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Re : [RedHotJazz] Re: Clarence Johnson - also: musical signifying

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  • Andrew
    Hello, Many many thanks for posting these two tracks! Who restored these? I can t believe they are from the Document CD, since the quality seems too good! The
    Message 1 of 13 , Dec 30, 2012
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      Hello,

      Many many thanks for posting these two tracks! Who restored these?
      I can't believe they are from the Document CD, since the quality seems too good! The piano seems rather well-recorded compared to some of the other Paramount sides of the period!

      I have just listened critically to these two recordings for the second time since downloading them today.

      The pianist is DEFINITELY Clarence Johnson... after listening to at least a couple hundred of these old piano-vocal blues records from the 1920s (featuring all different pianists) as well as thousands of piano rolls, I'm convinced this is him.

      Just compare with Johnson's excellent QRS piano roll of "Jelly's Blues" here. What he plays on this record is almost note-for-note (in places) what he plays on his QRS roll!:

      http://www.frankhimpslarchive.com/uploads/Jelly_s_Blues_-_QRS_2994.mid

      Also compare "Good Man Blues" (AKA "My Good Man's Blues" AKA "Mahailia's Blues") with the Columbia or Capitol roll of the same tune.

      I have not seen the 88-note issue of this arrangement, nor a listing for it, so I'm not sure if the credited pianist is actually Johnson. However, I would bet dollars to donuts it's actually him, due to his characteristic style heard on this roll. It contains a wealth of authentic Clarence Johnson figures!:

      http://www.frankhimpslarchive.com/uploads/Mahalia_s_Blues__aka_My_Good_Man_s_Blues__-_Cap_2176-10.mid

      The fine pianist Nathan Bello has transcribed the above roll into sheet music, and you can hear him play it, note-for-note, on his CD "Windy City Blues" (along with many other Columbia and Capitol blues roll arrangements, mainly by James Blythe and Clarence Johnson) [note: on this CD, the tune is called "Mahalia's Blues", and it is track 9]:

      http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/NathanBello5

      As a pianist, I can play pretty much everything Mr. Johnson plays on the Edna Taylor record (although I certainly couldn't play it several years ago!).

      However, it will take me some time to transcribe these two sides into sheet music. As soon as I do so, I promise to scan and post the transcriptions to this group for your perusal.

      I have, however, copied a few licks straight off of the records, just to double-check for verification purposes.

      For the musicians, "Good Man Blues" AKA "My Good Man's Blues" seems to be in Bb major, while "Jelly's Blues" seems to be in F major.

      This is a really interesting record for two reasons:

      1. As I mentioned above, what Johnson plays on "Jelly's Blues" is almost note-for-note what he plays on his QRS roll, in certain places!

      2. As you mention, Clarence Johnson doubles the melody for most of "Good Man Blues", which seems superfluous to me, since Edna Taylor is singing it extremely well, and the cornet player (who is he?) seems to also be doing a good job.

      Perhaps Johnson was nervous before the session about the two other musicians playing and singing this song correctly, and so he decided to keep the melody strong throughout? It is obvious today (and probably also to all three musicians, when the record was finally issued) that he needn't have worried or adhered so closely to the melody!

      I find this interesting because he doesn't stick particularly close to the melody on most of his other recordings (mainly with Lizzie Miles and Edna Hicks). I would guess he was much more comfortable working with these other singers, and may have had extensive experience playing with them in clubs, and possibly on tour, before he recorded with them, and that is possibly why he decides to play mostly a counter melody part to the vocalists on those records, as compared with this one.

      HOWEVER, as a musician, I would like to point out that Clarence Johnson's right hand is by no means "only on the strong beats".
      His right hand is playing quite a lot of syncopation over his left (which of course, has the function of delineating the strong beats). I listened carefully, and it is quite obvious to me that he is playing with the same exact swing (which, by the way, is a kind of musical fingerprint) and using generally the same rhythms he uses on his other, previously verified, records.
      If you listen again, you will hear that he is actually laying back and playing the off-beats (when he plays syncopation) so far back in the beat that they are _almost_ on the next beat!

      However, Clarence Johnson's style (just like ANYONE'S piano style) is far more complicated than just rhythmic motifs.

      In those days (the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s), every single pianist had their own characteristic ornamental devices and breaks that they would use, and apply to every tune they played, regardless of the composer.

      Of course Jelly Roll Morton is quite well known for this today, since relatively few people (at least, few people who got to record) back in the old days were able to successfully copy his devices, since they were quite complicated and musically sophisticated. Thus, Jelly Roll Morton sounds unique compared to most other pianists of the period.

      HOWEVER, even lesser-known (today) pianists such as Clarence Johnson had an entire arsenal of devices and breaks which they used.

      Especially in the African-American jazz community, this can be considered a form of "signifying" (or, in modern slang, "representing") from one musician to another, or even from one region to another.

      When you hear something strange, or (seemingly) musically inexplicable on these recordings, it is probably one pianist "signifying" to others via the medium of audio recordings or piano rolls.

      Of course the general public, and most white musicians of the period, probably would not have understood this, but many of the African-American pianists of the time would have recognized this, and gotten what is essentially a kind of musical inside joke or "shout-out" to their local region.

      Excellent examples of this musical "signifying" are the numerous bizarre codas found on a great many of the piano rolls and audio recordings made by James Blythe and Lemuel Fowler, (and occasionally, Clarence Johnson... these two recordings are excellent examples of this!) especially between 1923 and 1925.

      Sometimes these pianists will simply end a tune on a regular tonic chord (or "I" chord), but with the dominant seventh AND ninth added, a really "cool" chord in 1923, which still sounds hip today. This kind of ending was also used by Fats Waller around the same time period, although his mentor James P. Johnson generally preferred "perfect" endings without any strange stuff at the end.

      However, far better examples of "signifying" were some of the strange endings favored by James Blythe, Lemuel Fowler, and Jimmy Yancey. Blythe sometimes liked to end on a chord with the dominant seventh and ninth, but it was not always the tonic. On some of his recordings, he ends on the IV chord!!! [and some other like-minded blues musicians would even end on the bVII chord, for example, a Bb major chord in the key of C major!]

      On other recordings and piano rolls, he ends on an Eb chord, no matter the key of the original piece or relationship of the Eb chord to the tonic. This seems to be an obvious shout-out to Jimmy Yancey, who Blythe must have known in Chicago.

      Although Blythe was a more schooled pianist than Yancey, and had more technique, I would wager he probably learned the figure from Yancey, since Yancey was older (born 1894) and was known to have been highly influential on other Chicago blues pianists in general.

      [I must add that I am in no way trying to denigrate Mr. Yancey or Mr. Blythe... I think they were both marvelous musicians who could play with great emotional depth when they wanted to.
      The "more technique" thing is not really important except as an aid to identifying pianists on old records, and also attempting to play like them in modern times.
      For example, I would recommend a beginning or intermediate pianist try to play like Jimmy Yancey BEFORE they try to play like James Blythe.]

      Clarence Johnson plays in what used to be called (in the 1920s, by James P. Johnson, J. Lawrence Cook, and others) a "Chicago" piano style.

      Of course, it is his own personal style, but nonetheless it contains many elements used by many other pianists who spent a lot of time in Chicago, such as James Blythe, Lemuel Fowler, Mel Stitzel, and several others.

      What is interesting is that (contrary to what was happening with many New York horn players being influenced by jazz musicians from Chicago and/or New Orleans at the same time), many (though certainly not all) of these Chicago piano players were being influenced by players from the East coast, notably James P. Johnson.

      Clarence Johnson must have been one of James P. Johnson's biggest fans in the 1920s, since, even more so than Johnson's own pupil Fats Waller, he copied many of James P. Johnson's own characteristic devices note-for-note, either from the records or from the piano rolls. Clarence Johnson, after learning these devices, applied them frequently (and quite well and appropriately, I might add!) in his own arrangements of popular songs and blues, on piano rolls and recordings.

      I should also add that by no means was Clarence Johnson's own "bag of tricks" limited merely to stuff that James P. Johnson played once or twice on a record or piano roll (and then never again, I might add!).

      He had many other devices, some of which he learned from his friend James Blythe (or which Blythe learned from him... the chronology is now confused, since both gentlemen passed away decades before they could be interviewed).

      Some (by no means all!) other possible influences on Clarence Johnson were:

      Clarence M. Jones (Blythe's piano teacher; a classically-trained jazz pianist from Ohio who made some of the earliest hand-played blues piano rolls, and who thus can be considered a pioneer in both recorded blues music and what was once called a "modern" piano style).

      Clarence Williams, whose own piano playing was more widely imitated than is generally credited today, judging from existing audio recordings (and who co-composed several tunes with Johnson in Chicago before Williams' departure for New York)

      and

      Lloyd Smith, who (as I've already mentioned earlier in this thread) ran a music store with his brother Warren, and co-wrote and published many tunes with Johnson.

      I have not yet attempted to really analyze the influences of these three people on Clarence Johnson's piano style, but you can hear Clarence Williams' piano playing on probably over a thousand recordings (I particularly like his stuff with Sara Martin).

      You can hear many of Clarence M. Jones' remarkable piano rolls here:

      http://www.frankhimpslarchive.com/Page_3.html

      [the Wurlitzer Rolla Artis rolls were issued from 1915-1918, the Vocalstyle rolls in the 1920s (since Vocalstyle purchased the roll-recording equipment from Wurlitzer, and, I think, was located in the Wurlitzer building in Cincinnati for a while), the Columbia and Capitol rolls from c. 1923-1926, and the quite remarkable and forward-looking Imperial rolls from c. 1917(?)-1921 (my friends doing the Imperial and Vocalstyle rollographies would have the exact release dates handy)]

      You can hear Lloyd Smith's 1923 Columbia roll of "I'm Goin' Away..." (which he probably made in Chicago while Clarence Johnson was on his 1923 New York trip making the same tune for QRS) here:

      http://www.frankhimpslarchive.com/uploads/I_m_Goin__Away_To_Wear_You_Off_My_Mind_-_COL_A-1741-9.mid

      and this page also contains some of his exceedingly scarce late-1920s and early-1930s Capitol rolls (which were also issued on the American and Supertone labels):

      http://www.frankhimpslarchive.com/Page_6.html

      You can hear him actually play with his band, Lloyd Smith's Gut-Bucketeers, here:

      http://www.redhotjazz.com/gut.html

      More on Clarence Johnson later.

      I hope to post some videos on Youtube of me demonstrating some of his characteristic figures, hopefully within a few months.

      enjoy!
      Andrew E. Barrett



      --- In RedHotJazz@yahoogroups.com, "Patrice Champarou" <patrice.champarou@...> wrote:
      >
      > Many, many thanks, Andrew, for such comprehensive information (and quite
      > probably, for the time it took to gather all these data in two documents)
      > I have mp3 samples of the Edna Taylor recordings (Jelly's Blues and Good Man
      > Blues) but I seriously doubt this could be Johnson - the pianist has some
      > interesting licks, but he insistantly plays on the strong beats and mainly
      > follows the melody...
      > Since this is only a first impression, and I am used to be proved wrong with
      > such appreciations, I will upload these to the group's files section later
      > in the afternoon - I have not checked if you had a Yahoo account, but of
      > course I can also email them to you if you like.
      >
      > Thanks again,
      >
      > Patrice
      >
    • ROBERT R. CALDER
      While I would sincerely doubt the advisability of trying to play like Jimmy Yancey before trying to play like Jimmy Blythe,  I do take Andrew s point, which
      Message 2 of 13 , Dec 31, 2012
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        While I would sincerely doubt the advisability of trying to play like Jimmy Yancey before trying to play like Jimmy Blythe,  I do take Andrew's point, which is that according to report (and what my hearing tells me) Jimmy Blythe was a gifted and notably idiomatic barrelhouse pianist who with benefit of tuition (Clarence Jones, I think) was able to extend his range and repertoire
        I mean that he did not undergo a deformation of his original fingerings into an orthodoxy which diminished or did away with his expressive capacities --
        If you want to go in the other direction, toward playing in a decent barrelhouse style after having had standard training, you do need to clear up various habits which come with legit. or orthodox training.  The piano teacher who can have nothing but a complete fresh start is just not asking what the pianist wants to learn.
        One extremely capable blues and boogie player of my acquaintance was working for a while in proximity to a legit.-trained jazz player and asked about getting some assistance -- and the teacher was so thoroughly musical he refused.
        A few people can play almost anything
        Rather too many can almost play an enormous range of work without ever managing to play anything/
        It's where you put the almost, and where and when the player puts the fingers.  And Jimmy Yancey was entirely special and singular. 

        and I shall now think myself in E-Flat to end

        Robert R. Calder

        [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
      • ikey100
        While Andrew s remarks about pianists signature endings are interesting to consider, I must say that I ve always thought Yancey s Eflat endings might be a
        Message 3 of 13 , Jan 3, 2013
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          While Andrew's remarks about pianists' signature endings are interesting to consider, I must say that I've always thought Yancey's Eflat endings might be a sort of "rehoming" of his ear at the end of a piece. That is, consciously returning his ear/mind to a prefered tonal center before stopping. Not in a superstitious way or anything, but just in the way that a largely self taught brain might have become habituated to doing. Just a thought...

          Warren

          --- In RedHotJazz@yahoogroups.com, "ROBERT R. CALDER" wrote:

          > and I shall now think myself in E-Flat to end
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