African Americans in Jazz: A Walk Through the 1800s – Francis Johnson


Here we begin our first leg of learning about jazz and take with a walk through the 1800s.

As most know, jazz became a widespread phenomenon during the 1900s, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist during the 1800s. Over the next week, we’ll take a look at three African American artists who made big strides in music during this time: Francis Johnson, Edmond Dede, and Scott Joplin.

First, we take on Francis Johnson. It’s difficult to find his compositions, but as you read the below, take a listen to some of them here. One of my favorites is “The New Bird Waltz.”

Francis Johnson

Francis_Johnson

Born in 1792 as a free African, Francis Johnson represents one of the most influential African American composer-conductors of the pre-Civil War era. Philadelphia-raised and the child of an interracial union, Johnson quickly made his mark as a musician by performing in local venues and playing for the elite.

By his 15th birthday, he was an expert in flute and piccolo, fiddle, bugle-horn, and pianoforte. And by 1815,  he had become a band leader, teacher and composer for militias, notably composing in rapid succession 4 of the most important pieces in the annals of American martial music.  What we’ll focus on here however is his biggest legacy: his introduction of Promenade concerts in Philadelphia.

In 1837, Frank Johnson made an announcement that he was traveling to Europe to further his knowledge in music.

During his journey, Johnson heard Auguste Pilati and his promenade concerts in Britain. Pilati was a former player in the orchestra of Frenchman Philippe Musard. He tried to capitalize off the success of Musard’s promenade concerts in Paris by introducing them in London, but this attempt was short-lived. Curious about these concerts, in early January 1838, Johnson voyaged to Paris, where he attended a few promenade shows and met with Musard himself .

Johnson’s attraction to the promenade concerts stemmed from his own interests and talents in the creation of cotillions and marches, which were a form of dance music. The difference between this ballroom dance music and the promenade concerts lied in how people perceived them. Audiences went to the ballroom to dance while they went to concerts to listen to dance music. People loved to both listen and dance to Johnson’s music, whether it was outside in Saratoga Springs or inside a hotel in Philadelphia. However, unlike Johnson’s own ballroom performances, Musard’s promenade concerts served as a source of entertainment available to the masses. They attracted “the ordinary man and woman who never went to a concert and could not afford to do so but who wanted a pleasant evening’s entertainment at a low price.”  It was this concept that Johnson found valuable enough to bring back with him to America.

By the time Johnson arrived back in Philadelphia on May 19, 1838, he carried with him a new belief: that all could enjoy music, for it was universal. He also realized that he needed to promote his own music to be successful.  Thus, Johnson became the first American bandmaster to systematically publicize in advance “through newspapers and handbills not only his own band but each composition and composer to be presented in the program as well.”  The thousands of concertgoers who decided to attend his “Musical Soirees” provide evidence of the immense success of his promotions. On December 24, 1838, an advertisement in the Public Ledger stated that a concert by Francis Johnson would be held in the Philadelphia Museum “…on the plan of those held at Musard’s celebrated rooms at Paris…” The ad goes on to state that with the variety of music being offered, and the low admission fee, thousands would be able to assemble nightly and enjoy the intellectual source of amusement. Thus, in this ad Johnson made sure to emphasize his purpose in throwing these promenade concerts, which was to make it affordable and enjoyable for all.

These promotions worked tremendously well for him; the Museum was often obliged to close its doors to crowds of people long before the performances began. In addition, Johnson maintained a wide variety in his programs, rarely carrying one song over to the next night.

Johnson died in 1844 after a sustained illness at the age of 52, but the steps he made in a series of firsts – the first African American to have his works published as sheet music – the first to give public concerts – the first to present concerts abroad – and more – paved the way for those to come. And one of the most important pieces in his career was promoting music as something that could be enjoyed by everyone. As we’ll soon explore in further detail, this became one of jazz’s main attractions.

Note: I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the racial tension that Johnson had to endure during his musical career. But historical works show that it was less of an issue than one might presume: “…with but few unpleasantly memorable exceptions, [Johnson] seemed to have lived and worked relatively free of the racial problems building in the world around him.” He tended to stray away from the social activist and abolitionist movements in Philadelphia. Instead he focused on his music and frequently traveled to New York to perform in front of large crowds.  Thus, as Johnson put his music above all else, we might also try to do so here.

 

Sources

Griscom, Richard. “Francis Johnson: Philadelphia Bandmaster and Composer.”University of Pennsylvania Almanac 58.22 (2012): n. pag. University of Pennsylvania Almanac. Web. 9 May 2013.

Jones, Charles K.. Francis Johnson (1792-1844): chronicle of a black musician in early nineteenth-century Philadelphia. Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press, 2006. Print.

Southern, Eileen. The music of black Americans: a history. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 1997. Print.

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