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IJS Receives Archives of Composer/Pianist James P. Johnson

Dan Morgenstern (left), IJS director, and archivist Annie Kuebler (center) look over materials donated by Barry Glover (right), grandson of James P. Johnson and executive director of the James P. Johnson Foundation

Once again, a major musical archival collection– this one belonging to James P. Johnson – has been donated to the world's most extensive jazz archives. The Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies has become the permanent home of the archival collections of Johnson, the pioneering African-American stride pianist and composer. The collection – one of the most important gifts ever donated to IJS -- represents all aspects and eras of Johnson's career, and comprises music manuscripts, published piano solos and sheet music, photographs, a piano roll, concert programs, news clippings, and many other items. The music manuscripts, which form the bulk of the collection, offer new insights into Johnson's work as a composer of what he considered his "serious music," including complete symphonic scores of Harlem Symphony, American Symphonic Suite –Saint Louis Blues, Dreamy Kid (with libretto by playwright Eugene O'Neill) and Jazzamine, a piano concerto.

The collection was donated to IJS by the James P. Johnson Foundation and its executive director, Barry Glover Sr., who is also James P. Johnson's grandson. Glover traveled from California to Newark for the arrival of the materials. "It is an honor to have the chief repository of jazz history have such a pivotal role in further preserving my grandfather's musical legacy," Glover said, adding, "It's only fitting that my grandfather's materials end up where it all started for him over a century ago." Johnson was a New Jersey native.

"The acquisition of the James P. Johnson Archive is a dream come true," noted Institute Director Dan Morgenstern. "This great artist's biography (James P. Johnson: A Case of Mistaken Identity by Scott E. Brown, 1986) was among the first publications in our Studies in Jazz monograph series, and the homecoming of his legacy to his native state is indeed a blessing," said Morgenstern. "There are treasures here that must be shared with the world of American music, and we'll do our best to see that this is done."

Although the formal deed of gift for the collection was concluded this summer, the IJS has been in possession of the materials since August 2003. Archivist Annie Kuebler has completed processing the bulk of the approximately 25 cubic feet of the Johnson collection, which is now available to researchers by appointment. Among the many rarities are three scrapbooks believed to have been assembled by Johnson or his wife, Lillie Mae Wright, a former tap dancer under the name of Lillian Hughes and one of the first American black women to appear in motion pictures. The scrapbooks contain Playbills for Plantation Days, a 1922 revue that toured Europe with Johnson as musical director, and Runnin' Wild, among others. The photos include a 1918 image of W.C. Handy inscribed to the Johnsons. There are also personal writings by Johnson, and correspondence from Langston Hughes, among other notables.

Renowned worldwide as the "Father of Stride Piano," Johnson was born in New Brunswick in 1894. After learning ragtime and popular music from local dance hall and cabaret players, he began working as a professional musician in 1912. By 1916, he had developed a prodigious piano technique and soon became a mentor for such future jazz greats as Fats Waller and Duke Ellington.

Apart from his contribution to the evolution of jazz piano, Johnson was equally important as a composer of both piano specialties such as Carolina Shout and You've Got to Be Modernistic and popular songs like If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight) and Old Fashioned Love. He was one of the first and most important black composers to write for Broadway shows, including the 1923 musical Runnin' Wild, which included a dance number that became a symbol of the jazz age, "The Charleston."

Johnson was also a prolific composer of symphonic works such as Yamekraw-A Negro Rhapsody which was premiered in Carnegie Hall in 1928. He collaborated with poet Langston Hughes on the one-act opera, De Organizer. Johnson continued to play and compose into the early 1950s, when he was slowed by a stroke. He died on November 17, 1955.

The Institute will continue to work closely with the James P. Johnson Foundation to promote the legacy of this seminal musical pioneer. As part of that association, two experts from the Foundation came to the IJS last May to give a presentation on Johnson's relationship with Fats Waller. Mark Borowsky and Bob Pinsker's talk was part of the IJS-sponsored Fats Waller Centennial conference. Johnson's daughter, Lillie McIntyre, also attended as a special guest.

The Institute of Jazz Studies, the world's most extensive jazz archives, is part of the Rutgers University Libraries. The institute's collections are so extensive and well-organized that television documentarian Ken Burns used both the IJS and Dan Morgenstern as resources for making his PBS series, "Jazz." The IJS is housed in the John Cotton Dana Library on the Newark campus of Rutgers

Story by Carla Capizzi
Office of Campus Communications
July 29, 2004

Posted August 3, 2004