MUSICIAN KRIS JOHNSON
Kris Johnson is an award-winning trumpet player. He’s the director of jazz studies at the University of Utah, a member of the Count Basie Orchestra, and the founder of the Kris Johnson Group. I swing by his office at noon on a Saturday. David Gardner Hall is dark and empty on the weekend. Kris is working at his computer, editing a new episode of Office Hours, a series of tutorials he creates for music students. Unlike the offices of most professors I’ve known, his is tidy and organized. A piano sits in the corner. “When they were trying to get me to teach here, they definitely made a point to mention the piano came with the office,” he says with a laugh. A world map hangs on the wall with pins in various countries, indicating where Kris has toured with the Basie Band.
We walk to Indochine for some pho. Kris is extremely chill and easy to talk to. He carries himself with zero pretension, assuring me he’s down to talk about whatever. We sit at a booth. He orders a large iced coffee with lunch. “Man, I didn’t expect to hear trap music at a Vietnamese place,” he observes. I’ve been around Kris a few times now, and I’ve noticed how he seamlessly operates on several planes at once. I have his undivided attention as we talk, but every 20 minutes or so he casually checks his phone or drums his fingers or reflects on something, probably related to his many obligations and deadlines. He’s a calm guy, but beneath that relaxed surface I sense a perpetual motion machine whirring away, considering a stream of music, ideas, projects, students, and any number of personal matters we all carry with us at any given moment.
Kris is the embodiment of a jazz musician, aware of countless things at once but also laser-focused on what’s right in front of him. Our pho arrives. He takes a long pull on his iced coffee and breaks his chopsticks apart. I start my recorder.
BRACKET: What kind of music was on in your house when you were a kid?
KRIS: A lot of Motown. Sly and the Family Stone. P-Funk. Of course the actual Motown stuff like Jackson 5. My parents are huge music lovers. I grew up around a lot of gospel music as well. Going to church and being raised around choirs and organists.
B: I remember you saying your dad was a musician.
K: Yeah, my dad was actually a bass player. Like a lot of people he graduated from high school and got a “real” job and started a family. My parents were married at 18, had my brother at 20, my sister at 22, and me at 24. So there wasn’t much time for musical development after high school, but he was a great electric bass player. I didn’t even really know how serious my dad was about music until much later in life. We had a piano in our house, and I remember having a bass that we weren’t allowed to touch. I took piano lessons as a kid like we all had to, just for a few years, and we all gave it up. We all did elementary and middle school band, but I was the only one who stayed with it. Between piano lessons and trumpet in middle school I played for like four years, but was never serious about it until freshman year. And then I just got completely obsessed with it.
B: So music was on, but it wasn’t like hey you guys gotta pay attention and really know this.
K: Not at all. It was just something my dad loved. He would play different albums that he really liked. But there was nothing formal about it. That’s just not where his mind was. My uncle was a fantastic keyboard player. He toured with Brothers Johnson, Quincy Jones, and did a rehearsal session with Miles when he was like 18. He never ended up performing live, but he was a great keyboardist. The same thing for him. By the time I was born he was pretty much done with music. I knew about him playing because people would tell stories, but again I didn’t know how heavy it was until much later in life.
Starting off I loved hip hop. I went through a ska phase. I loved No Doubt. Early R&B and stuff like that. I just loved music, and I used to hate jazz. There’s a family business called Law Den Nursing Home that my great-grandmother started. I worked as a janitor there. It was my first job freshman year of high school. They would always have this smooth jazz station on, and I really hated smooth jazz. I associated smooth jazz with the smell of bleach and buffing floors. So I thought I hated jazz.
B: You developed a physical reaction to smooth jazz.
K: Yeah! Just from being there. My brother would play me smooth jazz recordings, and I just wasn’t interested in it at all. It didn’t do anything for me. Freshman year he took me to the Detroit jazz festival where I heard more straight ahead acoustic jazz. You know, jazz that was not smooth jazz. Man! Seeing it live got me addicted, completely addicted. I played trumpet and I saw this trumpet player Dwight Adams. I saw him performing with a group and heard what he was doing. I was like that’s the same instrument I play? I have to be able to do that. So I started asking questions to different people and listening to recordings. I got some Miles Davis recordings, Nicholas Payton, Wynton Marsalis, Roy Hargrove. I started binge-listening to this stuff. I got turned on to Terence Blanchard a few years later and really fell in love with the music from there. I started studying Louis Armstrong. This is like freshman year and on. It really wasn’t a lot of traditional study in jazz. It was just listening. My friends and I would get together. We would try to play. Someone told us to get a real book, which is like the wrong thing to tell kids to do, but we got a real book and we’re just reading through these songs. We had no idea what we were doing. My friend was an alto player and he had an E flat real book, a different key than I play in and a different key than my bass player’s playing in. We didn’t know that. So we’re playing this song in three different keys trying to read out of the real book, and none of us thought we should just listen to the recording to see what’s going on. Finally people started explaining transposition. It was really piecemeal. I loved the music, but at the time I didn’t have anyone to show me what to do.
Around sophomore year I started going to these sessions with this great piano player Harold McKinney, from Detroit. He would hold these sessions at the Serengeti Ballroom. You walk into this building that looks abandoned. It was like an old ballroom from probably the forties or something. You’d walk up the stairs—it was really creepy in downtown Detroit—and you’d walk into this vacant ballroom. You paid $5 and you got to take a lesson with Harold McKinney on stage. You’d join the group, pick what song we're going to play, and go up on stage and perform the song. Then he would workshop the performance. What was really crazy was I had no idea what I was doing. I'm like this 13 year old kid that got up there and played for him. He was kind and very gracious. Over the years I would always go to that workshop on Tuesday nights, and he would just school us on what to do. He would give advice, write arrangements, talk about recordings. That was really pivotal, to be around someone like that who was so knowledgable. It was overwhelming. It wasn’t like, here’s this textbook. No, here’s the history of the music. Deal with it, you know? It was really something.
B: Do you feel like that experience influenced you years later when you chose to become an educator?
K: Definitely. Right from the beginning I knew the difference between approaching the music by trying to read off this book or random advice versus studying with someone who really knows what he’s doing. He was a living example of how to play this music. I wanted to become that.
B: That's what's cool about jazz. It’s almost like you're a samurai or something, right? You gotta find the old master and be mentored but you also need time to go off in the forest to practice and practice. Become a master in your own right. It’s a form of apprenticeship that doesn’t happen in so many careers anymore.
K: Mentorship is such a key component to music. It gets lost in the university setting a lot. What gets lost in academia is this idea of mentoring a student, knowing that they have their own path. Giving them the universal concepts that they need but then allowing them to discover themselves in the process. It’s not about trying to turn a student into me. It’s about me giving them as much information as possible and seeing what they decide to do with it.
B: How did you develop the drive and discipline you need to become a serious jazz musician?
K: I’ve always been super obsessive. For awhile it was basketball, but I just wasn’t good at it at all. I was so bad. I could never make the team. I’d ride my bike to my friend’s house to play. I was so passionate about basketball. Every day I wanted to play basketball. So freshman year I tried out for the basketball team and made it all the way to the final cut. The coach pulled me aside and said, I admire your drive, I admire your heart, and you have a lot of discipline, but you’re just not cut out for this.
B: Oh no, it’s like your Rudy moment!
K: Yeah! Coach was like you just don’t have the talent for this. You’ve worked so hard. There’s gotta be something else you can do. I mean I was heartbroken. That’s all I wanted to do was be on that basketball team. So then I found myself hanging out in the band room a lot, cause my sister was my ride home and she was in the color guard and on the cheerleading team. She’d be hanging out after school participating in band stuff. I was already in band. One day our band director, Damien Crutcher, he was just mad and went off on me in the middle of rehearsal. I was sitting second-to-last chair in a section of like 20 trumpet players. We had a pretty big section. We were playing an arrangement of Proud Mary. He stops the whole band and says “Johnson, I see you sitting over there. You don’t know your part. You’re not practicing. Your tone is horrible. You don’t know your steps. I see you! Don’t think you can get away with this.”
I was devastated! I was so hurt and terrified of this man that I would stay after, practicing in the band room. He’s not gonna yell at me ever again. I worked really hard. Not because I was passionate about it. I just didn’t wanna get yelled at. We had auditions for the symphony band. I worked on that music constantly. I came into the audition, and I was terrified. I did the audition. I went from being second-to-last chair to third chair in the entire school. I was like, I found something I’m good at! I couldn’t believe it. From there Mr. Crutcher started expressing interest in me. He got me a private teacher, tutored me, taught me how to read better, and I got really serious just from the encouragement of discovering that I was good at something. When I decided to turn that light switch on the discipline came. I completely stopped playing basketball. I took my obsessive personality and focused all of it on music.
The discipline was natural but the talent wasn’t. I mean I really struggled. My talent was the mental capacity to sit down and practice and to be able to organize numbers, but I had a horrible ear. I was tone deaf. I couldn’t hear anything. I couldn’t learn anything by ear. You’d sing a pitch to me and I couldn’t sing it back to you. It was really bad. So I had to work really hard to get over that. Over time as I got better, the mental side and discipline side were there to counteract, so I started to progress pretty quickly. From senior year on that’s when things really started to develop.
B: So you’re the director of jazz studies, Count Basie Orchestra, your own group, you have kids in Detroit and a girlfriend in New York, what does your average day look like?
K: Oh, God, chaos! It depends on the day. Generally speaking I’m always working on some sort of writing project. I’ll describe the different lives. In Utah I have my class schedule, and you can either find me in my office working on whatever writing project I have going on, or working with a student on something they’re interested in. Students come to my office all the time to talk about and work on music. That inspired me to do my Office Hours video series. To take that mentorship and teach these mini lessons that I can make available to students worldwide. Most of my time in Utah is spent creating those videos, working on my own projects, and working with students, in addition to classes and rehearsals. I try to go out and support as many students in the community as possible. I’m basically at my apartment to sleep and shower. And eat … sometimes. That’s the Utah life, completely immersed in the cultural scene here, then working and not sleeping much cause there’s always a deadline.
Detroit life. During the school year I’m in Detroit two weekends out of every month. I fly back on a Friday morning. Go see my boys. I usually pick them up after school on Friday then drop them off Sunday afternoon and get on a flight back to Utah. With that I try to be careful about not doing anything but spending time with them. I push everything to the side and just focus on time with them. If I do anything it’s after they go to bed.
B: With your kids do you find yourself consciously playing music? Are you trying to curate, like, I wanna make sure they hear Bill Withers and Betty Davis.
K: They love music, and we have a playlist. So I’m always adding things to that playlist, but I’m also very supportive of whatever they want to listen to. I have a record player in Michigan and a ton of records I’ve collected over the years. I make it a point to play a lot of those records for them as we’re sitting down playing with toys. And every once in awhile I’ll be like, oh I really liked that. So I’ll throw it on their playlist. I’m not trying to make my sons musicians, but music is important to them. I don’t know what my kids are gonna do, but they can do whatever they want. If I can help them along the way then great. I’m not gonna tell them what to be, cause that’s just not how art works. I can’t think of any examples where that worked out well.
B: How did you get involved with the Basie Band?
K: I studied with a trumpet player named Derrick Gardner. He was a huge influence on me as a composer and a trumpet player and just a phenomenal musician. He was in the Basie Orchestra when he was 23, and he used to tell me stories. I remember one time we were on tour, and we grabbed breakfast. He described touring in Europe, riding on a bus from Switzerland to Germany, and he was talking about how surreal it was, getting paid to play his trumpet with Count Basie Orchestra in Switzerland. I told him, man, I will never do anything that cool in my entire life.
So two years go by, and I played at the Detroit Jazz Festival. Mike Williams, the lead trumpet player from the Basie Orchestra was playing in this big band led by Gerald Wilson. I love to sight read, so I’m just playing the piss outta this music, and we hit it off right away. He said, “I like the way you read, man, you’re such a strong player.” I was probably 23, and I said hey I’d love to play with the Basie Band sometime. He was like, no, no we only use New York guys. So I ran off with my tail between my legs. A few months later I get a call and the Basie Band is looking for a trumpet player. They said they wanted someone who wasn’t from New York, because the New York guys were all too busy. So Derrick Gardner recommended me. I found out later that one of my mentors, Solomon Parham, had really pushed Derrick for me to get the spot. They wanted me to do a six-week tour. I emailed to see if they could send me the music so I could start studying. They never responded. Next thing I know I have a plane ticket, and Derrick gave me some CDs to study. No sheet music, right?
I go on my first tour. We get to sound check, pull out the book, and run Hey Jim. Now, Hey Jim is one of the only charts in the book that you start on the left side, read all the way to the right, and it’s just normal. Nothing added. No surprises. I was like, I can do this. What are we rehearsing next? Everyone says oh it’s time for dinner. We’re good. You got it. So I’m reading in this book, scrambling, trying to figure out how I’m gonna do this. The music isn’t in alphabetical order. It’s in numerical order, but the set list doesn’t have the numbers. So I’m trying to figure out the order. The fourth trumpeter, Endre Rice, finally starts helping me out a bit. Tells me I’ll be just fine. I can’t eat anything. I put my suit on and we’re announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, the world-famous Count Basie Orchestra!” We walk out and I just sight-read the entire concert. All the straight up and down just read the music I was fine. But at any given turn there was stuff they had changed, and nobody writes it down. They just change it and everybody remembers that it changed. So we get to these phrases that just sound completely different than how it’s written, and I’m having to read my part while learning from the band in real-time how to play this stuff. Every once in awhile the trumpet section would just randomly stand up. So I got thrown into the water, like let’s see how he does. And I did that for six weeks. At the end of it I’m like, so how does this work? They say, oh you did great. You got the gig.
Later that year I was on my first tour in Europe doing the thing. Riding that bus in Switzerland, like this is stupid. This is really dumb. And I’m actually going back. I’m gonna be in Switzerland in just a few weeks. But the whole thing was very surreal. On my first European tour I got my first chart played by the band. I was aggressive. Even from the beginning I brought in a chart. I said I want the band to read this. They read it and said, ok, this is great but we don’t know if it works for the band. My second chart the guys really liked. I’ll never forget. We’re in Rome staying near the coliseum. It’s a gorgeous day. We’re out seeing things, eating pasta and gelato. Obama had won the election that year, so we got interviewed as young black Americans. It was this insane day. That night we read the chart at sound check and suddenly our leader, the late Bill Hughes, called it on the gig. My first chart with the Count Basie Orchestra premiered in Rome. So, man, yeah. Most of the experiences with the Basie band are just like how did I end up in this? You know? It’s crazy.
B: As you worked on The Unpaved Road, your new album, what was on your mind?
K: I’m a musical mutt of heavy influences like Duke Ellington, Thad Jones, and also Terrence Blanchard, Wynton Marsalis, Roy Hargrove, the funk trumpet player Tom Brown. The JBs. Sly and the Family Stone. Musical theater. Classical music. I like to tell stories and I like all those different sounds. My goal is always to pull from whatever I need to pull from to tell an honest story. I try to get as many different musical influences in as possible.
With The Unpaved Road in particular, Lulu and I had just started dating. We said we’re not gonna be that couple that feels like we have to work together just because we’re musicians and we’re dating. Some time passed and she sent me a voice memo of a song she was working on. She sang the hook and the first verse. I took what she had sung and sampled it in Logic, locked it into a temp, and wrote this mock track around it. I thought, man, that sounds really beautiful. Then we were both like, ok, so we’re gonna work together. It was a natural thing. Musically we just meshed, even from a little mockup.
From that we got the idea to write an album called The Unpaved Road. We called it that because it’s kinda like us on this journey together as a couple. From there we slowly started adding things until we said, ok, come perform with the band. She came to Detroit and performed with the band and it was awesome. So we started getting serious, booking studio time, and the studio sessions were actually a year apart. Most of the material started with her lyrics and her melodies. I’d have her record, and I’d build the music around her. There are a couple songs that started with something musical that I did. It was a really organic process, and it was easy to support her vision then add in my band with the flavor of what I brought to the table to complement her ideas.
So yeah, it’s really just a representation of a marriage between my existing band with what Lulu brought to the table.
B: How does your work reflect the recent political environment?
K: My strength is definitely in expressing things musically. I don’t always have the most eloquent words, but doing it musically I feel I can make an impact. My music has always been concerned with social justice. My project Jim Crow’s Tears is all about minstrelsy, and all about opposing the racism in the entertainment industry, showing that it’s been there since day one—how irresponsible that is. Also the fact that a lot of music we’re in love with may have started in a place like that, but a lot of good formed by developing the music, by getting rid of the negativity and stereotypes. That was really important to me.
The album Odd Expressions, there’s a piece on there called Stand Your Ground that I wrote as a tribute to Trayvon Martin. As long as I’m writing music and as long as things are happening in the world, there will always be a reflection of that in my music. There’s a great Nina Simone video where she says it’s the responsibility of artists to use their platform, to talk about the things they care about. Because otherwise, by not talking about the things that are important to me, what am I saying? Am I just trying to shuck and jive on stage and coon to please massa? You know, well let me be quiet and just enjoy this stage that I’ve been given. No, these things are important to me. Why not put that in my art? It’s always a part of me.
B: What would you say about jazz music in America today?
K: There’s a prolific trumpet player from New Orleans named Nicholas Payton. A few years back he wrote this essay about how jazz is dead, how jazz is a four-letter word. It’s a great read. A lot of what he’s saying is that the music that is called jazz was never intended to be called jazz by its founders. Jazz was a word that was created by white critics to define a particular kind of negro music happening in the world. So for him the issues that exist in the music come from people trying to turn it into this American classical music or trying to turn it into something that it’s not. Continuing to call it jazz is disrespectful to Miles Davis, who didn’t call his music that. Or disrespectful to Yusef Lateef, Max Roach, Duke Ellington, different people who are very anti-jazz. Their music was always labelled as jazz. It’s like, we have to find a box to put you in.
Payton likes to put the music that people refer to as hip hop, gospel, R&B, jazz, all the music that came out of the black experience in America, he refers to it as BAM, Black American Music. That resonates with me, because I don’t like putting a limitation on my music, reducing it to the word "jazz." I get most people are going to associate it with that. It’s how it is. But really my identity extends beyond what people associate with jazz. Arguments about what is jazz, what isn’t jazz? I’m not worried about that. I’m more like, yo, this person put out an album, and I like it. You wanna call it hip hop, jazz, whatever. I think it’s more about all the things that had to happen in that musician’s life and all the influence they had to pull from in their artistry to create this music that sounds dope. When I look at Kendrick Lamar, I respect To Pimp a Butterfly and Untitled. I hold that in the same regard that I hold Kind of Blue or Terence Blanchard’s Jazz in Film. Albums that are really important to me, there’s no separation. It’s just as precious to me as Sly and the Family Stone is. Music that resonates with me has a high level of musicianship and expressiveness.
Trying to be something and slapping a label on something and applying rules is detrimental to art. But that’s how a lot of people grow up musically. They’re told this is this and that is that. And if you wanna do this, here’s what you have to do. I mean, where’s the “have to” come from? There are fundamental musical principles that most people study, but the “have to” is problematic. For me, if you like the way I sound and where I’m coming from, if you study with me you’re going to learn these things, because it’s going to help you. But I don’t want to limit someone’s potential by telling them this is what’s important, this is what’s not important. I’ve had students tell me they’ve had a teacher sit them down and say, oh you’re listening to that? Don’t listen to that. Listen to this instead. And they find themselves listening to something they don’t like. They find themselves putting down something they’re into, to listen to something they don’t like that doesn’t resonate with them because they were told they had to. Now I’m like, yo, you should listen to this. Give it a chance. It’s important to me. But it can’t be, oh the music you like is bullshit. Because what does that do for students? You either alienate them, push them away and make them not want to work with you, or it’s gonna make them not be honest with who they are. I’ve definitely had that experience, people trying to tell me what “real” music is. It’s all very personal. So I’d say there is no current state of jazz, there’s just a lot of great artists doing a lot of great things.
But it is a hot topic right now. A lot of people have decided to call their music something else, identifying for themselves how they want to define their music. That’s the thing. Are we gonna call Stevie Wonder Motown cause he was signed to Motown? Nah, man. Are we gonna call him R&B or funk? Man, Stevie’s everything. Stevie Wonder, he’s his own category.