We are in the throes of the ever-rising temperatures of the Los Angeles summer swoon, when many jazz musicians (and wealthy jazz patrons) escape the heat by heading out of town for jazz festivals in exotic European locales such as Montreux, Umbria, Vienna, Copenhagen and Amsterdam. Yet those without a touring gig, passport or cash can still have a first-rate (albeit sweaty) festival experience right in our little hometown of 4 million people.
The two signature events of the summer are the (already concluded) Playboy Jazz Festival and the Central Aveune Jazz Festival, with the Angel City Jazz Festival looming in the fall. In between those behemoths are a number of ongoing outdoor series, including the excellent shows at Grand Performances in Downtown L.A., Friday nights at the L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art (LACMA), the JazzPOP series at the Hammer Museum in Westwood, and the Summer Jazz Nights at Hollywood and Highland.
The latter series is ensconced in perhaps the most popular tourist destination in California, the plaza outside the theater where movie stars receive Oscars, and just a few steps away from Grauman's Chinese Theater in the heart of Hollywood. Many current and future jazz stars have graced the outdoor stage, including latin jazz icons Pete Escovedo and Poncho Sanchez, organist Joey DeFrancesco, the late legendary pianist Cedar Walton, and a litany of impressive saxophonists, including Justo Almario, Bob Reynolds, and Kamasi Washington.
Washington has become one of the major stories of jazz in recent years, becoming the poster-man-child for Rolling Stone, Billboard, Pitchfork, and L.A. Weekly (which admits to, by one of their jazz writers, perhaps a little hometown bias in including the tenor saxophonist on their list of the greatest saxophonists of all time). All the good press has had a halo effect in highlighting the emerging youth movement in jazz here in Los Angeles, buoyed by the combination of burgeoning homegrown talent choosing to remain in the city rather than flee to New York, and the influx of outstanding players from New York, Boston, Chicago and elsewhere, looking to make their fortune and legacy in the Wild West.
One such émigré is Chicago native and alto saxophonist Josh Johnson, who moved to Los Angeles five years ago when he was selected to be one of seven musicians from around the world to join the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance, based at the Herb Alpert School of Music at UCLA. In his time with TMI, Johnson travelled the world, performing with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Billy Childs among others, and upon graduating from the Institute, he continued his rapid rise to the surface of the bubbling jazz scene in L.A., playing with Benny Maupin, Billy Childs, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, Mark DeClive-Lowe, and Jeff Parker. He is often on tour with trumpeter and fellow Chicagoan Marquis Hill, winner of the 2014 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition.
For a young man in a crowded field of hot young saxophonists, Josh Johnson is as cool as they come. He enters into many a solo with careful awareness, doling out beautifully crafted melodies in spacious, unpredictable portions. It’s enough to lull one into a false sense of secure reverie, unaware of the gradual, inexorable rise of intensity and heat until it’s too late, like a frog cooked to death in a slowly-heated pot of water. Johnson’s tremendous virtuosity always remains in servitude to the long arc of artistic justice. He makes you wait for it but it’s so worth it.
On Tuesday, Johnson graces the stage at Hollywood and Highland with his quartet, featuring pianist (and L.A.’s favorite son) Josh Nelson, Australian bassist Anna Butterss, and drummer Christian Euman, who like Johnson also hails from Chicago and is an alumni of the Thelonious Monk Institute.
Johnson was kind enough to answer a few questions, which he did with insight and thoughtfulness, very much in the manner by which he plays saxophone. Following is a transcript of the interview, lightly edited for clarity:
Gary Fukushima: Can you talk a little bit about your initial exposure to jazz, and how you ultimately got involved with the alto saxophone?
Johnson: I picked up the saxophone around age 10, and shortly after I remember asking my mom for some jazz recordings for Christmas. She and my dad got me a stack of about probably 6 or 7 CD’s, 5 of which I didn't really get into. One I did get into immediately was Lester Swings, a Verve compilation of a handful of Lester Young recordings. The other was the Monk compilation Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 1.
I was drawn to the beauty of Lester's sound and his seemingly quiet, clever but cool attitude. His playing felt as direct as someone singing or speaking to me, and that deepened my curiosity. Saxophone sound is so deeply personal, and the range of feeling that can be expressed along with the mystery and beauty drew me in. There's a quote I love from a repairman named Matt Stohrer, talking about how the sound of a saxophone is the sound a cone of air vibrating. "So the saxophone is not the sound—the saxophone is the thing we wrap around the sound. It is the interface we need—with our two hands, ten fingers, mouth, lungs—to interact with this cone of air. Our abilities and limitations define it…it is the relationship between ourselves and the laws of nature, made visible.”
L.A. Jazz:Who were/are your mentors in shaping your musical biography? How did they impact you?
Johnson: There are so many people who have been willing to share their stories, wisdom, and experience with me, whether I was ready for it at the time or not. David Baker taught me so much about persistence, searching, giving, being yourself in all things, and navigating the world as a young black man. My friend and kindred spirit Jeff Parker has been a mentor to me over the past 10 years. He has broadened my perspective, both musically and otherwise, and I've looked up to him since I first heard his music in the early 2000’s. There are so many records I wouldn't have heard if I hadn't been lead by JP's signature question, "Man, have you heard this record…?”. I got to spend time with Wayne Shorter when I moved to LA for grad school, an experience which was invaluable to me. Wayne taught me about the width of imagination, expressing the entire range of emotion in music, playing beyond the instrument, and living and playing with deep intention.
L.A. Jazz:How would you describe your approach to improvising?
Johnson: This is a really difficult question to answer. One idea that has been fascinating me over the past 3-4 years is fluidity. I've always been drawn to the freedom with which great musicians perform ballads. To me there's a sort of multidimensional beauty and fluidity, the play of heart and intellect happening all at once. I've been interested in figuring out how to get that feeling and freedom in every context.
L.A. Jazz:What are the projects you are involved with currently, and what are some things we can look forward to?
Johnson: There are many things coming up which I'm super excited about. Holophonor, a band I co-lead, has a new record called Light Magnet which will be out later this fall on Alpha Pup/Worldwide Galaxy. The record was produced by Wayne Shorter, and after a bit of a journey we're happy to have found a home for it. I'm heading to New York right after this performance to perform Miguel Atwood-Ferguson's Suite For Ma Dukes at Damrosch Park. (Tenor saxophonist) Daniel Rotem and I did a standards record that should be out later this year. I'll be heading to Japan with Jeff Parker & The New Breed in August, and to Europe with Marquis Hill Blacktet in October. Joshua White and Josh Nelson both have records coming out in the fall, both of which I was excited to play on. Last but not least, I'm working on a bunch of new music for a record to be recorded later this year.
There is talent and here is Talent. Once in a great while an artist appears seemingly out of nowhere, who wows audiences, record producers, promoters and such. The artist has to be special, with exceptional talent as a singer, dancer, musician, actor and whatever else the universe needs. One prime example of that is the late Michael Jackson, who had the makings of a star at a very young age. Shirley Temple was a movie fan favorite singing, dancing, acting and holding her own with seasoned professionals. Many of today’s pop stars got their start as child actors on TV sit-coms. The Walt Disney Company alone is responsible for nurturing the young careers of many present day stars.
Talent alone is not enough. Some talent is found on YouTube and with smart promotion someone like Justin Bieber can be discovered and nurtured along to a quite remarkable and productive career. Now social media is available to all and it’s an efficient way to interact with followers. To simplify-many famous people have started on social media and continue to do well.
And then there is talent that is so exceptional that it’s noticed early and nurtured steadily. Producer Quincy Jones produced Bear’s first CD, titled Diversity. So, young artists can perform, even as they continue their educational experiences. A fifteen-year old has a long way to go to finish a basic education, so it’s even more remarkable that someone like Emily Bear is accepting assignments at jazz clubs and festivals.
She’ll learn even more as she travels and interacts with talented musicians and singers around the globe. Jazz is an excellent introduction to “show business.” She stated, “Jazz has a groove that doesn’t show in any other kind of music and I enjoy using all my musical influences to create a unique sound, familiar yet new.”
I heard her brief set at Cal State University in the San Fernando Valley at a charity event. I was very surprised when told that she was just 15. Her talent is very bold, assured and she’s so comfortable on stage. Her future is going to be very exciting and productive. She’ll be able to collaborate with some of the best musicians around. Her education will be on-going. It will be interesting to follow her in the coming years. There’s every possibility that she’ll be a show stopper!
LA Jazz: How old were you when you first touched a piano and were interested in making music happen? Who encouraged you? Who said it was a good idea to study and develop your talent?
Emily Bear: I was about 18 months old when I first discovered the piano. We had a piano in the house and my older brother was taking piano lessons. I started composing music at around age 3 and have music published by Hal Leonard since I was four years old. When I was really young I was introduced to my first piano teacher and I started classical piano lessons formally just before I turned five years old. A few months later my mom showed me a book with jazz standards and I loved the style of the music. I have been musically bilingual ever since.
LA Jazz: Does anyone else in your family play an instrument? How much time do you spend practicing?
Bear:My sister plays the Harp and Piano and my brother played Tenor Saxophone in jazz band and he also plays piano. My Mom sings and studied Musical Theater at University of Michigan.
LA Jazz: How were you able to fit music and regular classes together plus other activities? You must be super organized ! What do you do to relax?
Bear: Balance has always been very important to me and to my family so it has been a priority to find time for practicing, performances, composing, schoolwork (4.0), and time with friends and family. I am very lucky that my school worked with my travel schedule. For example, today I went to school, took a chemistry final exam, came home, composed a score for a film documentary and then went jet-skiing with my brother before dinner. I love water sports and playing with my two dogs!
LA Jazz: Where will you be continuing your education? What else besides music will you be studying?
Bear: I am graduating from High School this month, two years early. I will be taking a gap year next year and will be performing in a 20 concert European tour in the fall. The following September I plan to attend Berklee School of Music in Boston, MA. Math and Science have been my favorite subjects.
LA Jazz: Can you describe your mindset as a musician? Did you feel happy, peaceful, determined to learn?
Bear: Determined, happy and passionate. I love making music, composing and playing and always have. I also love to learn and find the more I learn about music the more there is to learn. I don't think I will ever stop learning and growing as a musician. I also love collaborating with other musicians.
LA Jazz: You are very young to be planning your life ahead—but what represents a “good life” for you? Do you get nervous before you perform?
Bear: Being able to make music and make a living doing it is my ideal life. I do not get nervous before I perform - just excited. When I was little I used to do cartwheels before I went onstage.
LA Jazz: When and where did u meet Quincy Jones??
Bear: Someone who saw me perform told Quincy about me and Quincy reached out to meet me. We met for the first time in Los Angeles and connected right from the beginning. He really is an amazing musician and person and has taught me so much.
by Myrna Daniels
The title of singer or vocalist is one of the hardest jobs around. First of all a lot of singers are dependent on a accompanist. That’s usually a pianist but not always. Additional sidemen need to be hired. Rehearsals are a must. The material has to be chosen and must fit the occasion. It isn’t the easiest job by any means.
In the “olden” days some singers had jobs that lasted for months, by traveling with well known big bands and smaller groups. The traveling could be rough with long stretches of highway ( or train tracks) between gigs. Meals were on the fly, the time between jobs could feel endless. All these musicians and singers did it because they enjoyed many aspects of it, they made great friendships on the road and this is what they could do to make a living. All things considered it was a great way to make a living.
As a reviewer I am invited by singers to attend their shows. I go out as much as I can, but I do miss a lot because my job was to get a jazz newspaper done and delivered around the L.A. area. I coordinated all the details to get it right. Now the paper is gone and we are online only. My work is slightly easier, most of the time. So, how do I pick a performer’s invite?
It’s just chance. A lot of the time, if I happen to have the time to go and hear a singer on a particular date I go. Most of the time I am rewarded by hearing someone new to me, who is backed by fine musicians. Some reviews are easy to write and since I’m not a musician, I don’t get “technical.” Singers and musicians know that a show must have variety, new songs and arrangements, a new take on familiar material.
I didn’t know who Kiki Ebsen was but I had the time so I went to hear her at Catalina’s one evening. It was a terrific multi-media experience and Ebsen was at her best, singing, talking about her father, the actor Buddy Ebsen, complete with film clips of his early career.
It was a delightful evening and I certainly would be happy to see her perform again. I did learn that Ebsen has a rich background working with other musicians, traveling all over the country. On-the-road musicians and singers have to be good, more than just good. She’s worked with artists such as Al Jarreau (one of the greatest), James Ingram, Patti Austin, Peter Cetera and many others when they made appearances on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and The Late Show with David Letterman and so many others. She’s certainly paid her dues and then some.
On June 3, Ebsen will be part of a program at Pasadena City Hall, Centennial Square to celebrate Music Under the Stars with the Pasadena POPS at 7 pm. It is FREE.
Later in the month, June 17th Vitello’s E-Spot will present Kiki Ebsen’s Joni Mitchell Project with a quartet. See her ad elsewhere for details. Info/res (818) 769-0905 Highly recommended.
L.A. Jazz: When did you decide that you wanted to sing in public and make it a career for the future?
Kiki Ebsen: Probably in my late teens. I had been playing keyboards in bands for years but did not start singing until I was about 18 or 19, and even then, it was only background. A few years later when I started writing songs I naturally wanted to sing those songs in front of an audience.
L.A. Jazz: Did you begin with piano lessons? Not all singers can play the piano!
Ebsen: Yes, I started playing piano when I was about three. My grandmother, mother (and her sisters) played classical piano. I had been listening to all kinds of music as a child, and I enjoyed improvising my own melodies as well as learning pieces by ear. This would become a struggle as I entered the world of structured music. Because I developed an ear for music early, and could learn songs quickly without music, I really had a hard time even wanting to read notes. It took a long time for me to develop that skill, but in the end, I learned because my work depended on both abilities.
L.A. Jazz: What has been the most rewarding aspect of that decision? What are the harder parts of having a career?
Ebsen: The most rewarding aspect of playing piano is that I spent three decades playing keyboards and singing on tour, on TV and on record with some of the greatest artists of our time, including Chicago, Al Jarreau, Boz Scaggs, Tracy Chapman, Christopher Cross and Michael McDonald. I suppose the hardest part is the time it takes you away from everything else. I travelled the world many times over, which leaves little time for developing close relationships. Ultimately you end up finding your family in the end, I suppose, through all the people that you meet. It’s not a "normal" life by any means, but it is exciting and I wouldn't have traded it for anything else.
L.A. Jazz: Who helps you with all the details? (Because a lot of cooperation has to happen to make all these things in your career go on.)
Ebsen: I have the most incredible team of talented people and musicians that help keep me on track and realize the vision for my shows. Promoting, conceptualizing, branding and practicing are all a part of it. I am very hands-on and talk to my team daily.
L.A. Jazz: Your show is so charming and nostalgic as you talk about your father and his life. What are some of your most favorite moments together?
Ebsen: Thank you, this show is a joy to perform each time we present it! Thinking back to childhood, I loved it when Dad taught us all to sail when we were kids on Balboa Isle. Another early memory is when Dad took the time to teach me songs on the piano, and the first one I remember learning was "St. Louis Blues." After he came in from a long day of shooting, my mom would make him dinner and he never minded when I crawled up into the chair with him as he ate it. He'd always give me a bite of his steak and a swig of beer. In fact, a steak and a beer was what I wanted for my twelfth birthday, haha! There are so many memories of times spent together. Learning from him, early, things you might have to wait until you were older otherwise. We were doing target practice with his Colt 45 and driving dune buggies before we were ten years old.
L.A. Jazz: Did he encourage you to become a professional in some aspect of show business? How about your mom? How did she encourage you?
Ebsen: Both were very encouraging, however, dad wanted me to sing and play jazz, and my mother wanted me to do musical theatre and opera. I wanted to play rock and roll. That’s it! It was an issue (LOL). My dad would have us perform with him many times on stage singing, doing comedy, dancing, playing piano to his comedic routines.
My mother had a community children's theatre then later a rep theater. Naturally, my entire family was involved with every aspect of performing, from set painting to acting. It was somewhat required!
Clearly, the obvious move would to become an actor, but music seduced me. I just wanted to play in a band. When I got to college (Cal Arts) I tried out for the choir, and was quickly contacted by the Vocal Department, who told me that I was now majoring in Vocal Performance, and so I embarked on a classical voice degree. Ultimately, my first job out of college was on the road as a keyboardist and MIDI programmer for the Hall of Fame rock group "Chicago." In all of my time on and off the road, I’d also come to write and record six solo CDs. I stayed busy!
L.A. Jazz: You mentioned in your show that your Dad was fun to be with. What are some of those memories? I got the feeling that your Dad was around a lot. That would be unique because that doesn’t always happen in show business.
Ebsen: We had him around a lot, especially when I was a child. He would play guitar and sing us to sleep with his self-penned bedtime stories. Those were amazing! We'd sail together. We spent a lot of time on our ranch where we lived mostly off the grid, chopping wood for the fireplace, our only heat in the winter. We stayed busy taking care of the ranch and the animals, fending off rattlesnakes, coyotes and brush fires. We learned a simpler way of life even though Hollywood was just a short distance away. I am grateful for that upbringing, as it gives me such a feeling of gratitude and appreciation for my life.
L.A. Jazz: What do you do to relax at the end of the day?
Ebsen: I play my piano, hike with my dogs, ride my horses, do yoga and I love to cook for my friends.
L.A. Jazz: What advice would you give to the thousands of young men and women starting out who seek a career in “show business”?
Ebsen: This is the advice my dad gave us when we were young: "Know your lines and be on time." He also had this Calvin Coolidge quote perma-plaqued for each of us. I still have mine in my office:
"Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent."
I'd also add: Do it because you'd do it anyway. Chasing money or fame is an empty goal. Find a way for your art to enrich someone’s life. Then watch what happens!