Calvin Johnson Jr.: New Orleans’ Multi-Talented Native Son

"In New Orleans the music still belongs to the people"

Calvin Johnson
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Calvin Johnson
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I’ve been marinating the old ears in two albums by New Orleans saxophonist and composer Calvin Johnson, Jr. His first, Jewel’s Lullaby (2012 Alma), is a beautifully diverse tenor date, with songs by Tadd Dameron, Benny Green, Wayne Shorter and two lovely compositions by Johnson himself. The second, Native Son (2013 Alma Records) is a sweet, swinging soprano date, as invigorating as strutting in a New Orleans second line, with fresh renditions of classic tunes such as “Buddy Bolden Stomp,” “Hotter Than That” and “Petite Fleur.”

“I dedicated my first album to my daughter Jewel,” says Johnson in a recent interview. “When she was a newborn she had an inconsistent sleep schedule [like every newborn]. … So when she would wake up crying in the middle of the night, I would rock her in my arms, pacing up and down the hallway singing to her. One night I sang this simple melody, and then the next day I sang the same melody but embellished it a little.

“This continued for a little over a week until one day as I was holding her, I sat down at the piano and figured out this melody I had been singing to her. Then one thing led to another and next thing you know I was in the studio recording her song. That album was my first session as a leader, so I called on my musical family for the session: Nathan Lambertson [bass], Dr. Courtney Bryan [piano] and Joe Dyson [drums]. We’ve all known each other since single-digit age; we all went to NOCCA [New Orleans Center for Creative Arts] together; we all played some of our first road gigs together. Basically we all sounded sad together in the past, so there was definitely ample chemistry.”

To this writer, “Jewel’s Lullaby” is a tour de force: a stirringly lovely tune that builds to a frantic crescendo-with a superlative piano solo by Courtney Bryan-and then back to placid stillness.

Born on Nov. 21, 1985, Johnson is not yet 30 years old. “I would describe Jewel’s Lullaby as a contemporary jazz album and my second release, Native Son, as a traditional New Orleans jazz album. I decided to record Native Son almost as a way of marking my territory. As New Orleans rebuilds following Hurricane Katrina, a lot of the defining cultures, customs and people are being lost, never to return. The music is no exception to that. It is being redefined by the vast population of new New Orleanians. Therefore, I recorded Native Son to mark my territory of being a native son speaking in the native tongue.”

Johnson is the latest musician in a renowned and beloved New Orleans family. “I’m a third generation jazz musician. I’m a child of the music on both sides-my mom’s and dad’s. My family has had jazz, gospel, classical and funk musicians. Everyone played, plays and will play something on varying levels. My older sister is a pianist with a serious formal classical, jazz and gospel background. She only plays as a hobby now but music still oozes out of her fingers. My sister actually learned how to play piano from our maternal grandmother, Alma Lyons, who was the longtime pianist for Sunday school and 9 a.m. service at St. Paul AME in Pigeon Town, New Orleans, where we grew up. My sister literally grew up at our grandmother’s feet, copying and mimicking her playing.

“My first clarinet was given to me by my mom; it was her old clarinet from junior and high school which she marched with. My first saxophone was given to me by one of my uncles, Lionel-my dad’s older brother. He gave me the horn in about the third grade and would come over every Saturday to give me my first sax lessons. Now that I reflect on the story, it’s hilarious. My uncle was a saxophonist/flutist who had traveled the world with his horn, playing in smoky nightclubs-and he also smoked cigarettes. So the horn, horn case and mouthpiece all had this eternal tobacco shop smell. And for a kid to bring this horn to school and church … every time I opened the case the classroom, music room, church sanctuary, bedroom, kitchen and any other room that I opened the case in would just be filled with this tinderbox smell.

“My paternal grandfather, George ‘Son’ Johnson, was a clarinetist, saxophonist, pianist, composer, arranger and teacher. He taught for many years at the Grumswald School of Music in New Orleans and led WPA bands during the Great Depression. My paternal grandparents had 11 children and my dad is number 10 of 11. All four of his older brothers were professional musicians. George Jr., Ralph, Alfred and Lionel were all clarinetists and saxophonists based out of New Orleans. My 10 aunts and uncles had many children and many of them play in some capacity.”

When did Johnson discover that music was his gift-and future career? “You know, I didn’t find the music: It came and found me. And because it did, it’s hard for me to say at what age I decided to pursue music as a career. It’s the only career I pursued or even thought about seriously, for that matter. Music was just always in my life, since the beginning. I had many examples of successful professional musicians and mentors who always steered me in the right path, so I didn’t grow up fearing the music or the industry. I embraced it wholeheartedly. But now that I reflect on it, I feel that once Hurricane Katrina hit and I became city-less, homeless and gigless all within 24 hours, that’s when I realized that my means of feeding myself were strictly music-based.”

Beside family members, who were Johnson’s most important musical mentors while growing up? “Wow, that’s going to be a long answer!” he says. “For a child growing up in the New Orleans musical scene, there were hundreds of players and all of them were just as good as the next, and all of them took the role of mentor very seriously. So people like Kidd Jordan, Clyde Kerr Jr., Alvin Batiste, Kent Jordan, Chris Severin, Shannon Powell, Jonathan Bloom, Wendell Brunious, Nicholas Payton, Willie Metcalf, Branford Marsalis, Irvin Mayfield, Bob French, George French, Henry Butler and Bill Summers. Musical influences were everywhere. Much of my musical knowledge came from my peers while at NOCCA, the Louis Satchmo Armstrong Jazz Camp, the Jazz and Heritage School of Music and/or on the bandstand: people like Christian Scott, Big Sam of Big Sam’s Funky Nation, Troy Andrews [Trombone Shorty], Sullivan Fortner, Jonathan Batiste, Khris Royal and Dr. Courtney Bryan.

What exactly is it like growing up in the Crescent City? Says Johnson: “Growing up in pre-Katrina New Orleans yielded a truly colorful childhood. In New Orleans we refer to our city, culture and weather as ‘the most northern tip of the Caribbean.’ Well, growing up here you develop a love-hate relationship with the city. Because you’re born here, it’s the basis for all you know. But then as you grow, mature and live life, you realize that New Orleans is trapped in the past, which is a gift and a curse.

“People travel from all over the world to revel in this city’s unique cuisine, architecture, music, celebrations, festivals and just general party atmosphere. But that right there presents the problem: New Orleans’ entire economy is held up and dependent on tourism; therefore the denizens are relegated to powerless positions because he who holds the gold makes the rules and the tourists bring in the gold to the city. And let us not even get into the racial climate. New Orleans always has been and continues to this day to be a highly segregated city where blacks and whites don’t coexist in the same neighborhoods. There are hundreds of monuments placed throughout the city idolizing the city’s Confederate past, such as Robert E. Lee Circle, P.G.T. Beauregard Circle or over 30 public schools carrying the name John McDonough, who was one of the wealthiest slave owners in New Orleans’ history. Don’t forget this is the same city that was a mother to Louis Armstrong and, after he played NOLA for the last time in May 1968 at the very first Jazzfest, he vowed never to return again-and lived up to his promise.”

Johnson is appearing in a film, Daniel Pritzker’s Bolden!, the story of legendary jazz trumpeter Buddy Bolden. Our modern-day musician is playing the role of Frank Lewis, the clarinetist in Bolden’s band. Says the budding actor, “Being that I was the only member of the [actors portraying the] Bolden band that is a New Orleanian, I relentlessly tried to insert cultural nuances everywhere I could … You never know what is going to make the final cut of a film, but I certainly had my fair share of lines and camera time.”

Buddy Bolden himself is being played by British actor Gary Carr, known to fans of Downton Abbey. “When I first met him, along with all of the other [actors portraying] the Bolden band, I was, to say the least, curious how they would pull off looking and acting like early 20th Century NOLA jazz musicians. But, man, I have to tell you that the work ethic that I witnessed-not just from Gary but from Ser’Darius Blain, Donald Watkins, Korey Webb, Breon Pugh and Robert Richard-was unyielding. And how can I forget Justin Faulkner, real-life drummer and drummer in this Bolden band. What an amazing talent he is! By the time we started filming, we had developed a band cohesion that translated well to the camera. All the actors weren’t actors-they were musicians making gigs!”

For all of us non-musicians, can Johnson explain the sheer fun of playing live jazz? What does it feel like when the music really takes off? “Huh, that’s a tough one to put into words. It’s crazy, the varying emotions that can consume you while onstage. First off, the audience has a totally different relationship to the music than the artist-rightfully so, because the music is the artists’ creation. I just love when I’m playing with a band that has total cohesion. A band usually finds this when they’ve either been on the road doing shows night after night; or the entire band are good friends; and/or every member of the band has no ego when walking onto the bandstand. Ultimately this concoction means that everyone in the band is going to come to that tip of the spear. And man, when that happens the fun is as powerful as lightning! I love it … and it’s even harder to quantify or explain. Dependent on the relationship I have with the particular song I’m performing, or what I’m going through in my personal life, [these factors] can have me interpret those magic moments as a pyrrhic victory, a glorious victory, a righteous kill, an over-the-top assassination, [like] killing an ant with a sledgehammer, or even a loss.”

Is there a religious fervor for this music among New Orleans cats? “You are totally right. Actually, most non-musicians recognize the exact same fervor in NOLA musicians, but not in musicians from other parts of America. I believe that in New Orleans the music still belongs to the people; jazz is still the folk music. Music is also intertwined into every aspect of life, customs and culture in New Orleans. We have music at church, weddings, funerals, birthday parties, retirement parties, school assemblies, an unscheduled jam session, school children challenging on their band instruments at the bus stop, etc.

“Because music is still an intricate part of NOLA life, New Orleanians still possess an emotional attachment to and with the music. Also in NOLA culture, musicians are our ambassadors and celebrities; they carry the voice of the people of this great city all over the world. Our first ambassador, Louis Armstrong, was the best ambassador jazz ever had.

“We have a saying in New Orleans that you usually hear chanted at second line: If you ain’t gon’ dance, get the hell on out the way. That’s a very important sentiment. Remember, jazz was a dancing music. Up until the emergence of bebop, musicians were playing for people to dance. Jazz was born in New Orleans out of places and experiences such as Congo Square, the Red Light District, vaudeville, the whorehouses. In all of these places, music served a different function but still possessed a very clear and distinct purpose. No one ignored the music in these venues; in fact, they relied on the music to help them achieve their purpose, which consisted of being social, making money, getting drunk, etc.

In addition to playing music-and now appearing in a film-Johnson is also heavily involved in music education. “I serve as the artistic director of Trumpets Not Guns, a New Orleans-based nonprofit whose mission is to provide alternatives to the guns that children so easily acquire by giving them musical instruments. I am a faculty member of the Louis Satchmo Armstrong Jazz Camp, which is one of the true remaining world-class jazz camps in America, under the direction of Sir Edward ‘Kidd’ Jordan and Jackie Harris. I serve as a faculty member during its annual summer intensive as well as its satellite program during the school year at Warren Easton High School as a jazz band instructor. I present Jazz in the Schools workshops throughout New Orleans public schools, which is made possible by a grant from the Jazz Foundation of America. And at all of these programs you better believe there are promising kids!”

Musician, composer, actor, educator-what is up ahead for the multi-talented Calvin Johnson Jr.? “Well, I’m putting the finishing touches on a new three-year project titled Trad. Trad is a documentary which I co-produced and narrated with James Demaria that tells the story of New Orleans jazz through my eyes via interviews with some of the music’s most respected figures. Immediately following Jazzfest, I will begin working on my third and fourth studio albums. Album number three, which currently is untitled, is a soul-jazz trio album featuring myself, Derrick Freeman on drums and Nigel Hall on organ. This album is going to showcase the composition skills of each of us in the trio, but its guiding sound is Hank Mobley meets Jimmy Smith with the funky, dirty, soulful NOLA drums pushing that beat. My fourth album is going to be the first studio release of a fusion band I’ve been experimenting with for the past two years [named] Chapter Soul.

“I’m really excited about getting back to the musician hustle and grind,” concludes Johnson. “The actor life was cool, but it’s back to reality.”