Did you know that the legendary James P. Johnson, one of the important figures in the Harlem Renaissance, is buried in an unmarked grave in Maspeth, Queens in the Mt. Olivet Cemetery? Johnson was born in 1894 and in the ’20s became famous for bridging Scott Joplin’s ragtime with jazz swing in a unique and rollicking approach to solo piano that quickly became known as stride. Among his most famous songs (or rolls!) were “Carolina Shout,” “Charleston” and “Harlem Strut.” Johnson counted Fats Waller as one of his piano students and a later collaborator. A key player in the vibrant cultural scene in Harlem, Johnson even co-wrote a one-act opera with Langston Hughes and he accompanied Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith. Johnson also devoted himself to larger symphonic works, most of which were never performed. Despite being championed by producer John Hammond, Johnson died in relative poverty and obscurity in 1955.
Despite being a lifelong fan of Johnson’s music, Spike Wilner, pianist and owner of Smalls Jazz Club in NYC, was unaware of Johnson’s resting place until earlier this year. For the last few years, Wilner and Terry Waldo had been hosting a regular stride piano jam session at Smalls. One of the regular attendees was musicologist and Johnson scholar Scott Brown, who has been researching a book about Johnson. About 6 months ago, Brown told Wilner that he had made a remarkable discovery. He had found Johnson’s grave and that it was unmarked. Wilner was outraged and said, “I was ready to write a check that day for whatever it took to put a headstone there.” But first they decided to check with Johnson’s family about their wishes. Wilner and Waldo soon came in contact with Johnson’s grandson, Barry Glover, who lives in Johnson’s final home in Queens. Glover, who runs the James P. Johnson Foundation, was delighted by the offer and gave the blessings of the family for this gesture. Quickly, the idea grew into a bigger fundraiser for the Foundation. “Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus came aboard and the thing picked up steam,” said Wilner, “and we decided to make it an event.” But he wanted to keep it informal too. “We wanted it to be the sort of thing that Johnson would have wanted to be at,” noted Wilner.