Long Before Jazz, Frank Johnson Was Playing the Hottest Music in America | Arts & Culture

Winford Hunter
a painting of a person with their musical instrument

An anonymous watercolor portrait of Francis Johnson keeping an early 19th-century horn
Courtesy NYPL

On March 9, 1819, a supremely gifted musician named Francis “Frank” Johnson performed a concert at the Masonic Hall on Chestnut Road in Philadelphia. Johnson and his bandmates have been absolutely free Black adult men the viewers was white and effectively-to-do. The building was a monumental Gothic Revival masterpiece with a towering steeple.

Johnson, a 26-calendar year-old composer and multi-instrumentalist, was already a sensation in Philadelphia. A e book about the metropolis revealed that yr explained him as the “leader of the band at all balls” and “inventor-typical of cotillions,” a dance trend that was overtaking the city. The creator, Robert Waln, a former U.S. representative from Pennsylvania, also marveled at Johnson’s flair for reinventing a sentimental song into an irresistible, foot-stomping jig or reel.

At some stage during the demonstrate, the hall caught fireplace. The flames climbed up as a result of the walls, and the mighty steeple collapsed, however no a single was damage or killed. And when the hearth was started by a recently set up gas jet mounted far too near to a flammable curtain, numerous Philadelphians liked speculating that Frank Johnson’s “hot music” experienced ignited the blaze.

“Hotness” is a quality typically associated with ragtime and jazz—Louis Armstrong’s first bands in the 1920s were termed the Scorching 5 and Very hot Seven—and it derives from generating the rhythm a lot more propulsive although stretching out certain notes. Was Johnson enjoying an early prototype of jazz, a century before its recognized delivery in New Orleans?

two silhouette portraits of musicians holding their instruments

Silhouettes by the French portraitist Auguste Edouart clearly show Johnson, appropriate, and his mentee Joseph G. Anderson, who led Johnson’s band following the terrific man’s death

James Arsenault & Enterprise, Rare Printed & Manuscript Americana

Experts are divided on that problem, but all agree that Johnson was a important determine in early American songs. Renowned for his ingenious compositions and his virtuosity on wind and string devices as nicely as the pianoforte, he broke by means of racial obstacles, getting the initial Black musician to have his sheet music printed, run a instruction university for other Black musicians and tour extensively in the United States. And in 1837, he was the first Black American musician to just take a band to Europe, where some historians say he performed for Queen Victoria.

Johnson was well-known all about the United States, as nicely as in Canada and Wonderful Britain, but he was practically fully overlooked through the 20th century. Now, his star is soaring all over again as musicians dust off Johnson’s compositions in an effort and hard work to provide his dazzling music back again into the tradition.

Rodney Marsalis, from the illustrious New Orleans jazz relatives, 1st heard about Johnson on transferring to Philadelphia in 2006 and “just fell down the rabbit hole with this person.” As Marsalis figured out, Johnson experienced more than 200 compositions printed, which includes cotillions, quadrilles, waltzes, reels, operatic airs, army marches and quicksteps. Marsalis, a trumpeter, was significantly struck by the composer’s means to attractiveness throughout racial strains: Johnson was the first Black musician to carry out in integrated concert events with white musicians. “That really drew me to him,” Marsalis suggests. “He thought there’s just one human race and audio is the point that brings us with each other. That is why it’s so vital to provide him again to lifestyle.”

Minimal is identified about Johnson’s early years. It is normally mentioned with out proof that he was born on the Caribbean island of Martinique. Far more persuasive is a baptismal certification from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia for a Francis Johnson, born June 16, 1792. The church was in the Society Hill neighborhood, in which Johnson lived as a teen and adult in a free Black neighborhood, whose customers had been welcomed by the white rectors at St. Paul’s.

two sheets of music

The opening bars of “Captain J. Mountfort’s Kent Bugle Gradual March,” composed by Johnson and posted 1823-1824

Library of Congress

By his 15th birthday, owning mastered the flute, piccolo, violin, bugle and pianoforte, Johnson was enjoying in Philadelphia taverns and was quickly employed as a fiddler at a predominantly white social location called the Trade Coffee Dwelling in an outdated mansion on 3rd Road, wherever he created up a big adhering to. His fans delighted at the breadth of his repertoire and his extremely danceable revamps of older music. In 1810, when Johnson was 18, George Willig, a Philadelphia-dependent new music publisher, read him enjoy at the espresso home and asked him to generate some unique tunes. The outcome was “Bingham’s Cotillion,” a piece named just after William Bingham, the previous operator of the espresso residence building. It was the initial musical composition posted by a Black American. That similar yr, a new instrument referred to as the keyed bugle arrived in Philadelphia. It was hard to enjoy, with finger-operated levers that opened and closed the tone holes, but it afforded considerably better options for musical expression.

Following a number of yrs of exercise, Johnson was the nation’s foremost master of the keyed bugle and formulated a approach of singing by way of the horn while participating in it. When he done his composition “Philadelphia Fireman’s Quadrille,” audiences were being astonished to listen to his bugle cry out, “Fire!” He could also impersonate an ice product vendor hawking his wares and use his flute to mimic a canary.

Johnson explored all the musical types of his working day, including Mozart’s concertos, Irish jigs and Black sacred new music. He wrote a collection of operates in the Spanish-Andalusian type, composed military services marches and led a army band of totally free Black musicians.   

One of Johnson’s most ardent admirers these days is Homer Jackson, a visual artist who heads the nonprofit Philadelphia Jazz Project and has applied general public areas to phase pop-up concerts of Johnson’s perform. “When you seem at the photos of Frank Johnson, he looks so superbly composed. Supremely self-confident,” Jackson says. “He reminds me of Miles Davis that way.”

Jackson does see Johnson’s audio as a precursor of jazz. “He definitely wasn’t composing jazz, but the notes on the web page are not the complete tale,” he suggests. “When he performed, individuals described his actively playing as ingenious, with gildings, distortions and soul-stirring electrical power. When we carried out his pieces, it was so uncomplicated to see how you could ‘get happy’ with that music, in the African American way, and make it swing.”

In 1819, Johnson married Helen Appo, a Modern society Hill seamstress who turned a productive costumer, milliner and tailor. It seems the few had no kids. When he was not playing army or culture events—or practicing or composing—he would give lessons in their home. A person university student recalled that Johnson’s audio area was filled with devices, with hundreds of compositions on the cabinets and, in one particular corner, “an armed composing chair, with pen and inkhorn ready, and some gallopades and waltzes 50 percent completed.”

To extend his musical knowledge—and, no question, to request adventure—Johnson made a decision to go to Europe. In November 1837, following a series of fundraising concerts in Philadelphia, the 4-piece Francis Johnson Band sailed to Liverpool, England. No one had any thought how Europeans would answer to Black American musicians. When they bought to London, Johnson rented a performance space at the Argyll Rooms on Regent Avenue and introduced a series of 2 times-every day live shows in the newspapers: “Great Novelty … Initial time in Europe of the self-taught adult males of Shade.” To intensely curious crowds, they performed alternatives from Rossini, Mozart and Bellini, together with Johnson’s unique compositions and his new arrangement of “God Help you save the Queen.” A person attendee claimed the band was equal to the finest musicians in Europe.

Following a stint in Paris and a summit with Austrian composer Johann Strauss in London, Johnson returned to the U.S. His homecoming concerts, held at the Philadelphia Museum in the Xmas week of 1838, have been a smash, drawing crowds of 3,500 individuals for various evenings in a row, with several more turned absent at the doorway. He was a beloved, celebrated determine in Philadelphia, in higher need for white modern society situations, but Johnson wished to break new boundaries and see new sights. In 1842 and 1843, Johnson and nine Black band members embarked on the longest tour undertaken by any American musicians in the early to mid-19th century, and it turned him into a nationwide movie star. They traveled on riverboats and stagecoaches, and drew record crowds and rapturous opinions in New York, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Virginia and Pennsylvania. They also clashed intermittently with the forces of white supremacy.

In St. Louis in December 1842, they ended up served with warrants and billed with being “Free Negros in the Point out of Missouri without the need of a license.” A community firemen’s affiliation, which had hired Johnson’s band to carry out at its anniversary ball, engaged a attorney to defend the musicians, who performed bought-out concert events each individual night time as motions and appeals had been submitted in courtroom. When the circuit courtroom adjourned for its Christmas break with no achieving a verdict, the band departed for Kentucky and Ohio. In Allegheny Metropolis, Pennsylvania, they confronted racist violence. A mob assembled outside the concert venue and attacked the band users in the streets, hurling stones, brickbats, rotten eggs and racial epithets. Numerous musicians ended up poorly harm, but the band confirmed its mettle by participating in the next evening of its engagement.

Returning house to Philadelphia, Johnson resumed his usual agenda of playing, composing and teaching till late March 1844, when he fell desperately unwell. Two weeks afterwards, on April 6, he died at 51 from a ruptured aortic aneurysm. His funeral drew 1 of the premier crowds of mourners at any time noticed in Philadelphia, and his band performed a dirge that Johnson experienced composed 12 decades before. William Henry Fry, a composer, tunes critic and editor of Philadelphia’s Community Ledger newspaper, shipped the eulogy. “His abilities as a musician rendered him well known all more than the Union, and in that part of Europe which he had visited, although his kindness of heart and gentleness of demeanor endeared him to his have persons, and brought about him to be universally respected in this nation.”

a lithograph showing a group of musicians

This depth from a lithographed sheet tunes include is the only recognized impression of Johnson’s band Johnson is believed to be the rightmost determine, with horn aloft.

Courtesy Clements Library

Johnson’s slide into obscurity was not instant. Twenty a long time just after his death, a historian named Louis Madeira mentioned Johnson’s “very appreciable celebrity” and mastery of the keyed bugle. In 1884, in a heritage of Philadelphia, Thomas Scharf and Thompson Westcott similarly highlighted Johnson’s fame and relevance to American music. But then, in accordance to Johnson’s biographer, Charles K. Jones, “all 19th-century references to him have been quietly swept from the pages of 20th-century editions of regular new music record publications for additional than 6 many years.” In the early 1960s, Richard J. Wolfe, a musicologist, rediscovered Johnson’s story when investigating his three-quantity Secular Audio in The united states. Continue to, amongst the typical public, Johnson remained about as obscure as ever.

Now, however, the Philadelphia-dependent movement to restore Johnson’s standing proceeds apace. Rodney Marsalis is undertaking full concert events of Johnson’s new music with his brass band, and the Library Business of Philadelphia staged a modern exhibition about Johnson Brian Farrow, a musician and historian, has been undertaking some of the wonderful composer’s tunes. And Homer Jackson is arranging further tributes—not just to Johnson but also to the free of charge Black musicians whom Johnson schooled in his fashion of taking part in. Asked how people should really remember Johnson today, Jackson claims, “As a tributary of jazz and an American superstar.”

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