himself — in which case, everyone ought to enjoy such a peaceful relationship with his or her doppelgänger. Musically, this little study seems at first like an imaginary sequel to Fats Waller's "London Suite," with touches of Sergei Rachmaninov in the descending runs. Specifically, "Blues for Jimmy" is a condensed version of "Jazzamine Concerto," or at least its first movement. That work appears here in a six-and-a-half-minute rendering, along with three amiable stride piano exercises. Right in the middle of the set there erupts a surprising adventure in dissonance, "Jungle Drums," reminding listeners that the piano is, after all, a percussion instrument. The main theme begins with a repeated tattoo in the basement of the keyboard. The melody itself is exciting and hints at barely tapped resources of harmonic and rhythmic innovation. The session from May of 1945 is outstanding. "Liza" has often been singled out as a glowing example of Johnson's fully mature style. "Aunt Hagar's Blues" is solid as a mountain. "The Dream" rolls off of his fingers most elegantly, its tango rhythms soothing to the nerves. "St. Louis Blues" gets the boogie-woogie treatment. "Sweet Lorraine" reveals Johnson's personality with calm, passionate dignity. There is a gap in the chronology. Having survived a debilitating stroke, Johnson rested up and was back in front of the recording microphone in February and June of 1947. "Maple Leaf Rag" has all the rambunctious anarchy of a Fats Waller solo. "Daintiness Rag" allows for one last delightful glimpse of Johnson's famous ability to exercise his powerful touch in the most delicate ways imaginable. Every part of this last solo session is executed with immaculate ease. It is apparent that James P. Johnson influenced Thomas Waller, who in turn influenced James P. Johnson. If "Ain't Cha Got Music" doesn't make the point, "I'm Crazy 'Bout My Baby" certainly will. West Indian and Caribbean culture was an active component in the Harlem jazz scene. Both Willie "The Lion" Smith and James P. Johnson participated in recording dates that focused on music from the islands. The Creole Serenaders session led by Albert Nicholas was part of an interesting surge of blended New York/New Orleans traditions that found its way onto phonograph records during the years 1946 and 1947. A tasty overview of this phenomenon can be found on the CD Jazz à la Creole: The Baby Dodds Trio (GHB 50), issued in the year 2000. That disc contains a second version of "Salee Dame" that is not included on Classics 1059.


Born: 01 February 1894 in New Brunswick, NJ

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '10s, '20s, '30s, '40s

One of the great jazz pianists of all time, James P. Johnson was the king of stride pianists in the 1920s. He began working in New York clubs as early as 1913 and was quickly recognized as the pacesetter. In 1917, Johnson began making piano rolls. Duke Ellington learned from these (by slowing them down to half-speed), and a few years later, Johnson became Fats Waller's teacher and inspiration. During the '20s (starting in 1921), Johnson began to record, he was the nightly star at Harlem rent parties...
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