Thursday, March 15, 2007

J. Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954)

(Part III in a five-part series on the song Lift Every Voice and Sing written by James Weldon Johnson & J. Rosamond Johnson.)

Photo: Copyright ©2001 by Yale University

John Rosamond Johnson, born in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1874, was the youngest of the three Johnson children. Although his first name was John, he was called Rosamond by his family and friends. Professionally, he referred to himself as J. Rosamond Johnson.

Rosamond’s special talent was music. He began piano lessons with his mother when he was 4 years old. After graduating from the Stanton Public school in 1891, he went to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston where he studied piano, organ, composition, and voice. He also studied music in London.

Around 1896 he left the conservatory to pursue an interest in musical comedy. It is believed that he toured as a vocalist with Oriental America, a company that staged the first African-American show on Broadway to differ from a burlesque house performance. Most likely, Jacksonville served as home base during the time he toured with Oriental America, because he held the administrative position of Supervisor of Music in the Jacksonville public schools from 1896-1899.

By 1898 Rosamond settled full time in Jacksonville, and in addition to his job with the Jacksonville public school system, he worked as organist and choirmaster of a large Baptist church and taught music once a week at the Baptist Academy. He also gave private piano lessons. The level of instruction he offered was far above that of previous itinerant musicians who taught in Jacksonville. James Weldon Johnson, in his autobiography called Along This Way, says: (1)

Rosamond had begun to using some of James’ poetry as texts for his composition. Their first joint effort was a comic opera that satirized American imperialism after the Spanish-American War. It was never produced, but it introduced the Johnsons to many influential people in show business.

In 1902 the Johnson brothers left Jacksonville to seek their fortune on Broadway. As a team with Bob Cole, an African-American lyricist, composer and vaudeville performer, they wrote musical comedies which were produced on Broadway with an all-black cast. They also wrote more than 200 popular songs in which their goal was to elevate the lyrical sophistication of Negro songs.

After James accepted a diplomatic appointment to Venezuela in 1906, Rosamond and Bob formed their own theater company and put on several successful productions until 1911 when Bob Cole died. The Library of Congress website states that “[Rosamond] Johnson’s compositional skills were the strongpoints of his musicals and vaudeville performances. Musicologist Thomas Riis considers Johnson’s harmonic language to be the richest of all the other black theater composers of his time save for Will Marion Cook.” (2)

After Cole’s death, Rosamond’s success continued. He composed the music and conducted the orchestra for the 1911 Broadway revue called Hello Paris, marking the first time an African-American had conducted an all-white orchestra for an all-white cast in a New York theater. He gave a piano performance in “A Concert of Negro Music” in Carnegie Hall on May 2, 1912. In that same year Oscar Hammerstein appointed him musical director of his Grand Opera House in London. There, Rosamond met Nora Floyd. They were married on June 3, 1912 and lived in London until 1914 when they returned to New York and started the Music School Settlement for Colored People. That was the year that ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) was formed, and Rosamond was one of only 6 African-Americans in the original membership of 170 people. In 1917, Rosamond directed a singing orchestra which appeared in a series of ground-breaking plays at the Garden Theater in Madison Square Garden. The plays had a relatively short run due to the fact that the US declared war on Germany the day after the play opened. During the World War I Rosamond served as a second lieutenant with the 15th Regiment.

After the war Rosamond concentrated on his collections, arrangements, and performances of Negro spirituals. He wrote the score to Emperor Jones, starring Paul Robeson in 1921. He published The Book of American Negro Spirituals in 1925 and The Second Book of American Negro Spirituals in 1926. He toured the US and Europe with Taylor Gordon giving performances of these works. In the following decade Rosamond published two more volumes -- Shout Songs in 1936 and Rolling Along in Song in 1937.

In the thirties, Rosamond’s acting career took precedence. Between 1929 and 1946 he performed in a variety of plays and musicals, most notably singing the role of Lawyer Frazier in Porgy and Bess in its Broadway premier in 1935 and again in 1942-43. The International Movie Database (IMDb) lists a number of credits, as does the Internet Broadway Database (IBDB).

After a varied and successful career in the arts, Rosamond Johnson died of a heart condition on November 11, 1954 in his home on West 162 Street in New York City. Besides being a talented and accomplished musician, he worked to educate African-American musicians and pioneered the musical acceptance and recognition of African-American art forms. Although he is not as well known as his brother, James Weldon Johnson, he deserves equal recognition for his varied achievements.

1. James Weldon Johnson's autobiography, Along This Way. p. 149. (reference to "Shout Songs" & the quote in the image above]

2. From the Library of Congress website:

Bibliography (in addition to Footnotes above):

1. Irving S. Gilmore Music Library of Yale University website, biographical overview:

2. Internet exhibit called "Let It Resound," part of the Yale University library.

3. College of New Jersey, student website by Melvina D. Fennell, Pierre Miller, and Michael McLaughlin.

4. Website on famous Floridians, comprised by essays written in 2002 by Florida school children to celebrate African American History Month. (this material was recently removed and the link no long works.)

© 2007, Linda Mason Hood
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