Featured Musician - August 2008

Name : Kit Johnson

Kit Johnson

Instrument: Tuba

Early Years/Education:  I began my musical pursuits under the tutelage of Wendell Ellefson in the South Umpqua school district in southern Oregon. In the fifth grade I started out on trumpet, and switched to tuba in 1974, my freshman year of high school. The South Umpqua band was perennially a top contender in concert and stage band contests throughout the state at that time, before Measure 5 and other budgetary factors knocked the wind out of high school music programs, and we performed some wonderful jazz and concert literature. I auditioned for the stage band my freshman year, and performed over the next four years on trumpet, tuba, valve trombone, bass trombone and bass. The tuba became my primary instrument, however, and I was fortunate to be a finalist in the state solo contest my final three years. During that time I developed a lifelong love of jazz. A couple of buddies and I put together a combo from within the stage band and began reading old stock arrangements. Some of these old dance charts dated all the way back to the Roaring 20’s, and it was probably then that my interest in early jazz styles was initially whetted. In 1979 I began to pursue a BA in Music at the University of Oregon, eventually completing that degree coupled with an accounting degree through the Robert Clark Honors College in 1987. During that stretch I also spent three years with the US Army Band in Kaiserslautern, West Germany, performing on baritone, bass and solo tuba. I returned to the U of O in 1984, with expenses partially defrayed by the military and as a three-time recipient of the Close Music Award.

Dixieland: I played off and on in Dixieland bands during my time in the Army and after I returned to the U of O. Eventually that led to the formation of the Black Swan Classic Jazz Band in 1989, a band I still have today. This group has included quite a few fine Northwest musicians, who exhibited both great reading skills and the ability to play wonderful improvisational music as well. Their talent has allowed me to experiment with arranging/composing and for the band to stray from the usual library heard in the hot jazz community. With the addition of vocalist Marilyn Keller in 1997, we also built a following in the jazz gospel circles. Black Swan has performed at numerous festivals, community events, parties and cruise ships in Oregon, Montana, Arizona, Washington, Missouri, Iowa, California, Louisiana, the Caribbean and British Columbia. During this 20 year run, Black Swan has issued 11 recordings, many of which are still available through our website at www.bscjb.com or through www.cdbaby.com.

 Along the way I’ve been fortunate to be invited to guest with a number of fine early jazz and ragtime ensembles. Portland bands have included John Bennett’s Swing Band, Pat O’Neal’ Jazz Band, the Craig McKinley Quartet and Stumptown Jazz. Outside of Oregon I’ve enjoyed performing at festivals with national acts like Seattle’s Uptown Lowdown Jazz Band, California’s High Sierra Jazz Band, and the Washington D.C. based Buck Creek Jazz Band. It is such a treat to work on these occasions with musicians you are not familiar with, getting exposed to different approaches to the music and having to quickly figure out what works and doesn’t work in their ensemble.

 For the past 15 months or so I’ve also enjoyed presenting the Sunday Morning Traditional Jazz Show on KMHD 89.1 from 9 to 10 am. I find that constructing the play list is very similar to orchestrating a set list in a live performance setting, and it’s also fun to try and figure out what to say to keep the audience engaged but not overwhelmed by chatter. The music speaks for itself and it’s important not to get excessively in the way.   

Musical Influences: I’ve enjoyed learning mostly by listening and performing in recent years. Wendell Ellefson was a great influence on me as a young musician, and subsequent tuba teachers such as Jesse Gram at the U of O, and Dave Jacobsen at the Combined Services School of Music also helped my playing out considerably. For sound quality I enjoy listening to classical performers like Floyd Cooley, Tommy Johnson, Jim Self and Velvet Brown. For wind production I dabble in the teachings of Arnold Jacobs. In the hot jazz world I enjoy modern technical phenoms like Sam Pilafian, Dave Gannett and Eli Newberger along with guys like Bill Carroll who really new how to anchor a traditional jazz band, along with a number of the fine tuba players from the territory bands in the late 1920s. For upright bass I am firmly in the Milt Hinton camp.

Most Satisfying Musical Experience: Black Swan performed a feature set of Hoagy Carmichael’s music at a near-acoustic venue at a southern California festival a few years ago. I had arranged quite a few of the selections to feature Marilyn Keller and Alan Phillips and the band just knocked out a packed house. The audience was right there with us, the lack of need for electronic reinforcement allowed everyone to play off each other with wonderful musical nuance, and the energy in the room was electrifying. Similarly, many of the jazz gospel concerts behind Marilyn have resulted in a tremendously positive musical vibe that is uplifting in itself, regardless of any particular religious affiliation or lack thereof. It’s nice when it all comes together.

Favorite Recordings: Too many to do justice to this question. Focusing solely on traditional jazz, I have a pretty large collection from this time period that provides much of my source for the Sunday Morning Jazz Show on KMHD. I suppose that the following few rise to the top: Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five & Seven recordings from the late 1920s and then later on with the All Stars; Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers; Fats Waller & his Rhythm from the mid to late 1930s; Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra; McKinney’s Cotton Pickers; Wilbur de Paris.

Discography: I recorded with the Misty Water Drifters in the late 1980s, and have produced and performed on the following recordings for Black Swan: “Feel the Spirit” (2007 jazz gospel, featuring vocalist Marilyn Keller); “This Joint is Jumpin'” (2005); “Ragtime Revelry” (2003 ragtime, featuring pianist John Bennett); “Mama's Gone Goodbye” (2001); “A Joyful Noise” (2000 jazz gospel, featuring vocalist Marilyn Keller); “How You Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm?” (1998); “Cookin' With Fats - Live at the Old Church” (1996, featuring the music of Fats Waller); “Spreadin' Rhythm Around” (1993); “Sweet Lotus Blossom” (1992); “Woodsheddin'”(1992); and “Sweet Substitute” (1989).

Gigs: A couple of years ago I made the decision to lay low in 2008 after 20 years on the festival trail. Black Swan is performing a few select engagements in the Willamette Valley area, and then returning to the hot jazz festivals in the western US in 2009. Upcoming local performances include the Mt. Hood Jazz Festival on August 16, the Portland Dixieland Society on September 21, and the American Roots Festival in Turner on October 11.

Future Plans: At this time I’m trying to figure out what the next edition of Black Swan will be all about. Whatever the result, I suspect that we’ll begin to focus more on local performances, rather than almost exclusively on festivals. I’ve become interested in the production side of music and have engineered our last three recordings, so I may look to dabble in more recordings of the band itself as well as other projects by the musicians I regularly work with.

Other Comments: “In traditional jazz performances I function primarily as a rhythm section instrument and less importantly as a “horn player.” Although it is fun to occasionally have a solo opportunity or a chance to play the melody; my satisfaction is highest when I successfully anchor the rhythm section and we find that cohesive groove that enables the ensemble or solo improvisation to really cook.”

Marilyn Keller: “Kit is one of the coolest men I know. Not only is he a creative genius, his ablility to generate marketing ideas and progressive, forward motion in musical career-building are astounding. He continually delights me with fun, happy experiences to call my own and to share with the other musicians we work with as well as our families and friends. I would not be the performer that I am today if I had not met Kit 11 years ago.”

-- by Rita Rega


Copyright 2008, Jazz Society of Oregon