02/20/2013 12:32 pm ET Updated Apr 22, 2013

James P. Johnson: A Pioneer Among Black Composers

As a woman working in an extremely conservative, male-dominated profession who had to twist my way through the maze-like quagmire to the top of my field, I like to think that I can relate to the oppressive "American" landscape that confronted composer, James P. Johnson, every day as he strove to come to terms with his innate desire to compose "serious" music for the great orchestras of the world.

But my personal experience doesn't even begin to enable me to comprehend the frustration and despair that an African American composer must have felt in our America of the 1920s, '30s and '40s. It was simply not an option to write "serious" music and black composers and instrumentalists were corralled and detoured into the popular music realm.

Watching the career of his peer, George Gershwin, must have been especially bittersweet for Johnson. He shared Gershwin's ambition to write for symphony orchestra; he had talent to burn and a work ethic that rivaled every one of his contemporaries. The only element missing for him was opportunity. But without opportunity, there is limited possibility.

Johnson's unwavering determination -- something I can definitely relate to -- drove him on and, in spite of all the seemingly insurmountable obstacles, he did indeed compose music for symphony orchestra.

I first read about Johnson and his orchestral compositions in a liner note to a Gershwin recording. When I tracked down the author, Robert Kimball, he told me the fascinating story of James P.'s life and career.

Even though you may not recognize the name James P. Johnson, you do know him because he wrote composed the singular piece of music that came to symbolize the 1920s in America, "The Charleston." After being diverted towards writing popular music, Johnson wrote dozens of hits musicals for black Broadway. His passion to write serious symphonic music resulted in his composing several orchestra pieces, which premiered at Carnegie Hall in the early 1940s and then never heard of again.

According to Robert Kimball, all of the music was long gone and there was no chance that I could ever find it.

Little did he know that "can't" is my four-letter motivator! I became obsessed with Johnson, and my quest to find, restore and revive his orchestral music led me -- along with my dear friend and willing collaborator Leslie Stifelman (currently the music director of "Chicago" on Broadway) -- on a six-year odyssey in search of the composer's long-lost orchestral music.

Johnson is one of those great unsung American creators who, for various reasons, led a life under the radar. He suffered several strokes during his lifetime and was a quiet, retiring personality in a field of extroverts. But his talent, both as pianist and as composer, was bigger than life. He essentially invented what we today call "stride piano style," whereby the pianist's left hand jumps absurd distances to cover the entire lower half of the piano.

Johnson's piano roll of his hit tune "Carolina Shout" became the measuring stick for every up-and-coming piano player. Duke Ellington learned his fingerings from feeling along as Johnson's piano roll played in slow motion, and Johnson himself blew everyone away in "cutting contests" (the virtuosic piano-playing marathons) up until Art Tatum emerged on the scene.

The possibility of discovering a missing compositional link between Scott Joplin and Duke Ellington was irresistible. Leslie and I teamed up with Scott Brown, a medical student at Yale who was writing a biography on James P. Johnson and was thrilled to join our investigative hunt.

It was truly a detective's challenge, especially in the days before the Internet. Together we visited all of Johnson's surviving relatives, and eventually gained their trust enough to be shown a treasure trove of memorabilia stored in the attic of his daughter, Arceola Glover, in Riverside, California.

Building trust with Johnson's family, who had been repeatedly taken advantage of over the years, was a slow process. They eventually came to understand that our motivations were purely to promote, present and preserve this wonderful music, not to try to take their remaining royalties, already hugely compromised over the decades.

After years of effort, the moment when Arceola gingerly brought out stack after stack of sheet music wrapped in plastic, held in her arms like a fragile baby and preserved like an old photo album, was incredibly emotional.. We gently pawed through the yellowed pages. This was the long-lost music from that Carnegie Hall concert! While the music clearly needed attention -- and some was obviously missing -- we could see its greatness and understood even more profoundly the enormous talent of this great American creator.

We painstakingly restored the scores and recopied all of the music in preparation for performances at Lincoln Center, under the auspices of the Lincoln Center jazz program at Avery Fisher Hall, and a recording for the MusicMasters label (now reissued on Nimbus). We have made all of the music available to orchestras for performance and are incredibly proud to have played a part in preserving this important piece of our shared American legacy.

Black History Month gives us the opportunity to celebrate this American master and thank him for never giving up his dream.

Marin Alsop is Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra and the Cabrillo Music Festival. She is a regular contributor to NPR where she discusses classical music with Scott Simon.