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    James P. Johnson & Billie Holiday art album covers

    The picture was on a lower shelf in a locked glass case at the antiques mall. There was no light in the case so the image itself was in the shadows and not very distinguishable.

    It had the feel of a Dox Thrash painting (with apartment buildings rather than old rickety houses) from the 1930s and 1940s. It showed a man drawn in black and white on a city street – perhaps Harlem – with a wide band of gold sunset dissecting the picture. The man, obviously a musician, carried sheet music under his arm.

    I came across the item at the Big Peach Antiques Mall in Georgia while visiting my family during the holidays. I always drop by the place to see if I can find any historical goodies. I had walked aisle after aisle, looking hard but finding little to stir me. I was near the front of the building on my way out when I stopped by the glass cases and spotted the picture.


    Two David Stone Martin album covers for Billie Holiday (1955) and James P. Johnson (1944).

    I located a salesman who opened the case and waited as I removed the item. To my disappointment, it was not a print by a famous artist but an album cover. To my delight, though, it was a cover designed by someone whose name I was familiar with: David Stone Martin.

    I have been on the lookout for jazz covers by Martin, who created more than 400 of them from the 1940s to the 1950s. I had never heard of him until one of his original pen-and-ink drawings were sold at auction two years ago. So I was very very pleased to find this cover.

    I was even more excited recently when I found another of Martin’s cover in a box of albums at another auction. I instantly recognized its bright orange and yellow colors: “Music for Torching with Billie Holiday.” The single album was released in 1955.


    James P. Johnson, at piano in foreground, plays with a band at Webster Hall in New York City in May 1947. Photo via wikimedia from the William P. Gottlieb Collection at the Library of Congress.

    The first cover graced a three-album set by African American composer and musician James P. Johnson, a well-known piano player around Harlem starting in the 1920s. Martin drew the cover for these 12-inch 78-rpm records for Asch Records in 1944, according to several accounts.

    The album was titled “New York Jazz,” and contained these songs: “Four O’Clock Groove,” “Hesitation Blues (W.C. Handy is listed under the name, although his version was titled ‘Hesitating Blues’),” “The Boogie Dream (by Johnson),” “Hot Harlem,” “Euphonic Sounds (by Scott Joplin)” and “The Dream (a slow drag song).”

    Johnson is considered the inventor of stride piano. He began playing piano professionally at the turn of the 20th century, working in theaters and summer resorts, and playing bars, rent parties and nightclubs around New York until around 1920.


    The David Stone Martin cover for James P. Johnson’s “New York Jazz,” 1944.

    His “Carolina Shout” was said to be the standard-bearer – the piece to learn from and emulate by musicians of his and younger generations during an era when ragtime was king. Recorded in 1921 and distributed on piano rolls, it is said to be the first jazz piano solo.

    During the 1920s, Johnson also wrote “Charleston,” a tune that catapulted the famed dance to stardom. The Charleston song and dance (credited to Johnson and songwriter Cecil Mack) were popularized in the Broadway production “Runnin’ Wild” in 1923, which featured an African American cast.

    Someone noted in an interview that Johnson had more blues in his repertoire than other stride pianists such as Fats Waller, today his more well-known protege. Johnson accompanied such singers as Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters, and scored music for movies.


    The front and back covers of “Music for Torching with Billie Holiday” by David Stone Martin.

    He wanted to become a major writer of music for symphony orchestras (using elements from African American culture), but unfortunately he was living at a time – in the 1930s – when those avenues were not open to people of color. He desired to write the same type of orchestral music as George Gershwin.

    Johnson did write some music for symphonies but they did not reach the popularity of his stride tunes.

    His first orchestral symphony was called “Yamekraw: A Negro Rhapsody,” about a community of African Americans near Savannah, GA. It was first performed by Waller at Carnegie Hall in 1928 with Handy conducting. According to one account, Johnson was not able to perform in the concert because he was playing piano for the Broadway musical “Keep Shufflin'” and the producers Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles wouldn’t release him. ‘Yamekraw’ spawned a movie by the same name in 1930.

    Johnson was able to perform some of his orchestra pieces during a premiere at Carnegie Hall in the 1940s.

    Both of the covers and the records I bought at auction were in good condition, although the Johnson cover had some slight tears on the spine and wear around the edges.

    My search continues for more of Martin’s covers, which are wonderful works of art.


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