Black News and News Makers in History: Francis Johnson

African American news from Pasadena - Black News and News Makers in History recognizes Francis Johnson this week in Black history.Francis (Frank) Johnson, an internationally renowned African American musician and composer, is known as America’s first big band leader.  Johnson became the first African American to publish sheet music (well over two hundred published pieces), the first black musician and perhaps the first American musician to tour Europe with a band, and one of the first musicians to participate in integrated public concerts. He mentored a number of successful black musicians, and scholars credit him as the leader the Philadelphia School of composers--arguably the first such group in the United States. His compositions remained in print until late in the nineteenth century and enjoyed some reemergence in the late twentieth century.  Johnson is sometimes given credit as a forefather of both jazz and ragtime.  And is given credit for introducing the extended technique of singing while playing, which became very popular well into the twentieth century.

Francis Johnson was born on June 16, 1792 in Philadelphia, according to recent scholars. 

Little is known about Johnson's childhood and his early musical training and experiences. He was known as a professional musician in Philadelphia in 1812, most likely as a violinist. He may have learned how to play the keyed bugle, an instrument on which Johnson became known as a virtuoso, from an Irish immigrant named Richard Willis who went on to become the leader of the band at the West Point Military Academy. Johnson's musical talent was recognized when, in 1818, he became the first African American to have a composition published as sheet music, “Collection of New Cottillions”. Johnson played a number of different instruments, often changing based on the circumstances of the concerts he played.

Johnson also led a well-known dance orchestra in the Philadelphia area at a time when very few people could sustain themselves as professional musicians. Johnson's band, for a number of years composed entirely of African-Americans, played solely for the black community when it began, but began to play for the white socialite community as well.  At the time, Philadelphia was the national cultural center. 

Robert Waln, author of ‘The Hermit in America,’ penned the following oft-quoted portrait of Johnson in 1819: "In fine, he is the leader of the band at all balls, public and private; sole director of all serenades, acceptable and unacceptable; inventor-general of cotillions; to which add, a remarkable taste in distorting a sentimental, simple, and beautiful song, into a reel, jig or country dance."

Johnson's career flourished in the 1820s as he and his band performed at most of the major dance functions in Philadelphia, including dancing schools, balls, private parties and elite social gatherings. His talents were also in demand from military regiments in the city such as the Washington Guards Company Three Band (later the Washington Grays), the State Fencibles Regiment, and the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry.  Johnson's band gained some national recognition when it became associated with all white social gatherings and militia units.  His band began to play concerts at resorts in Saratoga Springs and Cape May.  One of the summer resorts was the same resort the Philadelphia Orchestra has spent its summers for many years. The band was composed of musicians who were well-known in their own right.  Johnson used different instrumentations, strings and winds, depending on the function.  Johnson was famous for his skills as a performer on the violin and keyed bugle and was among the first to introduce keyed brass instruments into an American band. He was also famous for his dramatic performance style that included the production of realistic effects used to illustrate programmatic pieces.

Johnson's personal fame grew as his band became more and more famous, but also when, in 1824, he composed much of the music to be played at ceremonies honoring Revolutionary War hero, General Lafayette upon his return to the United States. 

Johnson was also involved in performances of sacred music at African-American churches in Philadelphia, New York and Boston. He and Morris Brown, Jr. staged a performance of Haydn's ‘Creation’ in March 1841 at the First African Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia and later at a white church.

Even while his fame spread, Johnson continued to teach music to white and blacks in his three-story Philadelphia studio near 11th and Lombard Streets.  From a description of Johnson's studio by one of his students, Isaac Mickle, it is clear that Johnson's economic status at least was on a par with that of Philadelphia's upper-middle class.

When Queen Victoria ascended to the British throne in 1837 Johnson saw an opportunity to take part in the celebrations at Buckingham Palace. He assembled a small group comprised of William Appo, Aaron J. R. Connor, Edward Roland, and Francis Seymour, and sailed for England in November 1837.  The young monarch was so taken with Johnson's musical talent that she gave him a silver bugle as a present.

Johnson's band was the first American musical ensemble, black or white, to make such a tour and they were well-received in England. While there, Johnson was exposed to contemporary musical styles, including the waltzes of Johann Strauss and the promenade concerts of Philippe Musard. When Johnson returned to the United States he introduced the new style of concert during the Christmas season of 1838 to 1839 in Philadelphia. This informal “pops” style presentation is still evident today in such settings as the concerts of the Boston Pops. Johnson also began incorporating white musicians into his band, leading to some of the first interracial musical performances in the United States. 

Johnson's fame increased with his American tours that took him as far north as Toronto, west to St. Louis and south to Louisville. As free Blacks, Johnson and his band members found themselves unwelcome in Missouri, which had entered the Union as a slave state. They did encounter racial discrimination elsewhere as well. 

Johnson also composed much of the music for an event in honor of the visiting Charles Dickens as well as for celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of George Washington. 

Johnson was paid for leading his band at events at the University of Pennsylvania on eight separate occasions between January of 1832 and April of 1842. Records of these payments can be found in the Trustee's minutes of the University. One payment specifies that Johnson played for the University on the day of the Medical School Commencement in April 2, 1841; other payments do not specify the event, but were authorized immediately following the spring Medical School Commencement or after exhibitions of student declamations held in the winter or spring months.

Frank Johnson was a prolific composer whose output included more than two hundred published works and many more unpublished. Unfortunately, none of the band and orchestra arrangements have survived, although much of Johnson's repertoire was published in arrangements for piano. Johnson's compositions include cotillions, quadrilles, marches, arrangements of operatic arias, minstrel songs, dance songs, ballads, and other songs, sentimental and patriotic.

There is an impressive list of "firsts" associated with Johnson's accomplishments: first black American composer to have works published as sheet music, first to have such a strong influence as to establish a "school" of black musicians, the first black American to give public concerts, the first American musical ensemble, black or white, to present concerts abroad, the first musician to introduce the promenade concert style in America, and the first black American musician to participate in integrated concerts in the United States in 1843 to 1844.

There are no direct accounts of how Johnson reacted to the virulent racism he faced during his lifetime. What remains as evidence of Johnson's commitment to equality are his compositions like "The Grave of the Slave" and the "Recognition March on the Independence of Haiti" as well as his continued commitment to play for the black community even after he became hugely popular in the more lucrative white community.

Many aspects of Johnson's life remain unclear, especially his personal life. He married Helen Appo (sister of his band mate William Appo), but it is not clear when they married and whether or not this was Johnson's only marriage. He lived at 65 South 4th Street in Philadelphia for much of his life.

Johnson died on April 6, 1844 after a long illness, shortly after passing off his position as the leader of the Francis Johnson Band.  His funeral was attended by hundreds of members of the African-American community; and his own composition, ‘Dirge’, was played by his band at his grave.

His ensembles continued playing for about twenty years after his death, now known as the Frank Johnson String and Brass Bands, led by Joseph G. Anderson (1816-1873).  They disbanded about the time of the American Civil War. 

Some of his music was rerecorded near the end of the 20th century and released on compact disc.  ‘Come and Trip It - Instrumental Dance Music’, New World Records NW 80293 (1997) features two works by Francis johnson, ‘Victoria Galop’ and ‘La Sonnambula Quadrille No. 2’ are examples.  Additionally, three pieces by Johnson can be found on ‘Those Fabulous Americans’:  The Philadelphia Gray's Quickstep’, ‘The Princeton Grand March’ and ‘Johnson's March’ 

‘Hidden in Plain Sight: Musical Treasures in the Penn Library’ is an exhibit curated by Marjorie Hassen at the Music Library of the University of Pennsylvania.  It contains a signed manuscript copy of two compositions of Francis Johnson, ‘Favorite Waltz, or Spanish Dance’ and ‘Favorite Hop Waltz’  arranged for the piano, "for Mrs. J. Reed".

The 200th Anniversary of the birth of Francis Johnson was observed by the U.S. Senate by means of a ‘Commemoration Of A Musical Master’  dated July 22, 1992.  Sen. Alfonse D'Amato of New York concluded his commemoration with these words:

“Francis Johnson is best remembered as progenitor of the Nation's music of martial ardor, inventor of cotillions, a pioneer, and one of the earliest protagonists of American musical purism. He was a quintessential American musical phenomenon.  I ask my colleagues to join me in remembering Francis "Frank" Johnson on the anniversary of his birth and always.”

Compiled from http://www.archives.upenn.edu/people/1700s/johnson_fra.htm, http://www.library.upenn.edu/collections/rbm/keffer/johnson.html and http://chevalierdesaintgeorges.homestead.com/johnsonf.html.


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