Thursday, July 30, 2009

Yamekraw - a rhapsody in black and white

Yamekraw - een rapsodie in zwart en wit (Nederlands) Yamekraw - a rhapsody in black and white (English)

The story of a Negro Rhapsody by James P. Johnson.
Hans Koert

Porgy and Bess – Metropolis – Mississippi Suite – Broadway at Night – Grand Three Shades of Blue and Rhapsody in Blue. All well known compositions, suites labelled as Modern American Music – White men’s symphonic jazz of the 1920s up to 1940s as played by Paul Whiteman, composed and arranged by George Gershwin and Ferde Grofé.

Duke Ellington can be labelled as the black African –American who composed numerous suites and concert works in symphonic jazz, like Reminiscing in Tempo, Black and Tan Fantasy, Black, Brown and Beige and the lesser known Symphony in Black and New World A-Comin’. But what about titles like Yamekraw, a Negro Rhapsody, Tone Poem or Symphony Harlem? Titles of suites, orchestral works, now forgotten, but written by a composer, whose name you won’t associate with this kind of music: James P. Johnson.

A few months ago the book Ellington Uptown, written by John Howland, was published by the University of Michigan Press in its series Jazz Perspectives. ( ISBN-13: 976-0-472-03344-4 ).

The full ttitle of the book is: Ellington Uptown - Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson and the Birth of Concert Jazz – The Story of the African American contributions to the symphonic jazz vogue of the 1920s through the 1940s.
In more then 300 pages John Howland describes the development of the symphonic jazz, a style of music, that has been very popular in the first half of the XXth Century. Most people will know about the popularity of Paul Whiteman’s concert music, but also African-Americans had their symphonic jazz, with Duke Ellington as the most well known icon of this music style. But what about James P. Johnson? Most of us remember James P. Johnson as te father of the stride piano and I remember collecting piano roll music on Joker and Biograph LPs when I was a young adult, fascinated by the mechanical reproduced and rather stiff and mechanic syncopated sounds from the past.

James P. Johnson - Charleston (1925)

When James P. Johnson made his first recordings in May 1921 he was in his twenties and became known as a stride piano player, but in fact he started to play the piano in clubs long before since 1913. During the 1920s he developed into one of the best Harlem stride piano players, a model for numerous followers, but also started to compose more "serious"(?) works, like the music for the Broadway musical Runnin' Wild. He also started to compose large-scale orchestral works, like the 1927 Yamekraw, which was a piano rhapsody to be comparable with Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue.

A concert of Yamekraw by Fats Waller in Carnegie Hall ( 27th of April 1928) (click on the picture to enlarge) (photo in negative)
In 1928 it was performed on stage of Carnegie Hall as part of a W.C. Handy concert in a version with orchestra, featuring Thomas Waller, nicknamed Fats due his dimensions, at the piano. In fact, it had to be James P. Johnson behind the keys, the composer himself, but James P. was also performing at his Keep Shufflin' musical and wasn't allowed to take a day off - so, …………Fats did the honours. The most pretentious number of the evening was termed a Negro Rhapsody, Yamekraw, written by James P. Johnson, and evidently, from the name, intended to typify life in the old Yamecraw section of Savannah, Ga. Fats Waller was again featured at the piano ... ( review in The New York Age on the 5th of May, 1928)
In his book, John Howland reserves many pages to describe the cultural background of Yamekraw, subtitled A Rhapsody in Black and White ( mind the similarity with the title of Rhapsody in Blue).

Howland's analyses. (click on the photo to enlarge) (photo in negative)
In 1930 the music was used into a Vitaphone short, titled Yamekraw, in which James P. Johnson seems to play the piano himself, although he is not visible in the film. In his book John Howland unravels the sources of certain themes used in Yamekraw - James P. borrowed themes from musicians like Perry Bradford and other black blues musicians from the 1920s.
Thematic borrows or stolen stuff? - samples, as we label that today.( Click on the photo to enlarge) (photo in negative)

As far as I know James P. Johnson recorded the tune just one time, in 1944, now available on a Folkway LP; Yamekraw - a Negro Rhapsody - ( in four movements). I love to introduce you to the fourth movement!!

There has been some contemporary releases from this Yamekraw Rhapsody in Black and White, recorded by Marcus Roberts and the members of the Orchestra of St. Luke's and the Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra ( June 1995) and one played by William Allbright. I found a life performance, in two parts, by Richard Alston; both fragments conclude this blog.

Thanks to Ate van D., a Dutch Jazzhistorian, I learned that Yamekraw has been performed at one of the Dutch Jazzweken (= Jazz weeks), by an orchestra of the VARA-radio networks during the 1930s. No more info available at the moment. Who can help?
The book, Ellington Uptown by John Howland, brings you a thorough study about the Birth of Concert Jazz. It's a rather scientic publication, with transcriptions of several recordings and list of stolen themes, but also gives a lot of addtitonal information interesting for the average jazz fan like you and me. And what about the extensive descriptions of Duke Ellington's suites, all well known? If you are interesting in this part of the American musical heritage this book is a must. I hope to use it more often in coming blogs. Get you copy today ...........

Hans Koert

Oscar Aleman Choro Music Flexible Records Hit of the Week-Durium Keep Swinging News Letter Keep Swinging Contributions

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Anonymous Jeffcrom said...

Thanks for posting this. I've always been fascinated by Johnson's symphonic music, particularly "Yamekraw." There is a nice Musicmasters CD of Johnson's works for orchestra (not including "Yamekraw," however) by the Concordia Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop

(Georgia GA - USA)
(organissimo jazzforum)

6:47 PM  
Anonymous Clint H. said...

Somewhere in my archives, I have a lp of J.P.J. playing Yamekraw. He was a great player and composer.

Clint H.
Tustin (CA) (USA)
(Jazz Corner Soeakeasy list)

6:44 PM  
Anonymous Pete C. said...

That's a great recording (excerpts), and Marcus Roberts did an excellent version with orchestra on the album where he also does Rhapsody in Blue. I'm happy to have been able to turn Dave Burrell on to this fantastic music, as I saw a kindred spirit in some of his own compositions.

Pete C.
(Jazzcorner Speakeasy list)

6:46 PM  
Anonymous Agustín Pérez said...


Thanks for your very interesting post on James P. Johnson from July, that I have just read.

A few points:

-The "Yamekraw" Vitaphone short, from late February, 1930 (Vitaphone 1009) features a studio band, Hugo Marianni and his Mediterraneans. Marianni was a white conductor under contract with CBS at the time. Actors included Jimmy Mordecai (who also appeared at Bessie Smith's film "St. Louis Blues"), Louis 'Jota' Cook and Margaret Sims. The film was reviewed in Variety on April 30.

According to James P. Johnson's discographer Robert Hilber, James P. does not appear in the film nor does he play piano on the soundtrack. Does John Howland suggest/state that James P. could be/is present? I ordered the book a few days ago, but have not received it yet.

-The 1944 "Yamekraw" recording was cut for Moses Asch's label (Asch) and was planned as a two-disc album (each section could fit on a 78 rpm side) but this project was dead. This solo version was not released until 1962, on that Folkways LP you mentioned.

-As for that 1930s Dutch performance of "Yamekraw", I will try to get additional information.

Keep stridin' ;-D
Agustín Pérez
Mule Walk & Jazz Talk:

11:42 PM  
Anonymous Agustín Pérez said...

Dear Hans

Regarding the fact that "John Howland unravels the sources of certain themes used in Yamekraw - James P. borrowed themes from musicians like Perry Bradford and other black blues musicians from the 1920s", just a short note to point out that this has been described at certain length in Scott E. Brown's biography of James P. Johnson, "A Case Of Mistaken Identity" (p. 184-187) and in David Cayer's liner notes to "The Original James P. Johnson. 1942-1945 Piano Solos" (Smithsonian Folkways SF CD 40812), though maybe John Howland's offers a more technical study.

Best regards,
Agustín Pérez
Mule Walk & Jazz Talk

12:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

THe 1930 Vitaphone short Yamecraw is now available on DVD in the USA via the Warner Archive site. It is on a 6 disc compilation of 60+ Vitaphone shorts.

I have seen it and there is no dialogue, just the music. There is also a bit of operatic singing. Also the film is very expressionist in style. A strange short to be sure, very atypical of period Hollywood output.

8:53 PM  
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6:29 AM  

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