During an epoch of intense labor organizing in the late 1930’s, two giants of the Harlem Renaissance, jazz pianist and composer James P. Johnson and poet and novelist Langston Hughes, collaborated on the creation of a one-act opera, De Organizer.
A blues opera about organizing sharecroppers, De Organizer was performed once at Carnegie Hall in New York City in 1940 during a convention of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. And then it disappeared.
Now, working from a rediscovered partial score, University of Michigan Music Professor James Dapogny has restored the one-act opera. It was performed on Dec. 3 in Detroit and Dec. 11 in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Dapogny, a composer, jazz pianist, scholar and leader of his own Chicago Jazz Band, was long familiar with Johnson, the “father of the stride piano,” and with the existence of his missing opera. The libretto, however, had survived in Hughes’ papers. Dapogny began searching for the music in 1989 while he was head of the American Music Institute. “I called people who knew the whole story and I heard the same message over and over. ‘Forget about it. Everyone’s looked for it. It’s gone,'” Dapogny said. The sense of loss was deepened by the quality of the sole surviving piece, “Hungry Blues,” a distinctive and beautiful lament about the intersection of race and poverty.
But in 1997, Dapogny chanced on a partial score of the opera right on the U-M campus, materials that even Johnson’s heirs were unaware existed.
The score was among papers given years before to the University’s Black Music Student Association by Eva Jessye, a professional choral director who had prepared the chorus for the original performance of Porgy and Bess.
“It has been my method and goal to be faithful to Johnson’s work,” Dapogny said. “Whenever Johnson’s material remained, I used it. And whenever his intentions were clear, I carried them out.”
The score he unearthed contained only the sung notes without accompaniment, and in that state it was not performable. But it provided the structure and sequence of the work, and was supplemented by sketches and notes held by the jazz legend’s grandson, Barry Glover Jr., executive director of the James P. Johnson Foundation. Johnson’s papers yielded sketches for about a quarter of the opera, additional material that helped Dapogny to compose the missing instrumental music and to orchestrate it. He also unraveled a series of conflicting clues about the makeup of the orchestra, eventually discovering in Johnson’s notes specifications of a 45-piece orchestra – essentially a jazz band within an orchestra.
“Part of this project has been detective work,” Dapogny said, “finding out everything I have been able to about the composer’s intentions, and part is the technical work of composing the missing music, carrying out those intentions.
“The music ranges in style from a near-folk style to jazz,” Dapogny said. “The chorus is the main character, with the principal solo roles being a Woman, the Organizer’s Woman, an Old Woman, Brother Dosher, Brother Bates, the Organizer and the Overseer.”
Information for this article came from the University of Michigan School of Music. For more information, contact Professor James Dapogny at firstname.lastname@example.org.