"Countess" Margaret Johnson (1919–1939)
Updated: Jun 28, 2022
The Countess is the namesake and logo for this database. Throughout my research process, Johnson’s story stood out to me and inspired me to continue this work, despite the many dead ends I continue to encounter. I was appalled that I had to dig so much to learn about someone so important. Although she was a trailblazer, her name remains virtually unknown. I want to ensure that the Countess is not forgotten – she is an important figure in Kansas City jazz history, although not reflected in most historical texts.
“Countess” Margaret “Queenie” Johnson was a Kansas City jazz pianist and bandleader active in the 1930s. Johnson was born on September 18, 1919 in Chanute, Kansas, about 130 miles southwest of Kansas City. Johnson, a child prodigy, made her performing debut at age three, performing “Shine for Jesus” at a Baptist convention. It is unknown when Johnson’s family moved from Chaunte to Kansas City, KS, but she did graduate from Northeast Junior High in KCK in 1931.
Upon graduating Sumner High School in 1935, the Countess led a brief but remarkable career, first forming her own orchestra. Her orchestra soon merged with Oliver Todd to form Oliver Todd’s Hottentots. When the group disbanded just a year later in 1936, the Countess became the regular pianist for Harlan Leonard’s band, still just a teenager. Johnson also subbed for Count Basie in his own orchestra during this time. Whenever the Countess would go see Count Basie and his orchestra play on a night off, Basie would get up from his seat at the piano when she entered the room, insisting Johnson sit in with the band. Countess, also often referred to as “Queenie,” was Kansas City jazz royalty.
In 1938, Andy Kirk was tasked with finding a sub for Mary Lou Williams (who had fallen ill) in his Clouds of Joy for a gig at a fraternity party at the University of Missouri–Columbia. Kirk wired president of the Local 627, William Shaw, and soon Countess made her way to Columbia. Johnson had been studying Mary Lou Williams’s style for quite some time before getting called to fill in for Williams, memorizing and studying Williams’s stylistic intricacies on every recording by the Clouds of Joy. Kirk was thoroughly impressed, and Johnson ended up substituting for Mary Lou for the next four months. It was said that the audience seldom knew the difference between Johnson and Williams – audiences just assumed that Johnson was Williams; the young, virtuosic, Black woman pianist and arranger in Kirk’s band they had heard so much about. While on this tour, Johnson contracted tuberculosis.
Countess Margaret Johnson passed away at a tragically young age of 20 on July 13, 1939. In her obituaries she was described as youthful and zestful, with slender, agile fingers.
Shortly before her passing, in 1938, Johnson recorded with Billie Holiday in 1938 on Vocalion Records, spending some portion of the year in New York City. From 1938–39, the Countess led her own orchestra once again, playing frequent engagements in spite of her declining health.
Read Johnson's obituary from the August 1939 edition of Downbeat Magazine.
Read more about Johnson in my article for Kansas City Magazine
Unfortunately, Margaret Johnson’s individual style is unknown for a variety of reasons. The Countess frequently subbed for other prolific pianists (Count Basie and Mary Lou Williams, as noted earlier) and had to emulate their distinct styles. Unfortunately, there are no recordings of Johnson with her orchestra. The only known recordings of Johnson are limited to one session of her backing up Billie Holiday in 1938. There are few solos by Johnson in this session.
Johnson with Billie Holiday and her orchestra:
"Death Stills Fingers of Colored ‘Countess.'" Downbeat Magazine, vol. 6, no. 8. August, 1939.
Evensmo, Jan. The Piano of Margaret Johnson. 2011. http://www.jazzarcheology.com/artists/margaret_johnson.pdf
Various clippings (advertisements and event write ups) from The Call, 1935–1939.