Arvada Center Blog
I first met J.C. Johnson when I was about ten years old.
I was playing in the back room of the bank in Wurtsboro, N.Y., that my father managed. He called me into his office and introduced me to an older gentleman he said was a songwriter from New York who now lived in our village. That man turned out to be J.C. I had recently started piano lessons and was passionately interested in my lessons and music in general. I chatted a bit with Mr. Johnson about my playing and the kind of music I liked, after which he excused himself.
Within the hour, he returned with a published copy of one of his songs, BELIEVE IT BELOVED, and gave it to me. On the front he had written, “GARY, If you learn to appreciate good American music, you should succeed, J.C. Johnson”. Thus began a friendship and mentorship that lasted until J.C.’s passing in 1981.
I often visited J.C. at his house. On Saturday afternoons, I would go to the living room concerts he held with fellow musicians. A few were from J.C.’s past career, most notably the violinist and conductor, Billy Butler. But mostly, I would bug him to tell me stories – stories of Harlem and the people he knew there, famous and otherwise. He did, but always reluctantly – he was not one to toot his own horn.
As a teenager and in college, I started doing little shows at the barn in the town park. I would ask J.C. to come up and play a tune or two, and he was always the hit of the show. When I was driving him home from these events, he told me that as much as he liked his songs being in Broadway revues such as ME AND BESSIE and AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’, he would prefer to have them in a book musical, with a full plot and characters. He also indicated that if such a project were done, he would like me to do it.
At J.C.’s wake, I mentioned this conversation to his widow Julie and said I would like to create a full show using his music. She gave the project her total support and I went to work. The first thing I did was take J.C.’s 500 songs, literally lay them out on the floor and start picking the ones I thought would fit best. The pile quickly diminished to about 40 – and looking at those 40 songs, it became clear there were three levels of love stories to be told. (J.C. mostly wrote about love!)
Out of J.C.’s songs and stories, Trav’lin – the 1930s Harlem Musical was formed.
At the same time, all the stories J.C. had told me were swirling around in my head, inspiring the characters and feel for the musical. Remarkably, although the show has changed in many ways, the basic characters, songs and plot structure have remained very similar to the original 1981 concept.
By 1984, I was a graduate student in the Dramatic Writing department of N.Y.U.’s Tisch School of the Arts. Julie and I visited Allan Shapiro, then a music and Broadway attorney, to see about legal representation for Trav’lin. Allan was instantly interested in the project, became passionate about it as well, and took on the role of creative producer. In that capacity, he was intimately involved in the creative and writing process.
Then, in the late 1980s, life got in the way and the script was put on the shelf. Allan and I went on to other cities and projects until 2003, when I decided to start up with Trav’lin again. I contacted Allan and asked him to come back to the project, this time as co-author. And then, well….life got in the way once more, and we didn’t start working in earnest until mid-2005.
In 2007, we had a private reading of the show in New York, followed by successful public readings in 2009 and 2010 at The York Theatre Company in Citicorp Center as part of their Developmental Reading Series. Then in October, 2010, nearly 30 years after the journey began, Trav’lin was fully staged for the very first time as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival. The journey continues to unfold . . .
A funny and heartfelt look at love, Trav’lin rediscovers the music of Harlem Renaissance songwriter J.C. Johnson. His songs were recorded by legendary jazz and blues artists such as Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington. Keep reading to learn more about Johnson, the time period this musical takes place in, and the men who adapted these tunes for the musical theatre stage.
- It’s the 100th year anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance! The 100th year anniversary celebration started Fall of 2018 and goes on until 2020. Generally considered to have spanned from 1918 to the mid-1930s, the Harlem Renaissance’s unique cultural expressions of literature, art, music and culinary arts spread rapidly across the country.
- As World War I slowed the immigration of workers from Europe, the war effort demanded unskilled industrial labor workers, giving rise to a working class of African-Americans and a new mass culture.
- Co-bookwriter Gary Holmes met J.C. Johnson when he was ten years old and got to attend many living room concerts that J.C. held with fellow musician friends. Gary has dedicated his life to preserving and promoting J.C. Johnson’s music and legacy.
- Most of J.C.’s over 500 songs were about love, so it is fitting that Trav’lin would follow the story of three couples from three different generations striving to hold onto each other in a complicated time.
- Character Billie is based off Pig Foot Mary (real name Lillian Harris Dean), a Harlem street cart entrepreneur and cook from the Mississippi Delta who turned her successful cart into a famous Harlem restaurant and brought her Southern-inspired Harlem cuisine (pigs feet, fried chicken, chitlins) to national attention.
- The characters of Billie and Ella are named after Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, but the characters are not meant to be the real people; they are combinations of fictional and famous Harlem characters.
- The Harlem stride style of piano playing was invented and changed the sound of jazz forever. Previously, jazz had been about brass instruments, but the addition of the piano changed the sound and mood of the music forever.