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Classical 101

Echoes Of The Harlem Renaissance: James P. Johnson Wrote 'A Rhapsody In Black And White'

William Gottlieb
Wikimedia Commons
James P. Johnson in 1946

On Feb. 12, 1924, George Gershwin gave the first performance of his Rhapsody in Blue with famed bandleader Paul Whiteman's band in New York City's Aeolian Hall.

That concert was billed as An Experiment in Modern Music – to see how a jazz-inflected piano concerto would go over with a concert-hall audience.

New York Times music critic Olin Downes wrote of the "tumultuous applause" that greeted Rhapsody in Blue at its world premiere. Audiences deemed the piece a hit.

Although Rhapsody in Blue brought certain aspects of jazz into the concert hall, the piece didn’t go over as authentic jazz with some jazz musicians of the day.

One such musician was pianist and composer James P. Johnson. As a youth in the 1910s, Johnson was steeped in ragtime.

He later worked as a pianist in New York City dance halls and, along with other Harlem-based pianists, helped create the Harlem Stride style of piano-playing.

Johnson also composed music for Broadway musicals and other types of popular musical entertainments. He wrote his piano work Yamekraw as an authentically African-American response to Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue.

Musicologist John Howland has pointed out that, in Yamekraw, Johnson relies heavily on distinctly African-American musical idioms that were in vogue in the Harlem musical scene of Johnson’s day.

In 1927, the African-American musician and music publisher Perry Bradford published the score of the solo piano version of Johnson's Yamekraw, billing the piece as "… not a Rhapsody in Blue, but a Rhapsody in Black and White (Black Notes on White paper) …."

The African-American composer William Grant Still composed the orchestral accompaniment for a piano-and-orchestra version of Yamekraw.

That version of the piece – its instrumentation resembling that of Rhapsody in Blue – was premiered with the orchestra of the great African-American bluesman, W.C. Handy, on April 27, 1928, at Carnegie Hall, on a concert structured very much like the 1924 concert that presented Rhapsody in Blue to the world.

Hear James P. Johnson's Yamekraw during Classical 101's Harlem Renaissance Celebration on The American Sound, 6 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. Tuesday on Classical 101.

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Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.