Frank Johnson
Click to play audio.

At the Resurrection School in Philadelphia...the Chestnut Brass Company ...a Philadelphia-based brass their instruments in an empty school gym...preparing for a concert. They practice one song, "the New Bird Waltz" composed by Frank Johnson:

[The Chestnut Brass Co. plays the New Bird Waltz]

Johnson was a prolific black composer and bandleader in the early 1800s. A gifted musician, he also played the keyed bugle...which he often used in military parades. Bruce Barrie...a member of the Chestnut Brass Company...has played the keyed bugle for over 20 years. He says it makes sense that Johnson would have used such a loud instrument for its time:

It's a very nimble instrument. It has a sweet melodic sound. It gets a great blend and in a brass band where they could use it for political rallies or for the big dances you get into a room where everyone's wearing shoes, stomping on a wooden floor. It's making pretty good really need a loud band.
[Barrie plays Yankee Doodle]

The keyed bugle resembles a Boy Scout bugle but has keys like a saxophone's that climb up its outer edge.

Bruce Barrie:

It has a lot of charm, when you're close to it you can hear all the little clicking of the keys which is not all that different that if you were next to the modern bassoon...
Barrie says the vocal sound of the keyed bugle punctuates Johnson's already catchy melodies. The Chestnut Brass Company reconstructed and recorded this and some of Johnson's other works.

[Philadelphia Gray's Quickstep plays]

Bruce Barrie:

If you hear a Frank Johnson tune...some of the ones I know...boy you're hearing them in your head for a couple of weeks afterwards and that's the sign of a really good composer almost gets trapped in your's such a good tune.
At the Library Company of Philadelphia...a non-profit research library...curator Phil Lapsansky flips through an original book of some of Frank Johnson's compositions:

This is the earliest stuff known of Frank Johnson. This is his music composition book. It's signed by Ann Rush, 1821. And it says here...presented to Ms. A. Rush by Frank Johnson...a black musician of our balls and parties in 1820.
Lapsansky says Phoebe Ann Rush came from Philadelphia's upper crust and was a patron of Johnson's...frequently hiring his band for private parties. She's just one example of Johnson's notoriety among high society. He played and composed music for visiting dignitaries and later in his career around 1837, voyaged to Europe to perform for Queen Victoria. That would be the first American musical ensemble, black or white, to perform concerts abroad. Yet his reputation did not insulate him from the racism. Lapsansky describes one incident in Rhode Island where a white marching band leader refused to play with Johnson. The two band leaders ended up facing off in a sort of musicians' duel.

Phil Lapsansky:

They have a jam session right there and everyone agrees that Johnson outplayed this guy. And so here he took on his white antagonists head to head...he had to do that on a few other occasions as well.
Lapsansky says though Johnson was never outspoken in the abolition movement...he at times composed pieces that reflected his political views such as "Grave of the Slave." Sarah Forten...the daughter of James Forten...a prominent black Philadelphian...composed the lyrics in which death for the slave is a welcomed freedom and rest. Johnson set the words to music.

["Grave of the Slave" plays]

Jay Krush of the Chestnut Brass Company:

He was very aware of what was going on in the country. He was by all accounts an extremely smart, active, dynamic person and he was very aware of social trends. He had to live the reality of race relations in the United States at least in the northern part everyday that he worked.
Johnson was active in the African American community...often conducting the orchestra at church concerts, as well as training other black musicians. But Krush says maybe above all Johnson wanted to play to all who would listen:

I think he certainly brought very very high quality and a great variety of music to a huge range of people and that he also treated music that it was the same for everybody.
Though Johnson's musical legacy may be overlooked, Krush describes him as a stone that cast a lot of ripples. Indeed Johnson introduced to America the modern pops concert...a genre that over 150 years later is still going strong.
Back to Top