One note. That’s all trumpet player Kris Johnson needed to announce his arrival on the Utah jazz scene.
That note launched the solo of “Donna Lee” that Johnson played at Gracie’s Monday Jazz Jam on a spring night in 2015, causing a hush to fall over the loud Salt Lake City bar. “Everyone in the room shut up and turned their head and watched him and said ‘What’s going on?’ ” recalls Matt Lima BMu’16 MMu’18, a U-trained saxophonist.
Johnson jammed at Gracie’s while interviewing for a position directing the University of Utah’s Jazz Studies program. “He’s larger than life in a sense,” says saxophonist David Halliday MMu’09, director of Westminster College’s Jazz Studies program and a U adjunct professor, who leads the weekly jam sessions. “People just had to take notice.”
People have been taking notice ever since Johnson came to the U in 2015. In three years, he’s helped university jazz students improve their performing skills, enhanced the program’s community connections, and strengthened the focus on the African American history that inspired the music.
“To me, you can’t teach jazz history without talking about civil rights, without talking about slavery,” Johnson says. “What I’ve been aiming to do is to bring more empathy and more of an understanding of African American culture to the School of Music.”
Beyond the classroom, the 34-year-old assistant professor keeps a busy performing schedule, touring, arranging, and recording with The Count Basie Orchestra and The Kris Johnson Group. He is always juggling five balls in the air, says Gordon Hanks, cofounder and producer of the GAM Foundation’s JazzSLC series.
Two weekends a month (and every summer), Johnson commutes from Salt Lake City to Detroit to spend time with his sons, ages 6 and 8. He banks frequent flyer miles to finance the travel of his New York-based manager, Tiffany Ente-Jordan. She is helping launch the Jazz Village Project, educational outreach programs based at Salt Lake City’s West and East high schools.
They’re also launching an all-ages weekly jazz series at the Newman Center’s Cate’s Cafe, across the street from the U campus. Young musicians need “hang time,” Johnson says, a chance to regularly perform and make mistakes and be uncomfortable in front of live audiences.
On campus, Johnson is an approachable role model at a time when the university is working to recruit and support students of diverse backgrounds. “He’s had a big impact in a short time,” says Miguel Chuaqui, director of the School of Music. “Our students are playing all over the valley, giving them more opportunities to become great musicians and understand the profession.”
One note; one honk of a note. Back up and consider the first awkward sounds a 10-year-old kid might blow on a trumpet.
Johnson was in fifth grade when a friend of his father’s offered him the chance to play his instrument. “I got a sound out right away,” says Johnson, who thought he might have an affinity for the trumpet. Or that it would be easy to learn.
It wasn’t. As a school band kid growing up in the northern suburbs of Detroit, Johnson certainly wasn’t a musical prodigy. Rather, he was a math nerd, obsessed with numbers and how they functioned. In fact, when it came to music, he was tone deaf. In his church choir, he was asked to not sing at performances because he couldn’t keep the pitch.
And Johnson wasn’t even interested in listening to jazz until his brother dragged him out to hear Dwight Adams, a trumpet player who toured with Stevie Wonder. That’s when he first heard the possibilities in the notes. “I was completely blown away that you could do that on a trumpet,” he says.
After that, he learned that music was in his blood. His father had played bass in a funk band, and his uncle, a keyboardist, had played with jazz greats including Quincy Jones and in rehearsal with Miles Davis.
The mastery Johnson achieved on his horn came through his own determination, says Damien Crutcher, his band teacher-turned-mentor. Johnson practiced for hours on his own before and after school, which helped tune his ears. He remembers practicing trumpet fingerings on his wrist in English class.
Older musicians took the teenage musician under their wing, inviting him to play open mics at Detroit clubs. He and a friend, a sax player, would be the only underage kids in the room, hanging out, getting feedback, asking questions. “Most of my jazz education was informal,” Johnson says. “I’ve had the opportunity to see a lot of musicians authentically playing this music and living in the culture that is more true to where the music came from.”
KRIS JOHNSON: OF NOTE
- Johnson toured Europe for two weeks in spring 2018 with The Count Basie Orchestra. He has played with the big band for 10 years and performed on three recordings with them, including 2008’s Grammy-nominated A Swingin’ Christmas, by Tony Bennett.
- In fall of 2017, he played on an eastern regional tour with The Kris Johnson Group to promote the release of The Unpaved Road, one of their four recordings, including Jim Crow’s Tears, a jazz/ orchestra musical that Johnson wrote.
- Johnson’s arrangements have also been performed or recorded by Karen Clark Sheard, Yolanda Adams, the Motor City Brass Band, and Detroit Symphony’s Civic Jazz Ensemble.
- He’s performed at the world’s most prestigious jazz venues, including the Apollo Theater, the Blue Note Jazz Club, and the Hollywood Bowl.
As a high school senior, Johnson was the marching band’s drum major, demonstrating the leadership abilities he would later exhibit leading his own band. Crutcher recalls one concert that year when Johnson played a solo of “Nutville” that rocked the house at Detroit Symphony’s Orchestra Hall. The night was a blur for Johnson, who performed despite being ill with a fever. Crutcher remembers telling Johnson’s parents that their son was destined for a career as a musician: “You don’t have a choice.”
Johnson earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Jazz Studies at Michigan State University, and then taught at The Ohio State University. “Honestly, I think the reason I’ve been successful as an educator is because it didn’t come naturally to me,” says Johnson. He explains that he can see when students are struggling to hear the notes.
“He has a freaky ability to understand how a student learns and then alter his teaching style to that student,” says Lima, Johnson’s former U grad assistant. “He gets so excited about something as simple as a scale, and that makes me excited, too.”
Johnson helped Lima craft a career path as a videographer by hiring him to film his band’s tour last fall. In turn, watching the band perform changed Lima’s approach as a musician. “Instead of just trying to play really high and really fast on my horn, I’m trying to create moments with people,” Lima says. “It’s not about me anymore.”
Another collaborator explains Johnson’s talent this way: “He is really, really amazing at showing people their true potential,” says Marcus Elliot, a former student who now plays saxophone in Johnson’s band and directs the Detroit Symphony’s Civic Jazz Orchestra. “And it’s a really amazing gift.”
First, you have to fall in love with the notes. That’s how you begin to learn a jazz classic, Johnson says in a recent video interview. You binge listen to a lot of recordings. You build a relationship with the tune before you start checking out the charts.
In the video, Johnson is sitting at a keyboard in his office on campus. Artwork for his band’s recordings is posted on a bulletin board behind him, which also displays one of his mottoes: “Live. Work. Create.”
It’s that idea of working and creating together that demonstrates Johnson’s musical versatility—from his decade of performing and arranging for the world’s most famous legacy jazz band to composing complex harmonies for his own band’s contemporary music.
There’s a soulfulness in Johnson’s sound. “It’s very black, and it’s also very methodical, which I think is a personality trait of his,” Elliot says. “You can see him kind of gathering information, building it up.”
That’s also a good description of the musical relationships on stage at a Salt Lake City production of Jim Crow’s Tears, a jazz/orchestra musical Johnson began writing for his master’s thesis. A performance of the musical, which explores the effects of minstrelry and cultural racism, sold out the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center’s Jeanne Wagner Theatre in March 2017. “Am I a darkie? Or am I man?” is the question of identity asked in one of Johnson’s songs, “Unbind My Eyes.”
The performance was a full-circle moment for Johnson, who brought his band to Salt Lake City for the concert. To conduct, he hired Crutcher, his former high school band teacher. It was like Johnson was “the king of Utah,” jokes Elliot about how the work was received.
There’s a direct progression linking “Unbind My Eyes” to “Pretty for a Dark Girl,” a powerful anthem from The Unpaved Road, a 2017 album that Johnson wrote with lyrics by his girlfriend Lulu Fall, a Broadway actor and jazz singer.
In a music video, the camera falls in love with the singer’s expressive face, framed by her cropped hair, dyed vibrant red. Her provocative lyrics about racial stereotypes are arrestingly mouthed by a handful of black women of all ages. “He says I’m pretty, pretty, pretty for a darkie,” Fall sings. “My ears burn to the sound of his lines.”
Those lyrics are searingly relevant, but Fall’s delivery is anchored by the band’s textured musicality. You might want to binge listen to the song. You might want to build a relationship with it.
“As an artist in 2018, how can I not talk about the things that are happening in 2018?” Johnson says. “I can’t separate those things. My art is always going to be a reflection of what’s going on.”
—Ellen Fagg Weist is a Salt Lake City-based freelance writer and former Salt Lake Tribune reporter.