Remembered primarily as the leading stride pianist of the 1920s, James Price Johnson was a talented and culturally ambitious musician who, after establishing himself as a jazz virtuoso and songwriter, moved on to Broadway musicals and symphonic concert music. Johnson's success as a jazz-classical fusion composer is difficult to judge as little of that music was published and many of his manuscripts are lost. Growing up in New York City, Johnson discovered ragtime and blues and heard some of the day's leading classical pianists. He took lessons from Bruto Giannini and picked up pop music knowledge from Abba Labba (Richard McLean) and Eubie Blake, who opened Johnson's ears to the piano's timbral possibilities. He was performing at clubs in Hell's Kitchen by 1913, where he developed the loud, boisterous, driving "shout" pieces which would make him famous in the 1920s, particularly "Carolina Shout." In 1917 he published the first of 200 songs and recorded his first piano rolls that May.
Soon a central figure of Harlem cultural life, he cut his first 78s in 1921 and worked as musical director for Broadway revues. Johnson also recorded in the 1920s with such blues singers as Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters. He was the leading exponent of stride piano, a virtuosic amalgam of ragtime, jazz, and blues. His swinging, heavily rhythmic, oom-pah bass line was the foundation for continually varied melodies in the right hand, riffing from one register to another and evoking the call-and-response technique of black church music. By 1930, he had established himself as a daring virtuoso showman, the Stokowski of stride, but he published few piano solos after 1929. Similarly, his song output tapered off after 1930, as he devoted more of his time to composing stage and orchestral works and leading his own jazz band.
His first Broadway musical, Runnin' Wild, opened in 1923 and ran for 213 performances; among the hits from the show were "The Charleston" and "Old Fashioned Love." Johnson wrote a dozen stage works in all, starting with such titles as Mooching Along and Keep Shufflin'. However he grew increasingly ambitious, and this activity culminated in the 1940 one-act "blues opera" De Organizer (with libretto by Langston Hughes; it got a single performance at Carnegie Hall and wasn't revived until 2003 when it was heard in a reconstructred version by James Dapogny. Johnson followed this up wirh the 1942 opera Dreamy Kid, based on a story drawn from Eugene O'Neill.
During the Depression, Johnson turned his attention to orchestral pieces loosely inspired by classical formulas, but incorporating a great deal of jazz, influencing the later concert works of Duke Ellington. His piano-and-orchestra rhapsody Yamekraw was played in Carnegie Hall in 1927 with Fats Waller as soloist. There followed such substantial works as the piano concerto Jassamine (or Jazz-O-Mine, 1934; only the piano version of the second movement survives), the Harlem Symphony (1932; only the second movement survives), and Symphony in Brown (1935). Critics at the time tended to denigrate these works, but it's hard now to say whether they were really substandard or if they just suffered from the general resistance to jazz-classical fusion music.
Johnson eased back into the club and recording scene in the late '30s, where he found renewed success. He suffered several small strokes in the 1940s, though, and a major stroke in 1951 left him incapacitated until his death four years later.