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Charleston dance

James P. Johnson and the madness for the Charleston


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In the happy twenties there was one of the many hedonistic follies imported from the United States, the Charleston dance . After the devastating First World War Old Europe wanted to forget all its evils and embraced with enthusiasm excited any novelty that the incipient North American cultural industry had to share. People wanted to break schemes, to drink and dance to infinity and charleston was the right dance to take out all that debauchery that afflicted the tormented minds of Europeans.

The phenomenon of charleston drinks directly from the source of jazz music, it is a dance of southern and black origin, one of the most celebrated and iconic pianists of jazz, James P. Johnson knew how to give the point of scorn that needed the moment . The fever of the charleston, as it usually happens with all the epidemics, lasted very little, scarcely a handful of years, but it has gone down in history as one of the most distinctive elements of the so-called ’20s.

James P. Johnson was born in 1894 in New Brunswick, New Jersey, far from the south, and had an exquisite classical music education. He had been a student of a disciple of the famous Russian composer and pedagogue Rimsky-Korsakov , and one of his highest aspirations was to become a composer of classical music. But the history of music kept a preferential place as a key piece for the development of jazz music.

In this blog we talked a while ago of Buddy Bolden and the origins of jazz in New Orleans, but the internationalization of jazz music in the 20s came hand in hand with its arrival and emergence in clubs in New York with a major importance of the renovated Harlem neighborhood.

Jazz music migrated northward from the 1910s along with the thousands of African Americans fleeing from southern states that continued to oppress and lynch their miserable lives, all coupled with the call of an increasingly industrialized north driven by the incredible demand that flowed from the Great European War. Because of the war foreign immigration, basically European, had been paralyzed and with it its endless source of workers. It was the moment when southern immigrants took their place in the big industries of the north. Cities like Chicago or Detroit, tripled or six times their African-American population in those years completely changing the socioeconomic map of the North of the United States.

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But with those thousands of emigrants also traveled many musicians from New Orleans, especially after the closing of the mythical district of Storyville, the cradle of jazz, in 1917. It was creating the breeding ground for the flourishing of jazz music and its expansion throughout the world.

The arrival of jazz to the city of New York, the great Babylon of the moment, was made through Harlem, a neighborhood that until the beginning of the 20th century had hosted numerous minorities of immigrants such as Eastern European Jews, Italians, Germans or Irish, but as of 1905 the prices of the rent of the city fell sharply and that did that many of these immigrants could move more towards the center of Manhattan. The blacks that until that moment had lived very dispersed by several neighborhoods of the city began to move to this much more economic zone. By 1920 Harlem was home to nearly 200″,000 African-Americans, which made it what they called “the black capital of the world.”

6 Archibald John Motley, Jr. (American Harlem Renaissance painter, 1891-1981) Black Belt

There flourished the jazz that had imported hundreds of musicians from New Orleans and in one of its first symbols, the Clef Club of Jim Europe and its mastodónticas orchestras of up to 100 or 200 musicians began his career the young Johnson. James wrote arrangements for the ragtime of Europe while combining it with delirious piano appearances in the so-called “jungles”, endless parties that took place in the seedy gambling dens of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. There he is said to have created the style of piano jazz merging the omnipresent ragtime with the blues, the rhythm of the swing and the spark of continuous improvisation.

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Johnson was also the creator of the ‘ stride piano ‘, whose name derives from the jumps (strides) that the left hand gave when playing, alternating powerful notes in the weak times, with chords in the strong times. It was called as “Harlem stride” or “Harlem style” and Johnston was one of its main supporters. In one of his first recordings of 1921, the mythical Harlem strut , you can hear these rhythmic derivations that gave name to the style.

Then came his great moment the publication of Carolina Shout and his famous song Charleston that would give name to the phenomenon that would travel the United States and the whole world from 1923. The title of the song already clearly reveals the origin of this dance, the cultural roots of the black population of South Carolina. It was a dance originated in the early twentieth century as a folk dance that Johnson took the inspiration to create his particular formula of success.

Carolina Shout quickly became popular among the increasingly crowded black locals of Harlem who no longer only welcomed their inhabitants but had become a regular circuit of the more liberal and modern whites of New York. The success of Carolina Shout caused Johnson to compose another similar song, Charleston , in homage to this city, for the future musical black Runnin ‘Wild, a true bombshell of the time.


The charleston is a dance danced in a 4-beat rhythm, alternating arms and legs mainly, with great mobility in the feet. You can dance accompanied or alone, only when you dance alone the movements tend to be more free and spontaneous. One of the main characteristics of this dance is improvisation and energy, since it is usually long-lasting and fast.

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Its passage to Europe had another essential protagonist in Josephine Baker and its spectacle in Folies Bergère that made expand without solution of continuity this dance by all the tracks of dance of the world as if it were a disease. The success of the charleston has to be understood in the context of a moment of special sensitivity towards the new fashions imported from the United States, which at that time was already being erected as the great cultural supplier of Western culture. Hollywood cinema, its stars and American products accompanied the charleston in his progressive conquest of Europe.


But the fashion of the Charleston scarcely lasted a few years and by 1927 it had decayed superimposed by new dances that emerged from the inexhaustible source of entertainment in which New York had become. Subsequently, in the 30s and 40s lived a second youth associated with the strenuous dance and fashion contests of Lindy Hop , of which we now live the umpteenth revival in our times.

For his part, James P. Johnson took advantage of his reputation to redirect his career to higher altitudes, working for Broadway and Hollywood, and composing symphonies, piano concerts and even a blues opera, which played in lofty places like Carnegie Hall in New York. York From the most infectious bars in Manhattan to the great cathedrals of American contemporary music, thanks to a hellish rhythm that starred in one of the most surprising chapters of the 20th century.

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