Dick Johnson: Never on the Ragged Edge

by | Nov 13, 2022

Artie Shaw, Dick Johnson, and “The Note”

In December of 1980, Artie Shaw dropped The Note into his corner mailbox. The Note was a short, handwritten missive that Shaw sent to Bill Curtis, Dick Johnson’s longtime manager. Curtis, who knew Artie, requested the big-band icon’s opinion of Johnson’s version of “Carioca,” a challenging clarinet number associated with Shaw. The tune was on Johnson’s LP Spider’s Blues. Shaw’s now-famous response was, “You wanted to hear what I think of Dick Johnson’s clarinet playing. Okay. At this time, he’s the best I’ve ever heard. Bar nobody. And you can quote me on that, anywhere, anytime!”

That must have been a very good day in Dick Johnson’s life.

Johnson had been an ardent admirer of Artie Shaw’s work since 1940, when he saw a Fred Astaire film called Second Chorus, in which the Shaw band played Artie’s “Concerto for Clarinet.” As a teenager, Johnson enjoyed Shaw’s playing, but when he became a musician, Johnson found much more to like. He admired Shaw the innovator—his modern approach to music, his advanced harmonies, and his willingness to break new ground, as he did with the first string band. And Johnson admired Shaw’s refusal to play the same thing every night, and his need to keep growing musically. The temperamental Shaw built and broke up some nine bands over his career, and finally walked away from all of it in 1954. Johnson never met Shaw, but remained his enthusiastic advocate through all the years preceding the arrival of The Note.

There was much more to Dick Johnson than Artie Shaw, though. He had already been playing jazz for 35 years by 1980.

Johnson, who died January 10, 2010 at the age of 84, was a craftsman of multiple facets. A one-man reed section, he mastered the clarinet (his favorite); the alto, tenor, and soprano saxophones; and the flute. He also wrote many of his own arrangements.

He was the embodiment of the swing-to-bop transition in jazz, and its establishment as the mainstream sound of jazz in later decades. His approach blended two schools of playing, the swing he learned by listening to Shaw, and the bop he learned in the 1940s, with some of the lessons taught by Charlie Parker himself. Shaw and Parker remained his greatest influences, and from these Johnson formed a style he rightfully claimed as his own.

Versatility and influences do not make a master craftsman, however. It was Johnson’s playing that did that. His clarinet tone was as rich as any in jazz, grounded in a total technical mastery of the instrument. His playing was marked by the legato lines favored by Shaw and the near-absence of vibrato common among the bop players. Like his close friend, pianist Dave McKenna, Johnson loved a good melody and never strayed too far from it. “Never on the ragged edge,” he himself said about Shaw’s playing, but it can be said about Johnson’s as well.

Born into Swing, Bred into Bop

Richard Brown Johnson was born in Brockton in 1925. He grew up in a musical family, and studied piano as a boy, without much enthusiasm, before moving on to the saxophone and clarinet. He graduated from Brockton High School and enlisted in the Navy at age 18. He went to sea on a warship, the cruiser U.S.S. Pasadena, and saw action in the Pacific. He also found time to become a musician. “I would take my clarinet and practice for four hours a day in the fan room, and it was loud in there and I’d miss the call to battle stations… somebody would yell in the door, “Johnson what the hell are you doing, get to your post.”

After the war, Johnson jumped into the emerging Boston/Brockton jazz scene, first working in the band of Brockton trombonist Chick Hathaway. He studied clarinet with Norman Carrel of the Boston Symphony Orchestra privately, and for a time attended the New England Conservatory.

Johnson was a regular at the jam sessions in the Boston clubs, at the Savoy and Izzy Ort’s and the Mardi Gras. He played with formidable Boston jazzmen like the brothers Ray and Bey Perry in 1948-49 when he was in the house band at the Pirate Ship in Brockton. At the Latin Quarter in Fall River, Johnson played with Charlie Parker, twice, as well as with Dizzy Gillespie, Red Rodney, and Buddy DeFranco. “And I played with Sonny Stitt… It was at a Sunday session in Boston, and I was up on stage with him and I didn’t know who he was then, and he was playing some amazing things and I wished I could have dug a hole on the stage and crawled in, because I sure didn’t want to play after that.”

In 1952, Dick hit the road with the big band of Charlie Spivak, staying until 1955. Then he went with Buddy Morrow. Johnson became Morrow’s star soloist, and he led the band-within-a-band, the jazz quartet responsible for much of the swinging. (Dave McKenna and bassist Scott LaFaro were also members.) Morrow featured Johnson’s alto on two recordings, The Golden Trombone and Night Train. Morrow’s band was quite popular when Johnson was a member, and Morrow credited that success to his band’s ability to move freely between jazz and dance music. It was a lesson Johnson learned well. Dick Johnson remained with Morrow until 1958.

Recording for Mercury, Riverside, and Concord

Morrow recorded for Mercury Records, and he convinced Mercury to record Johnson in a small group. The sessions took place in early 1956 in Mercury’s Chicago studio, with Morrow’s drummer, Bob McKee, and two Chicagoans, pianist Bill Haverman and bassist Dave Poskonka. Music for Swinging Moderns was released on the Emarcy label in 1956. It found a fan in Leonard Feather, who wrote in his favorable Down Beat review: “Johnson is a most interesting anomaly. He is apt to plunge from Parker-like cascades of 16th notes into swing-era orgies of triplets.” Although Johnson was happy to have the opportunity to cut his first album, he was less happy with the result: “Brubeck was big then, and the producer wanted me to play like Paul Desmond.”

In 1957, Johnson made Most Likely, on Riverside Records, his first recording with Dave McKenna. Filling out a top-flight rhythm section were Wilbur Ware and Philly Joe Jones. Also in 1957, Verve recorded Johnson at the Newport Jazz Festival in a guest appearance with pianist Eddie Costa’s trio.

Although one was planned, no second record ever came out on Riverside. It would be 22 years before Johnson made another record under his own name.

Back in Massachusetts, Johnson taught jazz saxophone at Berklee 1959-60, and in 1959 he replaced Charlie Mariano in the Herb Pomeroy Orchestra, at the Stable. There, in 1960, he also worked in Varty Haroutunian’s octet. He stayed with Pomeroy until 1961. Johnson also played saxophone with Sammy Dale’s dance band at the Statler Hotel in Boston. “Sammy used to let us sneak in a little jazz once in a while.”

Over the next two decades Dick Johnson cemented his reputation as regional a fan favorite and first-class player on his arsenal of reeds. He was constantly working, working, working. (He  once worked five jobs in one day, traveling from Providence to Boston to do it.) He played as much jazz as he could, but also dance music, studio work, general business, even a little jazz-rock. He co-led a group with trumpeter Lou Colombo for about nine years, at Brockton’s Westgate Lounge and other long-gone rooms. In 1973-74 Johnson worked with McKenna at the Columns on Cape Cod. He spent most Monday nights in the 1970s in Providence, playing saxophone with Duke Belaire’s Jazz Orchestra. There was a long run with pianist Ray Santisi at Copley’s Bar, and a chair in Pomeroy’s early ’80s big band. And there was Swing Shift.

Johnson formed Swing Shift, a “small big band,” in 1976. It was a versatile octet that enjoyed widespread popularity in New England, moving easily between smooth dance music and hard swingers. Swing Shift was a fixture in Boston clubs like Scotch ’n Sirloin and Satin Doll.

The formation of Swing Shift preceded Johnson’s second, and most prolific, period of recording. Concord Jazz Records signed him for a series of albums released between 1979 and 1981. McKenna was already on the label, and the two were paired on McKenna’s Piano Mover and Johnson’s Dick Johnson Plays and Spider’s Blues. There was also a Concord Jazz All-Stars session with Woody Herman. In 1981 Johnson recorded the album titled simply Swing Shift.

Along Came Artie

The Note arrived in 1980, and three years later, so did Artie Shaw himself. Shaw felt the time was right to reorganize the Artie Shaw Orchestra, and he chose Dick Johnson to lead it and play the clarinet solos. Shaw himself rehearsed the band, and when he deemed it ready, in early 1984, they  went on the road and took the jazz world by storm. There were successful appearances at the Boston Globe Jazz Festival and the Kool Jazz Festival in New York, an engagement at the Blue Note, and performances all across the country. The Johnson-led orchestra played dates in Canada, England, Germany, Spain, Sweden, China, and across the Caribbean. The Orchestra played at the inaugurals for Presidents Reagan (1984) and Bush (1988).

A high point for Johnson, the navy veteran, came on May 29, 2004 when the Artie Shaw Orchestra performed at the dedication ceremonies for the National World War II Memorial in Washington D.C.

Less than a year later, Johnson played “I’ll Be Seeing You” as an unaccompanied clarinet tribute to Shaw at Artie’s funeral. It was one of the most memorable moments of his career. Said Johnson, “I don’t need any more than that. I’ll take more, but I don’t need any more than that.”

Johnson still had one more Shaw tribute left in him, though. He always maintained that Artie was an essential link between swing and modern jazz. He could quote tunes, and clarinet passages within tunes, as well as the opinions of jazz scholars, as his proof. In 2006, he put that belief into action by organizing an orchestra to record an Artie Shaw tribute. The result was the CD, Star Dust & Beyond. Various veterans of the Shaw Orchestra participated, not the least of whom was Lou Colombo, who delivered a knockout solo on “Star Dust.” “This arrangement is different from his classic, but Artie and I had a long talk about what I’d like to do with the tune, with the voicing of the reeds, and he agreed to all of it.”

In a 2006 interview, Johnson said: “These are tunes I like, and that I know Artie would have liked. We didn’t want all Artie Shaw tunes. We were not going to do “Begin the Beguine” again, there’s plenty of that around already. I chose tunes that go beyond that, that are more modern, like “Waltz for Debby.” But that’s in keeping with Artie himself. In 1949, with his bop band, he was playing modern and getting booed for it. He never stood still, he kept moving forward. So one aspect of this tribute is thinking about where Artie would have gone if he would have kept going with the bebop band, or with the Gramercy Five from 1954. It wouldn’t have sounded like 1938. Maybe it would have sounded like this band.”

Even though the Shaw band became a focus of his professional activity, he remained active with Swing Shift, as a single, and in numerous small groups. It seems like there were performances or recording sessions with everyone active in New England jazz. A partial list includes Greg Abate, Donna Byrne, Barbara and Al Boudreau, Amanda Carr, George Masso, Herb Pomeroy, Ray Santisi, Mike Renzi, and Johnny Souza. Johnson was a regular at a long-running Monday-night session at the Roadhouse Cafe in Hyannis with Lou Colombo. In 2004, he self-produced and released a double CD, Artie’s Choice! and the Naturals, featuring Colombo, guitarist Gray Sargent, his son Gary on drums, and others.

Dick Johnson simply had to play. Nothing else could explain why a guy in his eighties would, on a Sunday night in the dead of winter, drive from his home in Brockton to New Hampshire to sit in for a couple sets at a Portsmouth bar.

Johnson led Shaw’s orchestra until health issues sidelined him in 2007, but thankfully his tribute was already recorded and released. Johnson was proud of Star Dust & Beyond, and rightfully so. It is a swinging contemporary big band recording, and a sterling blend of fine writing, arranging, and playing. It is a heartfelt tribute to the spirit of Artie Shaw. And it is the definitive statement on the life and art of Dick Johnson, a musician who never played on the ragged edge.

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All Dick Johnson quotes are from 2005 and 2006 interviews with the author.

Richard Vacca is the author of The Boston Jazz Chronicles: Faces, Places, and Nightlife 1937–1962 (Troy Street Publishing, 2012) and co-author of What, and Give Up Showbiz? (Backbeat Books, 2020). Reach him at rvacca at richardvacca.com or leave a message.