Marc Johnson: Sweet Tone for Sweet Tunes
This elite bassist didn't start out on the instrument, but picked up piano, and later cello, as a child in Omaha, Neb. Johnson's father was a music educator at the high school and college level. Also a jazz fan. So Johnson was listening to Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck, and Miles Davis on record. At the age of 15, Johnson moved with his family to Texas. He eventually went through the music program at the University of North Texas.
Switching to bass was perhaps a matter of fortune, and good fortune, as it turned out.
"The high school director was losing his bassist. He graduated. I was kind of a mediocre cellist, Johnson chuckles, "so he said 'Would you like to play some bass?' So he gave one to me to try out for the summer before the 10th grade started. My dad got me a private instructor and things kind of took off quickly.
At first, the youngster listened to classical players. "I heard some Gary Karr and I was in classical bass sections trying to play the classic literature, Beethoven, Mozart, and some solo literature for the double bass. Mostly transcriptions of other instruments. I listened to jazz, and I was in the high school jazz band. But my real jazz education didn't start until I entered university, he says.
Ironically, "I was listening to the Bill Evans trio a lot more intensely at that time.
It took Johnson a few years "to get some technique together on the instrument to get to where Ray Brown, Ron Carter and what some of the other bass players were doing could begin to make sense. And I made more sense of things as I played with other players in college.
"The Bill Evans trio was a big influence. Ron Carter was with Miles Davis' group. You can name so many bass players. ECM was fresh on the scene in the early 70s, so I was listening to a lot of their recordings, like Dave Holland and Miroslav Vitous. Eberhard Weber. Then the stalwarts: Ray Brown, Charles Mingus, Charlie Haden. Down the list, I pretty much heard them all and if I didn't study them I listened to them real intensely for periods of time.
"You absorb the things that you like from these players and make it your own. Now I don't even think about my influences so much. You get to a point where you just play. Those early years were fun years when you're developing. So excited listening to everything, like a sponge.
After college, Johnson was freelancing around the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Woody Herman called in the summer of 1977.
"The scene in Dallas had deteriorated to the point where the road looked good to me. There were some friends of mine in the band as well, in the rhythm section, so I took the plunge. I'm really glad I did because in a way it prepared me in a professional way for what was to come not too much later, he says. "A year later I was with Bill Evans."
Evans, one of the most influential pianists in jazz, had gone from working with the jazz greats, like Miles, to his preferred trio setting, for the most part. His trios not only had fan acclaim, but were watched by musicians who marveled at their cohesion, as well as personal style and statement. At age 25, Johnson got his chance to be a part of that world.
"It was really awesome. I knew I was going to audition for him. So while I was on the road with Woody, I had about 10 cassettes (of Evans' music) I was listening to, night and day, with my headphones, he says. "You get a lot of time to listen on a big band bus criss- crossing the country. I was steeped in his repertoire. I got the opportunity to sit in with him at the Vanguard (NYC).
Evans "asked me what tunes I'd like to play. I had no trouble calling tunes. Philly Joe Jones was the drummer that night. It was fun. After that, he liked what he heard and asked me to participate in a couple more gigs. We went to Amsterdam to a recording session, a TV taping. after that, he hired me full time. That was in the spring of 1978. We worked together that summer with Philly Joe, then Joe LaBarbera came in late '78 or early '79. That was the trio until the end of his life [Sept. 15, 1980].
Evans was notably fond of his trio with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian, and emotionally hurt when LaFaro died in an automobile accident in 1961 in western New York state. But he was admittedly rejuvenated with the Johnson-LaBarbera team, and the reasons for that are evident on records like We Will Meet Again.
"There was a really golden period for that trio, which was the fall of '79. It was really peaking right then, says the bassist. "I know Bill was in a good period, in a good way. Music was really central to his life again in these years that I was with him. When I joined the group, he was drug free. He was separated from his wife. I think he put a lot of his concentration and effort into the music. A survival mechanism, if nothing else.