By Sabina L. Lilly
Pianist, educator, and composer Richard Johnson has been playing all over town since moving to Chicago around 2017. Prior to that, the Pittsburgh native spent time in Boston, New York City, and elsewhere—honing his skills while playing with local, national, and international jazz acts.
Later this month, Richard will be playing a solo set at the 2019 Hyde Park Jazz Festival. What a perfect time to ask him about the performance and much more!
CJM: Talk about your early exposure to music growing up in Pittsburgh. Is your family musical?
I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and moved two weeks later to Youngstown, Ohio. I lived there for nine years with both of my parents and two younger siblings. My father plays piano and organ in the church and my mother can sing. My grandmother on my father’s side also sang. I am also related to Eubie Blake the pianist. My grandmother and Eubie were cousins and both lived to 101 years in Baltimore, Maryland.
CJM: How did you end up playing piano—and do you or have you played other instruments?
My father plays piano and organ so he was my first teacher. I used to and still do play in church on Sundays when I am not on tour. I used to play trumpet and valve trombone in middle school.
CJM: Was there a specific recording, performance, or moment that first ignited your interest in jazz?
Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis Plays the Music of Duke Ellington is what inspired me to get serious.
CJM: Can you tell us about your significant teachers or mentors while growing up?
My middle school and high school band director, Mr. Bill Perbetsky, was very influential. He played trumpet and loved jazz and still performs in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I remember being in jazz band in 10th grade and having him talk about Miles Davis and several other legends and really enforcing that we listen to the recordings.
Then in 11th grade we moved to Topsfield, Massachusetts, and my new band director happened to play jazz trumpet as well and loved Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson, Lee Morgan, etc. He had all the original vinyl recordings in school in the office. I would go there and listen to whatever I wanted and could take it home. My chorus teacher happened to be a jazz pianist and could really play and loved Oscar Peterson. He heard me playing some gospel music and thought it was jazz and asked if I wanted to start taking some lessons. I was like, sure if it’s free. So imagine this: I’m in 11th grade getting all this free instruction from guys who loved the music.
CJM: Through the years you have performed worldwide with numerous groups and artists in various settings, including Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, the U.S. State Department’s Jazz Ambassadors, Russell Malone, Bobby Watson, Arturo Sandoval . . . the list goes on. Can you talk about one or two artists, as well as a specific experience, that have helped define your playing?
The most important is my father, Richard N. Johnson. He grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, and attended Peabody Prep Conservatory. He plays organ and piano in the church. He was always serious about gospel music even though it wasn’t his main source of income. Seeing his dedication meant everything. He would practice at 2 a.m. in the morning to get something right. As kids we just slept though it nightly. Then, after the service or concert [he would] come home and practice it even more.
In college I had the opportunity to meet Mulgrew Miller. I would pick him up whenever he would come to Boston, and he would come over and practice at my place for hours. I could watch, listen, and ask anything I wanted. He was a great mentor and human being. He enforced studying the masters but [to] then add your point of view to the conversation.
CJM: In addition to a busy performing schedule, you are a full-time professor at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, Maryland, and the piano instructor for Ravinia’s jazz program in the Chicago area. Did you set out to be an educator, or how did that come about?
I always wanted to educate because that’s how I learned to play. I wasn’t sure when it would happen but it took on a more prominent role in the past six years. I’ve always had open rehearsals and sessions at my home since I was seventeen and thought it was great for the music and me to be as serious as possible—also to aid the spread of the music. I had several teachers who never charged me a dime but they said you must be serious so I in turn have done the same.
CJM: Can you elaborate, in a sentence or so, on the following “fun facts”? You ran around the world in support of Blue Planet Foundation, you are a certified tour agent who works with high school students, and—back to music—you are a founding member of Johnson Works LLC, a management placement service for musicians.
I’m into running, music, and traveling and I have found a way to combine these three things and have them all work together at the same time while making a living. Everything I do is aimed at making a better world and I want to do it while swinging.
CJM: Your latest release is a joint project with vocalist Gregory Generet entitled 2 of a Kind. How did that recording come about, and what was your process for writing and arranging the six originals on the recording?
Gregory and I spent a lot of time in Doha, Qatar, performing at the St. Regis hotel. It was a great place to perform and spread the word of jazz. While spending four years there we did all kinds of music—not just jazz—and I decided when I returned back to the states in 2017 to write some music for him and release it.
CJM: You’ll be performing solo piano at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival on Saturday, September 28. Do you have a specific repertoire you draw on for solo piano gigs that is separate from a trio gig, for example—or what can we expect to hear?
I will probably focus on the classics from Broadway as well as throwing in some originals. I am a big fan of music between 1920 through the 1950s. I have even written a Broadway play of music called The City of Lakes, which was performed several years ago.
CJM: Besides Hyde Park Jazz Fest, what other gigs, projects, and/or recordings are on your horizon?
In the near future:
1. I am headed to Baltimore to perform with [drummer] Carl Allen.
2. Kentucky with [trombonist] Delfeayo Marsalis.
3. Winter’s Jazz Club here in Chicago, Nov 29, with my David Brubeck project.
4. I am headed to Shanghai, China, with my quintet to perform for three weeks in 2020. I’m everywhere but nowhere.
Chicago Jazz Magazine content manager (and sometime-contributor) Sabina L. Lilly has been a professional musician for over three decades. Contact Sabina at firstname.lastname@example.org.