Reinterpreting Jazz Age standards

I’ve been perusing Brooks E. Hefner‘s dissertation, “You’ve Got to Be Modernistic”: American Vernacular Modernism, 1910-1937, as part of the research for my second thesis chapter, and the preface introduced me to several songs from the era I’d never heard before.

Hefner writes about James P. Johnson and the composition that gave the dissertation its title, “You’ve Got to Be Modernistic.”  Johnson is mainly remembered for composing the “Charleston,” but as Hefner explains, singer Ethel Waters credited him with inspiring “all the hot licks that ever came out of Fats Waller and the rest of the hot piano boys.”

I dug around a bit to find out more about Johnson and came across this NPR story about another Johnson composition, “Yamekraw.”  It was inspired by one of my favorite jazz pieces, George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”

George Gershwin plays “Rhapsody in Blue”

As NPR explains,

After his friend George Gershwin had such success with “Rhapsody in Blue,” James P. Johnson thought he’d try his hand at writing a piece for jazz piano and orchestra. Johnson’s piece is called “Yamekraw, A Negro Rhapsody.” It has some of the same exuberent bubble and bounce you might know from the Gershwin and it makes a fascinating counterpoint to “Rhapsody in Blue.”

The songs make excellent mood-setters for my Jazz Age reading sessions.

Internet Archive has a small selection of other Johnson songs.

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