Music for Swinging Moderns
Long before Swing Shift established him as a bandleader, and long before his clarinet skills were displayed in the revived Artie Shaw Orchestra, Dick Johnson was known for his work on alto sax. He told the world about it on March 27, 1956, when he recorded Music for Swinging Moderns for Emarcy Records.
After his wartime service in the U.S. Navy, Johnson attended the New England Conservatory for two years, and in the late 1940s leavened his swing sensibilities with a healthy helping of Bird’s bop, even playing with Charlie Parker himself in Fall River.
Johnson was 27 when Charlie Spivak offered him a job in his big band’s saxophone section in 1952, and Johnson traveled with the Spivak orchestra until 1954. Then he moved up a rung on the band ladder, joining the orchestra of trombonist Buddy Morrow.
Morrow had a good band in the mid-1950s, one that blended jazz and dance music in a combination that made them quite popular on the college circuit. Trumpeter Walt Stuart handled much of the arranging, Scott LaFaro played bass, and Dave McKenna played piano for a time. The band recorded some well-regarded records on Mercury, including Buddy Morrow and His Golden Trombone, and the big seller, Night Train. Morrow featured Johnson’s alto work prominently on both.
In 1956, Morrow arranged for Johnson to record under his own name for Mercury, and the result was Music for Swinging Moderns, released on the Emarcy label (MG36081). The quartet date was recorded in Chicago, with Johnson using Morrow’s drummer, Bob McKee, and Chicagoans Bill Havemann on piano and Dave Poskonka on bass.
Leonard Feather reviewed Music for Swinging Moderns in Down Beat (June 27, 1957), calling Johnson “a significant new talent.” He gave the record a four-star review. “Johnson, of the Buddy Morrow Orchestra, is a most interesting anomaly. He is apt to plunge from Parker-like cascades of 16th notes into swing-era orgies of triplets. On Someone and Alabama (“Like Someone in Love” and “Stars Fell on Alabama”), his high notes particularly recall Desmond, while on Belle (“The Belle of the Ball”) he almost suggests a modern Jimmy Dorsey. Undoubtedly he will be able to distill all this into a personal style. He already has the most important prerequisites—tone, technique, and harmonic intelligence.”
Feather called it. Johnson did distill his sound into a personal style, and Most Likely, his followup LP for Riverside in 1957, showed it.
Here’s Johnson’s quartet with the Rodgers and Hart standard, “The Lady Is a Tramp,” from Music for Swinging Moderns.