SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

As Black History Month gets underway, we'd like to spend some time listening to one of our country's most influential African-American composers: James P. Johnson. His romping tune, "The Charleston," became a soundtrack for the Roaring Twenties. As a pianist, he prepared the way for jazz and influenced everyone from Count Basie to Duke Ellington to Art Tatum. His most famous student was Fats Waller. Now, we're listening to a 1994 recording of James Johnson's music. It's performed by the Concordia Orchestra and led by our friend Marin Alsop. The maestra went on a quest to unearth some of James P. Johnson's lesser-known symphonic music, including his "Harlem Symphony" from 1932.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "HARLEM SYMPHONY")

SIMON: Of course, Marin Alsop is now music director of the Baltimore Symphony. And she joins us from the studios of WYPR in Baltimore. Thanks so much for being with us, maestra.

MARIN ALSOP: Great to be here, Scott.

SIMON: And what set you off on this search?

ALSOP: Well, I've always had a love for American jazz and a real curiosity about it. My father, in addition to being concertmaster of the New York City Ballet, he played saxophone in the Fred Waring Band. So, he was always playing swing music as I grew up. And I tried to be a snob about it most of my life, but I eventually fell in love with it. So, I started listening to as much as possible. And one day I was listening to a Gershwin recording and reading the liner notes. And Robert Kimball, who's a Gershwin expert, was writing about this composer named James P. Johnson and how he had written all this music. But it was played once in Carnegie Hall and then no one knows what happened to it. And that was the first time I had ever heard the name James P. Johnson.

SIMON: Well, let's listen to another stretch of the "Harlem Symphony", if we could. And this is from the fourth movement. It's called "Baptist Mission."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "BAPTIST MISSION")

SIMON: Help us understand some of the crossover between Gershwin and James P. Johnson.

ALSOP: Well, of course, historically, being African-American during that time period, the 1920s, '30s, '40s, the avenues that were open to George Gershwin were simply not open to James P. Johnson. He aspired to write music for symphony orchestra, to be a serious composer. He studied diligently with most of the leading composition teachers of the day. And he, like, George Gershwin, ended up being a recording artist making piano rolls for the Aeolian Piano Company, among others. And I think there is a record of them actually having met under that auspices at some point.

SIMON: Let's listen to one of those piano roll composition. This is James P. Johnson playing one of his most famous pieces, "Carolina Shout."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "CAROLINA SHOUT")

JAMES P. JOHNSON: (Playing)

SIMON: So, this is called stride piano-style?

ALSOP: That's right. And Johnson is really known as the father of the stride piano style. The stride style is really that jumping left hand. You know, I imagine that one day his bass player didn't show up, so he had to play all the parts, you know. But it required amazing dexterity, which Johnson had. And he used to participate in what were called at the time cutting contests. They were like little piano competitions, you know, in the back room. And he would always win. And he won for years and year until Art Tatum showed up.

SIMON: Oh, well.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: That's understandable, that's understandable.

ALSOP: As a matter of fact, pianists like Duke Ellington, they learned how to play the piano by slowing down the piano rolls of James P. Johnson and sort of feeling their way on the keyboard.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "CAROLINA SHOUT")

JOHNSON: (Playing)

SIMON: Johnson's music seems to kind of bridge the ragtime and jazz eras. I gather he grew up on the music of Scott Joplin, but he helped usher in the age of jazz, especially as a pianist, but was less recognized - at least in his lifetime - for the superb composer of orchestral music that he was. What else should we listen to?

ALSOP: Well, he wrote several piano concertos, you know, formal piano concertos, one that he called "Jazzamine," and it's rarely played. So, perhaps we should hear a little bit of that.

SIMON: Yeah, please.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "JAZZAMINE")

SIMON: Did you just walk into somebody's attic and there was this sheet music? How did this happen?

ALSOP: Well, the pianist who you hear on this recording, Leslie Stifelman, my good friend and I, we set out to try to find this music. And we thought it would be impossible, but we were able to find all of this incredible music in an attic of one of his only surviving children. And the family, I think they were justifiably suspicious of people who, you know - a lot of people had taken advantage of Johnson during his lifetime. But I think after she got to know and realized that we were all about the music, believe it or not, she went up to her attic and brought down boxes and boxes of music. And I opened it up and, you know, I immediately knew that this was the missing music. And a lot of it was not in great shape, but I realized that we could reconstruct most of these pieces. And, I don't know, it was like Christmas times 100 for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Has the music caught on? Are there orchestras performing it?

ALSOP: Oh, I'm happy to say that many orchestras now perform this music. The Baltimore Symphony has played several of the pieces. And what's nice is it's something to play. You know, you compare it with Gershwin. There are real opportunities to program this music in the great concert halls of the world. And it just makes me feel so great to know that James P. Johnson's aspirations are finally being realized.

SIMON: What do we want to hear going out?

ALSOP: Well, this is a tune - if I put this piece on the concert, no matter what concert it is, the audience goes wild. Maybe I should just play this at the concert and nothing else. This is a tune called "Victory Stride."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "VICTORY STRIDE")

SIMON: Marin Alsop is music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and an accomplished swing musician herself. Maestra, thanks for being with us.

ALSOP: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "VICTORY STRIDE")

SIMON: And you can hear more music by James P. Johnson and read an essay by Maestra Alsop about the composer all on our website, nprmusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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