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Take Five With Aaron J Johnson


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Aaron J JohnsonMeet Aaron J Johnson: Born in Washington, D.C. Johnson studied piano and drums before taking up the trombone at age 12. While in high school, Aaron frequently performed with area funk bands. He also conducted and arranged for student ensembles under the direction of noted trumpeter Peter D. Ford. It was Ford who gave the budding young talent his first professional gigs and introduced him to Ellington alumni, bandleader and alto saxophonist Rick Henderson.

Although pursing a degree in electrical engineering, Johnson remained active as a trombonist and bass trombonist throughout his college years. He had the good fortune to play with the University of Pittsburgh Jazz Ensemble under the direction of Kenny Clarke and Nathan Davis. Following college, Aaron continued to gig in the D.C. and New York areas, studying privately with reed multi-instrumentalist Makanda Ken McIntyre.

By the early 1990s Johnson established himself as an experienced and valuable sideman, composer, and arranger. He has since recorded and performed with a multitude of major artists and ensembles to include Reggie Workman, Jimmy Heath, Charles Tolliver, Oliver Lake, Muhal Richard Abrams, Bill Lee, Frank Lacy, The Mingus Big Band, the Count Basie Orchestra, Steve Turre's Sanctified Shells, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra.

A recipient of the New Jersey State Council Fellowship in Music Composition (2000) Aaron Johnson has composed and arranged works recorded by Frank Foster, Steve Turre, Frank Lacy, the Nancie Banks Orchestra, and Paradigm Shift. He has been featured in film scores (The Bulls Night Out, 1997) (Anna Oz, 1996) television commercials, and several public radio broadcasts. Currently Johnson is in the doctoral program in Musicology at Columbia University and has now released his solo debut album, Songs of Our Fathers.


Trombone, bass trombone, tuba, shells, bass clarinet.

Teachers and/or influences? The only musician that I studied with for at any length was multi-reed instrumentalist Makanda Ken McIntyre who really opened me up. But really I have made a study of every great musician I worked with. On the trombone, Curtis Fuller, JJ, Slide, and Steve Turre come to mind.

Howard Johnson and Joe Daley on the tuba, and my writing has been majorly influenced by Charles Tolliver, Mingus, Ellington, Gil Evans, Thad Jones, Monk, and Muhal Richard Abrams.

I knew I wanted to be a musician when... I was already one, before I knew I wanted to be one!

Your sound and approach to music: My current CD really shows my post-bop side. I really like a powerful but flexible sound. I really like all kinds of compositional and improvisational approaches and enjoy playing free music a great deal. In my writing, the main goal is clarity.

Your teaching approach: My role as a teacher is to equip students with the tools to continue to identify and solve their own problems as the progress in their careers.

Your dream band:

I enjoy working with musicians that are always searching for something new, and that have big ears. To me, playing music is as much about listening to those you are playing with, as it is about playing. I have always admired adventurous musicians such as Don Byron, Oliver Lake and Henry Threadgill.

Favorite venue:

OF the clubs, I have really liked the vibe at The Jazz Standard, and Yoshi's in Oakland. As musicians, we are treated so well all over Japan. But one of my favorite performances was with Reggie Workman's Legacy Ensemble performing Africa Brass at Damrosch Park by Lincoln Center to a huge audience.

Your favorite recording in your discography and why? Other than my own CD, Songs of Our Fathers, available at CDBaby, I really like the Charles Tolliver big band CD, With Love (Blue Note) and the Steve Turre CD, Rhythm Within (Verve).

The first Jazz album I bought was: John Coltrane's Blue Train (Blue Note, 1958).

What do you think is the most important thing you are contributing musically? I think the compositions I am putting out there have some value, and I hope others will see that and record them.

Did you know...

....that I am a lifelong friend of the visual artist Renee Stout?

CDs you are listening to now:

Various, Complete Stax/ Volt Singles vol. 2 (Rhino);

M'boom, Live at S.O.B.'s New York (WEA);

George Crumb, Unto the Hills, Black Angels (Bridge);

Jackie McLean, 4, 5, and 6 (Prestige);

Anthony Braxton, The Complete Arista Recordings (Mosaic).

Desert Island picks: Donny Hathaway, Live (Atlantic/Atco);

Sly and the Family Stone, Greatest Hits (Columbia);

Pharoah Sanders, Thembi (Impulse);

Don Pullen, New Beginnings (Blue Note);

Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, and Sonny Stitt, Sonny Side Up (Polygram).

How would you describe the state of jazz today? Vibrant with creativity, but in need of a new business model.

What are some of the essential requirements to keep jazz alive and growing? I'm not sure there is a free-market solution. Artists need some incubation and nourishment to really flourish. There will always be creativity and that blinds us to the real needs of the artistic community.

What is in the near future? Ready to go back in the studio and put in some work!

By Day:

I am a full-time graduate student working towards a PhD in Historical Musicology at Columbia University in the City of New York. Pray for me.

If I weren't a jazz musician, I would be a:

non-jazz musician.



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