Writings about Music
Momentous Counsel from Reggie Johnson
"At any time, effortlessly, in my mind’s eye, I can journey back to the stately Long Island City apartment with dramatic views of Manhattan where my girlfriend’s mother was living with renowned jazz bassist, Reggie Johnson. Reggie was seated at a white, black, and grey marble table from the time of the Revolutionary War, and he called me over to see an advertisement he had noticed in a music magazine for powerful computer music products that were now affordable for the average person. Reggie had recently assembled a string quartet to play and record one of my early compositions, and knowing how difficult it was for composers to find string quartets and orchestras to play their music, essentially competing against Beethoven, Mozart, and other figures from the past, he thought computers might be a preferable medium for my musical aspirations. Reggie’s keen instinct proved to be profoundly prophetic. Soon after sharing his idea, I purchased my first music software and hardware products, and have followed this pathway even since, always indebted to Reggie for his caring, intelligent acumen."
(excerpt from Meet Michael Robinson: Composer & Recording Artist, April 12, 2021, Shoutout LA Interview)
The following paragraphs are from the liner notes to Reggie Johnson's first and only album as leader, First Edition (1985), written by Dan Morgenstern:
"Reggie Johnson was born on December 13, 1940, in Owensboro, Kentucky. His father played guitar and his mother played piano. Reggie took up trombone at 13 and played it through high school and in Army bands in the U.S. and the Far East. While stationed at Governor's Island, N.Y., he found time to practice seriously on the bass, which he'd picked up in 1960 at Ft. Huachuca, Arizona. "Big bands were fading out, so I decided to switch rather than fight. I left the Army in 1964, setted in New York, started working with Bill Dixon and Archie Shepp, and made my first record with Archie - it's still the one I like best."
"Among his many associations, one of the steadiest was with Kenny Burrell for some eight years. "I learned a lot about Duke Ellington's music from Kenny; it was quite an education. I left New York in 1969, driving cross-country to Los Angeles with Walter Bishop, Jr. We just decided to go all of a sudden, for a change of scenery. I met the right people in L.A. and got into studio work, doing a lot of recording, and jazz gigs. The studio scene was sink or swim. The studying I'd done in New York, with Robert Brennand, principal bass of the New York Philharmonic, and with Ron Carter, did me a lot of good, and my sight-reading from the trombone days helped, too. I developed the Reggie Johnson Method of Studio Survival."
"During his 10 years in Los Angeles, Reggie also made frequent trips to Europe and to other parts of the United States, appearing at almost every major jazz festival. In 1978, he settled in Washington, D.C., working at Blues Alley and One Step Down, as well as in Baltimore at the Bandstand."
"In 1980, Reggie returned to New York and played a year-long job at One Fifth Avenue with Al Haig. "I was stunned when Al died - just a week before I drove by him in the street, and we waved to each other; then he was gone." Since then, he's worked with a host of musicians, ranging from Scott Hamilton to The New York Jazz Quartet, as well as playing in Europe with Art Farmer."
"He has appeared on some 60 albums, starting with Archie Shepp's Fire Music, and a selective listing of just some of the bands and leaders will give a hint of the range and breadth of his credentials: Art Blakey, Kenny Burrell, Bobby Hutcherson (with Chick Corea), Al Haig, Sonny Stitt, Gloria Lynne, Harold Land, The Mingus Dynasty, The Crusaders, Sonny Rollins, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Blue Mitchell, Marion Brown, John Klemmer, The Jazz Composer's Orchestra (with Carla Bley, Mike Mantler and Cecil Taylor), Walter Bishop, Jr., and, quite recently, Frank Weiss and Johnny Coles. Add to this work with Sarah Vaughan, Chris Connor and Carmen McRae; lengthy stints with Burrell, Monty Alexander and Art Farmer; gigs with Art Petter, Bud Shank, Joe Henderson, Harold Vick, Clare Fischer, Clark Terry, Lee Konitz, Benny Golson, James Moody, Johnny Griffin, Woody Shaw, Phil Woods, Cannonball Adderley, Frank Zappa - and even a stretch at Eddie Condon's in New York City - and you have a picture of a complete professional."
Reggie told me a funny story about turning down joining a new band because he didn't think their name was a good idea - Blood, Sweat & Tears. He also mentioned turning down Miles Davis and the Count Basie Orchestra because he didn't wish to tour at the time of those invitations. Reminiscing about his years in Los Angeles, Reggie recalled being impressed with the complexity and intricacy of Frank Zappa's music, but not so much with orgies he was invited to, finding them superficial.
Last fall, when I attempted to reconnect with Reggie, who resettled in Switzerland around thirty years ago, I was crestfallen to learn he had passed away September 11, 2020 at the age of 79, and still have not gotten over that sadness.
I've long had the First Edition album featuring Reggie along with Bill Kirchner, Danny Hayes, Marc Cohen, Terri Lyn Carrington and Ronnie Wells, displayed in the breakfast room, looking at Reggie's cover image several times every day. It's still there now, myself still exploring the infinite possibilities of the new pathways he envisioned that shining moment. No doubt, there were many others Reggie inspired.
In Memoriam Reggie Johnson
While I don't currently own a turntable, I will see to it that Reggie's First Edition album is entered onto YouTube, having the permission of the copyright owner. It's the least I can do for jazz and Reggie.
Ron Carter, who Reggie revered along with Ray Brown, Oscar Pettiford, Charles Mingus, Richard Davis, Paul Chambers and Scott LaFaro, has kindly sent these most moving words from his phone:
Lastly, here is the closing paragraph from the First Edition liner notes by Dan Morgenstern: "Reggie Johnson's debut as a leader, while overdue, was worth waiting for. Asked about his future plans, his characteristically modest answer was: "Having my own group - eventually - is in the back of my head...a trio or quartet. But I want to define my playing more; establish a recognizable style of my own, so you can tell after a few bars. I'm zeroing in on that." As far as I'm concerned, he's already there. Class will tell."
- Michael Robinson, April 2021, Los Angeles
© 2021 Michael Robinson All rights reserved
Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).