“You'd go downstairs, and there was Billy Bang, and Dewey Johnson, and Earl Freeman, and some interesting characters who you will never hear about in the history books, characters that have never been recorded, and a lot of street musicians” – William Parker
Dewey Johnson, a trumpeter who contributed to the early history of avant garde jazz in the 1960s and remained part of the New York jazz underground until the 1980s, died on 26 June. He was 78 years old. Johnson's death was confirmed by his niece, Tanya C Anderson.
In a July 1965 interview in Melody Maker, John Coltrane said, “I think the Jazz Composers’ Guild are doing good things. I admire Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Dewey Johnson, Pharoah Sanders and John Tchicai.” Of the musicians named by Coltrane, all but Johnson have since become household names to followers of avant garde jazz. Almost one month earlier, Johnson had taken part in one of the few recording sessions on which his playing can be heard, Coltrane’s pivotal Ascension. On both takes, he took the second solo immediately after Coltrane.
Dewey Bernard Johnson was born on 6 November 1939 in Philadelphia, one of seven children of Frank Johnson and Viola (Ward) Johnson.
He dropped out of North East High School to play with his brother, bassist Sonny Johnson, and to take lessons at the Granoff School of Music. His influences were then dominant 1950s trumpeters Miles Davis and Clifford Brown. From 1960–63, Johnson spent time on the West Coast, where he first joined his older brother Fred in Los Angeles. “One day, while walking downtown,” alto saxophonist Noah Howard wrote in his autobiography, “I heard a trumpet playing and found out it was Dewey Johnson, a trumpet player from Philly. He had a beautiful unique sound all of his own... Dewey and I started talking and I asked him to give me lessons. He agreed and so began a significant relationship for many years. Dewey was responsible for my real and full entry in the jazz world.”
Johnson moved to San Francisco, then an important laboratory for jazz avant gardists. He lived at a musicians’ commune in the Haight-Ashbury district where he put together a band with saxophonist Byron Allen. The Buena Vista Park-facing house was a meeting place for musicians influenced by Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, and the likes Sonny Simmons and Jimmy Garrison visited when in town.
In 1963, Johnson moved to New York, where he started a band with saxophonist Giuseppi Logan, bassist Reggie Johnson and drummer Rashied Ali. For his part, Howard continued his relationship with his teacher, sending him tapes of his practice sessions until Johnson asked him to come to New York to join his group. Meanwhile, Johnson himself would sit in on Coltrane’s club gigs – the latter always being open to younger musicians participating. Johnson seized the opportunity repeatedly at the Half Note, leading to the invitation to record on Ascension.
In 1964, Johnson appeared with pianist Paul Bley’s group as part of trumpeter Bill Dixon’s programming at The Cellar coffee shop. Bley and Johnson also performed – with Sun Ra Arkestra saxophonist Marshall Allen, bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Milford Graves – at the historic October Revolution in Jazz festival, which preceded the creation of the Jazz Composers' Guild.
Bley was the conduit for Johnson’s first appearance on record. Shortly after the festival, a session featuring an identical group was taped and released as Barrage by Bernard Stollman’s ESP-Disk' label in September 1965, one of its second batch of releases.
Johnson played with Pharoah Sanders and Rashied Ali, before they joined Coltrane’s band. Other fragmentary traces of the period’s under the radar musical activity also place him with Noah Howard, Argentinian saxophonist Gato Barbieri and bassist Steve Tintweiss.
After Coltrane's death in 1967, Johnson suffered a nervous breakdown and was admitted to a state hospital. In an unpublished 1998 interview with Fred Cohen, the trumpeter said he frequented the loft scene, Slugs’ in the Far East, and a bar close to Slugs’ which hosted music on weekends. Thereafter he disappeared from the jazz scene for awhile. “But the music lived on in me,” Johnson told Cohen.
In 1973, the trumpeter joined The Music Ensemble, which performed entirely improvised music in sessions of intense length. “I met Dewey through a young trumpet player and member of The Music Ensemble, Malik Baraka,” recalled drummer Roger Baird in an email. “Malik discovered Dewey in a homeless situation and brought him over to my apartment. We helped Dewey get cleaned up and Malik found him a horn. From that point on Dewey played with us on a regular basis for probably a year, maybe more.”
Besides Johnson, core members of The Music Ensemble included Baird and Baraka, saxophonist Daniel Carter, violinist Billy Bang, and bassists William Parker and Earl Freeman. Although Johnson’s not featured on The Music Ensemble tapes released by the Roaratorio label, Baird confirms that they constitute a good reflection of the music he made with the group.
“Dewey and I would often play duets,” adds Baird. “He had invented his own alphabet which he would write down and recite from time to time. Dewey was out there, he inhabited a world of his own and music was one of the connective expressions he had. Talking with Dewey was an exercise in interpretation and reading between the lines. His observations could be very acute, though. Dewey was a humble, honest and angelic presence. He was a unique character and I treasure the time I got to play with him.”
Quoted in Scott Currie’s dissertation on the New York avant garde, William Parker recalls, “You'd stay down at the Studio Rivbea until about one or two, then you'd head over to The Basement.” The space was located under the Village art house cinema, the Waverly Theatre, a deep underground spot that has escaped most histories of the era. “You'd go downstairs, and there was Billy Bang, and Dewey Johnson, and Earl Freeman, and some interesting characters who you will never hear about in the history books, characters that have never been recorded, and a lot of street musicians.”
Daniel Carter, in a 1997 interview with Improjazz, credited Johnson for his influence on the entirely improvised approach of The Music Ensemble, adding “if anybody is an important trumpet player, I think he really was, and that a lot of people didn't get a chance to hear that”. For Carter, Johnson fitted into the lineage of trumpet greats such as Don Cherry, Don Ayler and, in more recent decades, Roy Campbell.
“He was very economical in many ways,” Carter adds in an email, “as well as in his musical expression, he went directly ‘to what he had to say’, then immediately stopped playing. Dewey was, Dewey is, an original, in every way. One time, he told me that forgetting to bring the written music to a rehearsal or performance should not in the least stop a musician from playing, from musically expressing himself, powerfully. He encouraged me, by example, to play spontaneously, to continue on that very challenging and rewarding path.”
In 1977, Johnson told Cohen, he took up a “day gig”, first working in the mailroom of a bank and later at a warehouse. The next year, while working as a doorman at Ali’s Alley, a club run by Rashied Ali, Johnson met drummer Paul F Murphy and pianist Mary Anne Driscoll. They formed a trio which rehearsed at Studio We and played the loft scene, by then in its last stages. An album recorded at Ali's Alley remains unreleased.
Murphy's group later expanded to include Cecil Taylor's closest collaborator, saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, and bassoonist Karen Borca. They recorded Cloudburst in 1983, an album self-released by the leader on his Mad Murphy label. Then working full-time as a maintenance employee at a factory, Johnson was also active in a group with Daniel Carter and William Parker, which recorded a demo tape, and appeared with Parker's Centering Big Band.
Upon his return to New York following the funeral of his mother in 1984, Johnson had an accident for which he obtained a modest settlement, but he later became homeless again and lived at the Coler Specialty Hospital & Nursing Facility on Roosevelt Island.
In 2003, an unreleased 1982 Paul Murphy session featuring the Cloudburst band was issued by Cadence Jazz Records in its Historical Series, under the title Red Snapper: Paul Murphy At CBS.
“Dewey Bernard Johnson was a beautiful, loving and caring human being,” Murphy said in an email. “He was a master of music and the trumpet, which he played with all-encompassing strength, power and beauty. I had the privilege and honour of playing with Dewey for many years in New York City. I also had the great honour of recording with him. We saw each other on a daily basis and I miss him with all my heart, spirit and soul.”
Dewey Johnson is survived by his sister Eloise Anderson (née Johnson) and her children Tanya, Mark and Zena, as well as brothers-in-law Elmo ‘Tony’ Johnson and Levi Anderson.
Rehearsal for Red Snapper, 1982, featuring Jimmy Lyons on alto sax, Paul Murphy on percussion, Mary Anne Driscoll on piano and vocals, Karen Borca on Bassoon, and Dewey Johnson on trumpet