A definition of righteousness: about 75 people, crammed into the West Village club Smalls, watching a series of pianists play James P. Johnson on a grand piano in a benefit concert to buy a headstone for his grave.
I don’t know much about Johnson, but the set — which featured 12 different pianists slapping keys for five hours — sounds like it would’ve been an excellent introduction. Here’s critic Ben Ratliff’s description of the turn at the ivory taken by Ethan Iverson, of the excellent if sometimes overly nerdy Bad Plus, the band responsible for that jazzy cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”:
[Iverson] played “Carolina Shout” with sensitivity and clarity, keeping the stride rhythm steady in the left hand. Then he went off into his own updated, posteverything style, full of explicit dissonance, repetition and strange dynamics.
“The Charleston” was his killer: it started with deliberately messy tone rows, his two hands playing at cross-purposes, the left staccato and slow, the right flowing and medium-tempo. Inevitably, and with humor, he finished in the song’s proper style.
Johnson died in 1955 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Maspeth, Queens. When the concert promoters finally erect his stone, hopefully we’ll read about it and I can schedule some rainy afternoon to make a visit. I’ll bring my friend Tim, who’ll appreciate the trek, and I’ll tell him — as I’m telling you know — about the time in 1921 that Johnson and Duke Ellington stayed out hollering until 10 a.m.
Duke reportedly said a night with Johnson was worth more than a semester at a conservatory. Here’s to you, Mr. Johnson; may you teach us all.