Clarence Johnson

Low Down Papa: Enhanced Pianola Rolls, Vol. 2

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Pianist Clarence "Jelly" Johnson was not a major name in the jazz world. When he was active in the '20s and early '30s, he wasn't nearly as well known as James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, or Jelly Roll Morton were during that era. But the Kentucky native (who was a World War I veteran) had a good reputation in his adopted hometown of Chicago, which is where he provided the mid- to late-‘20s piano rolls that are heard on Low Down Papa: Enhanced Pianola Rolls, Vol. 2. This is a fine example of stride piano, and Johnson's talents are as evident on his own composition, "Jelly's Blues," as they are on rolls of "Joe Oliver Blues," George Thomas' "Houston Blues," Paul Carter's "The Bye Bye Blues," and Spencer Williams' "You're Always Messin' ‘Round with My Man." Unfortunately, Johnson (who died of tuberculosis in 1933) wasn't nearly as well documented on 78s as he should have been; some of his recordings accompanying singers have survived, but according to Mike Montgomery (who wrote the liner notes for this 68-minute, 20-track CD), there are no known 78s of Johnson playing piano by himself. Thankfully, Johnson did provide a lot of piano rolls when he was alive (his first were made in 1919), and Low Down Papa gives the listener a very good idea of what he sounded like. Low Down Papa doesn't contain actual recordings of Johnson himself playing the piano, but it does contain recordings of a self-playing pianola (also known as a "player piano" or "autopiano") playing the same notes that Johnson played when he sat down at the piano and made those rolls back in the days of prohibition, Al Capone, and flappers. Lovers of '20s stride piano and piano rolls should make a point of obtaining the excellent Low Down Papa.

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