ALLYN JOHNSON, A JAZZ LEGEND IN THE MAKING
By Terrence Richburg
(Also contributing, Andrea Williams and Debbi Johnson) © 2008

ALLYN JOHNSON, a Washington, D.C. native, is the essence of awe-inspiring musical talent and astounding creative potential. To watch and hear Allyn play piano is like watching a sculptor create a once in a lifetime work from the depths of his heart, yet with incredible speed and accuracy. Johnson attended the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) and received his Bachelor of Music degree in 1997, graduating Magna Cum Laude. He is currently an associate professor at UDC, where he serves as the Director of the Jazz Studies Program. Allyn divides his time between teaching and performing. He has played with a long list of artists, including Buck Hill, Andrew White, Bobby Watson, Keter Betts, Christian McBride, and Stanley Turrentine. In addition to his prolific mastery of the piano, Johnson is also a very accomplished composer and arranger. Though as humble as he is, it is certain there are no limitations artistically or creatively to what Allyn Johnson can achieve in music. He is a rising star on the path of Jazz legendary greatness.

JGC's Interview with Allyn Johnson:

JGC: How did you start and what is it that you're doing now at UDC?

AJ: I was a student at George Washington University in 1991/92 when I met this guy, DeWayne Adell , who is a gifted piano player who doesn't read a note as big as your head, but he can hear everything. I heard him playing, and I said "Man, how do you play all this stuff?" He was playing Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson stuff, and he said, "Man, you can do this, too. I'm at UDC right now." I said, "Wow, if you're at UDC, maybe that's where I need to be." I started skipping my GW classes and eventually dropped out of pre-med and just starting practicing. He told me that Calvin Jones was at UDC and told me I needed to go up there. He said, "You have a lot of talent." Needless to say, I went to UDC, and met Calvin Jones, who started the Jazz Studies Program there. He heard me, and I had the privilege of working with Calvin, as his colleague and assistant director. A funny story, the first time he heard me play - remember I'm coming straight out of "church" - and he said to me, "Hold it, Man, you're too menacing Man, you're pounding on the piano, lighten up!" It was really funny because I was just going at it. He refined the way I play. He encouraged me, and I took everything he had to offer. He passed in 2004, and I had been there with him since 1992, so everyone just thought I was the heir to the throne. After his death, I took over the program. It's an honor. I never thought I'd be a teacher. I didn't want to be a teacher. I just wanted to play. I was just going to leave there and try to get into Manhattan School of Music for a Master's in composition, but that didn't work. Mr. Jones gave me a job at UDC part-time in 1997, and when he passed I just kept the position.

JGC: Okay, so that's how you got to UDC. But, as far as Jazz itself, how were you introduced?

AJ: When I first heard Jazz, I was in high school, 10 th or 11 th grade. The library had these Downbeat magazines - Jazz magazines. I looked through the magazines and saw all these guys, musicians. I went home one day and happened to turn on the radio and heard this piano player. I don't even know who it was. It was totally different from what I was use to. I came out of the church--Gospel. I went to the library looking for this guy, looking for this type of music. I use to "steal," or rather "borrow" tapes. Actually, I did borrow them because you weren't suppose to take them out of the library, but I did take them out, took them home, made copies, and brought them back. Yes, I did do that, but I don't suggest any of your readers doing that. This is a Gospel publication, after all, and we're representing the Lord. We've changed our ways. The tapes I copied, I would just try to get from them everything I could. I didn't know what I was doing. I would just go by my ear. That's how most Gospel musicians hear. That's how I got into Jazz. Ever since then, I always had an ear and tried to replicate what I heard and tried to imitate that sound - Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum , and all those type of guys. That's how I got into Jazz.

JGC: What would you say was your defining moment when you knew Jazz would be a profound influence on you musically and your musical career?

AJ: Definitely when I switched from pre-med to music. I decided this is what I'm going to do. Usually, your parents want you to go to school to be a doctor. But, my mother said, "I knew you were going to do that [music] anyway because you love music so much so I just let you pick your own path." She wasn't upset that I switched. She said, "I knew you would do that [music] because you always had a heart for music and an ear." So, when I met the guy, DeWayne [Adell], and went to UDC, I knew this was what I wanted to do. I said, "that's all I want to do is play. I just want to play. I'm not going to worry about making a living. I know God will work it out, because this is what I want to do."

JGC: Moving from Gospel to Jazz is really, in a way, a big switch, but in a way it's not. Do you find it difficult to adjust your Gospel style, your church style, to the Jazz style or was that jazz improvisational vibe always in you?

AJ: In my opinion, they are basically branches from the same tree. Now, I know that having the experience of playing both. I think it's easier to come from a Gospel background or a Black music background, say R&B or Gospel or something like that, to try to play Jazz and improvisational stuff, because Black people that's all we've been doing since the beginning of time, coming up with stuff off the top of our heads. It's a little more difficult to come from a Classical or European tradition to Jazz because European tradition is so strict. You have to play what's on the paper and "don't do this, just play what's on the paper." But with Jazz, and now Gospel, there are more literate musicians and more educated musicians. Jazz and Gospel are a little bit of both now. You have musicians that read, as well as, can play by ear and improvise off the top of their head. It is a little easier to come from Gospel, or R&B or something like that to go into Jazz. For me it was just a little more natural, especially coming from church. We had no music sheets, especially when I was growing up. We didn't have any written music. Somebody started singing, and you just had to hear it, even if you don't know the right chords, you have to play something to go with it. In fact, I'm still doing that to this day. Sometimes my pastor starts singing a song, and I don't know it - and, I thought I knew every hymn in the book - I just try to find the chords and put it to it and go along with him. But, if I can't find the chords, I just won't play. I let him just go for it. But, for me, it's just a natural progression for me to go from Gospel to Jazz.

JGC: How do you balance your spiritual roots and foundation with the genre of Jazz?

AJ: First of all, I know I'm saved, and I know Jesus Christ for myself. So, it doesn't matter what type of music I play. It's all in your intent and why you're playing it--your heart. "Church people," they have a fit when you tell them you're a Jazz musician. I think because of the stereotype attached to Jazz musicians as alcoholics, drug addicts, and pimps. And, such were some of those in the beginning of Gospel, too. It's all in the intent of your heart. It's just music. To me, it's just music. It's either good music or bad music. It's not Jazz, Classical, or Gospel. Labels are just labels for me. Of course, there are stylistic ways you should play at a certain time. But, for me, good music is just good music.

JGC: What is your definition of Gospel Jazz?

AJ: I've learned that there are no "genres" when it comes to music. There are "styles." Jazz and Gospel both come from the same place - the "blues." It is really where your heart is when you're playing the music. It's about your intent. Blues influenced all music. It's Black people's music. It's all in the intent. It's not about the music, it's about the life. When you say "Gospel-Jazz," it's just combining two styles.

JGC: You told me once that when you play, you're really worshipping. Can you expound on that?

AJ: We know that God created music to worship Him. He created Lucifer, who was an instrument himself to worship God. That is the purpose of music in the first place - to worship God. To me, that has to be a part of what you do as a musician. To me, it's been lost [worship]. But, that's what I aim to do. No matter what I do, it's to worship God and give reverence to God. Not to show off. There's a time when you shine and do what you do, but not to be boastful. That to me is the origin of where it came from which as a musician is what you should be doing - worshipping - that's your purpose, and to bring people into worship or to be a reflection of God. Even if you're in a club, you're playing, but there should be a difference in what you do.

JGC: What are your thoughts on the lack of music program support in the public school systems, especially in D.C., and what would you do to bring it back?

AJ: Music is always the first to go when there's a money issue in the public school system. What needs to be realized is that music really helps other disciplines--math, science. In fact, I read a study recently that said just that. I think we need to go where the children are, musically speaking. Most of today's kids like hip hop. We need to bring a link between that music, which was created by Black people--bring some sort of link between hip hop and rap and bring it to Jazz or Gospel. Try to link the music that they like to Jazz and educate them about Jazz and how it links to these other types of music they enjoy.

JGC: What are you currently working on in terms of projects?

AJ: I'm producing some projects for local artists, Kendall King and Yusef Chisholm . I also play with a group called The Young Lions . These are some guys who just want to play just for the music. For myself, I need to play with folk of like mind. Sometimes it won't be for the money - most times, it won't be for the money. Hopefully, that will come. I just want to play for the sake of playing. I'm planning to do a trio CD next spring--a straight-ahead trio project. I'm trying to bring in Billy Hart , a guy who use to live here in D.C. Billy was born in the 40's. He's 68 now. He's played with Herbie Hancock and everybody. I'm trying to bring him down and one of D.C.'s legends on bass, Steve Novacel . I've written a lot of music and there are so many other projects I want to do. I have a group, which is a 30-piece orchestra, and I've written some music for an orchestra, so I want to do a project with them, that entails vocals and strings. Then I want to do an electric project. But, the trio project is the next thing I'm looking at doing next year.

JGC: What do you feel is the perception of Gospel Jazz? What kind of appeal or lack of appeal do you think it has?

AJ: I definitely think there's an appeal. There's a niche, there's a market for it. It's going to take the same audience that buys the Kirk Franklins , and the Kurt Carrs and the Tye Tribbetts to grab hold of it and support it. There's definitely a market for it. It's just going to take that audience to support it.

JGC: Jazz obviously doesn't always get the same type of exposure as mainstream Gospel, which in turn means that Gospel Jazz won't necessarily get the same exposure from radio or retail as the more popular music. How do you think we can tap into that market and make it so that people who really love the music can support it?

AJ: That's always been an issue, especially for Jazz. Maybe back in the 40's and 50's, Jazz was a popular music, until you got to the 60's and 70's on. But, we now have the Internet and technology. That's really been the saving grace for a lot of music that's never been heard - iTunes , CDBaby , Amazon . I would just milk that. That's what I plan to do and keep "the middle man" out. A lot of major labels, I think they are scared. They're not signing people as much. A lot of musicians are independent and doing their own thing now. Instead of musicians selling out of their trunks, they're selling on the Internet. That's the best way to do it and just keep the middle man out. On the other hand, I don't know how that's going to work with radio play because a lot of the radio stations answer to major record labels. It's kind of a dichotomy. That's a hard one. You're either going to try to get a major record contract, which is very hard and just deal with that, or just save time and money and do your own thing. But, then again, you may not have that much exposure on radio, unless you hound people to play your record.

JGC: Who are you listening to right now in terms of artists and musicians?

AJ: I love all, Herbie Hancock , McCoy Tyner , Stevie Wonder , etc. But, right now, who am I listening to? I just recently downloaded a lot of Thomas Whitfield . I grew up listening to him, and it's been hard to find his music since he passed away. I'm trying to get back into that. Billy Childs , who's out in L.A. He's a wonderful arranger, Jazz musician, and an incredible orchestrator. He's awesome. I recently downloaded some Maha Vishnu Orchestra . Yan Hammer is the keyboardist for that group. There's a contemporary Classical composer named Gavin Breyers . I don't know how he did this, but he took a snippet of a song he heard a bum singing -"Jesus Blood Has Never Failed Me" - the bum kept singing this verse over and over again. He taped it and took it home, orchestrated a string arrangement around just that clip. I guess he looped it, and, it's beautiful. I've recently been listening to that. It's so interesting and so heart-wrenching, but it's beautiful. I love all the guys, Hank Jones-- everybody!

JGC: Do you listen to other musicians like saxophonists to get ideas?

AJ: Oh, definitely. Saxophone players, vocalists - I love Dianne Reeves . She's awesome. She has great ears, very creative. Saxophone players - John Coltrane , Charlie Parker . I listen to Kenny Garrett . I get ideas from a lot of saxophone players, trumpet players. I listen to a variety of music. I've been recently listening to this Graeme, Revell piece - a flute, harp, and violin. A friend of mine gave me the sheet music, so I've been studying scores just to get my writing together. Orchestration and all that. Being a musician you have to do that to keep inspired and stay fresh.

JGC: I know you're over the Jazz Studies Program at UDC, and you have the big band there, the Jazz ensemble. I recently saw a documentary on television, and they talked about that style of music not necessarily thriving or being very popular. When it first came out, it was the most popular music of the day. Everybody flocked to it, mainly in dance hall. In today's market, do you think that there's a market and a future for big band music?

AJ: First, of all it's hard keeping a big band together. You have 16 musicians to pay. And, that's hard to do these days. I don't know how they did it back in the day. You really have to have musicians who love what you do as a composer. There are a few big bands around still. In New York, there's Charles Migas Big Band that still plays, the Village Vanguard Big Band , and Roy Hargrove , who's a trumpet player, he has a big band. Also, in D.C., there's a band, the Thad Wilson Big Band . He has a big band every Monday night. I use to play with them, and they don't get paid a lot of money. It's like, 10 guys, and you might get paid $10 for a night. But, at that point, it's not really about the money. It's about the music. It's about trying to get some music together and the love of music. There is a market, as long as the older people support it. That's what they grew up with. We have a big band festival every year at UDC, where there's three big bands from Maryland University , Howard University and UDC and it's always packed. The tickets are $15/20. It's always packed. To me that means there's still a market for it. People will always love big band music. We just have to keep it updated, keep it modern. Keep it in the forefront of people's ear.

JGC: Do you ever do any work combining the Jazz and the Gospel programs at UDC?

AJ: We will actually be doing something on December 11. I, along with Professor Gary Gillespie , will be doing a song. I did an arrangement of Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas" with the big band, and the Gospel choir is going to sing along with the big band. That's a first at UDC. So, that should be interesting. I wrote a piece for the Chorale that I want them to do. I'm trying to bring all of the musical elements together at UDC. It's always been divided, especially between the Classical and the Jazz.

JGC: Two final questions, (1) what would you say to upcoming musicians who are trying to get into Gospel Jazz or Jazz, and (2) what would you like to leave as a legacy?

AJ: (1) I would encourage young musicians to love music for the art of it, not so much that you're going to get paid all this money. That can happen. But, just keep doing what you're doing for the love of the music and it will take care of you. Be studious about it, listen to everything and study your art. Listen to everything. That will make you a better musician. If you play Gospel, listen to some Jazz, if you play Jazz check out some Classical, R&B. You never know what you can get from this other music. Just be studious about music as a whole.

(2) I want to write for films. Being at UDC is preparing me for that. I've done some string arrangements. I want to write for dance companies. I want to catalogue the works that I've done for the school. I'm also writing a book on Jazz improvisation. But, as far as a legacy, first, just to be a decent human being--because, at the end of the day, we're all just human beings. If you strip the titles and the instruments away, we're all human beings. You want someone to feel that you were a nice person. Generous and kind outside of what you do. Just be a decent human being--besides that, a good musician. I'm composing and writing and documenting what I do so that there will be something left here. So that if I have any children, they can say this is what my father did, or this is what my grandfather did. Just to leave something on the planet. But mostly, just to be a decent human being.

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NOTE: Be sure to check out the web often for events sponsored by the Jazz Studies department at UDC and look for Allyn Johnson live performances to attend whenever and wherever you can--assuredly, you won't be disappointed. -JGC