The Troy Street Observer

A Dick Johnson Reprise

When I first started writing The Boston Jazz Chronicles, the clarinetist, saxophonist and bandleader Dick Johnson was one of the first jazz artists to take me under his wing. I knew very little about the history of Boston jazz when I embarked on that project, and I needed help. Johnson’s music is one of the reasons I became a jazz fan in the first place, and it was a pleasure to meet him. He was affable and down-to-earth as well as knowledgeable, and we talked often.

Photo of Dick Johnson in 1988
Dick Johnson, 1988. Photo by Richard Vacca

Dick Johnson died on January 10, 2010, and it’s become my custom to remember him around that date each year by listening to a few of his recordings. This year I pulled out his 1958 Riverside release, Most Likely; his self-produced and sadly out-of-print CD Artie’s Choice! from 2004; and my personal favorite, Swing Shift, released by Concord Jazz in 1981. This one is out of print, too. Shame on you, Concord.

Come to think of it, Dick Johnson recorded eight albums as a leader, and most are unavailable:

  • Music for Swinging Moderns, EmArcy MG 36081, recorded 1956
  • Most Likely, Riverside RLP 12-253, recorded 1957
    (These albums are available as Music for Swinging Moderns: Dick Johnson Quartet Sessions 1956-57, Fresh Sounds FSR CD 528.)
  • Dick Johnson Plays, Concord CJ-107, 1979
  • Spider’s Blues, Concord Jazz CJ-135, 1980
  • Swing Shift, Concord Jazz CJ-167, 1981
  • Broadway Openings, North Star Records NS0061, 1994
  • Artie’s Choice!, Self-produced, 2004
  • Star Dust & Beyond: A Tribute to Artie Shaw, Crazy Scot Records 20061, 2006 (might still be available on CD Baby)

While listening to the music, I updated my previous Dick Johnson posts: on Dick’s first album as a leader, Music for Swinging Moderns, and on his becoming leader and featured soloist in the reborn Artie Shaw Orchestra in 1983. And then I updated an article I first wrote in 2010, “Dick Johnson: Never on the Ragged Edge,” and added the link to the PDF to my library page.

Lastly, I added the opening track from Swing Shift to my YouTube channel. Here is a version of Clark Terry’s “Jones” that I guarantee will get you moving. This is Dick Johnson’s conception of the small big band at its best!

This version of the Swing Shift band was a hard-working joy to behold. It featured Dick and Jimmy Derba on the woodwinds, and Kenny Wenzel and Rick Hammett playing the brass. The rhythm section included pianist Paul Schmeling, bassist Paul Del Nero, and drummer Gary Johnson.

I should post the whole album on YouTube…




  1. Dick, Thanks for this new post on the great Dick Johnson. I have numerous happy memories of seeing over the years, from The Columns in West Dennis in 1971 to Long Beach in 2004, where he accepted the NEA Jazz Masters award for Artie Shaw. It was especially cool on that occasion to hear Dick’s Brockton accent booming throughout a huge auditorium as he acknowledged Artie as his early hero. The last time I saw Dick was in 2008 at a Colonial church northwest of the Quabbin in New Salem, Mass., where he picked up a cold clarinet and played the greatest “Memories of You” I’ve ever heard.

    • Fine memories, those. I’m planning a section in The Boston Jazz Chronicles Vol 2 that covers Johnson and McKenna, and it just keeps getting longer and longer… Thanks for taking the time to write. –RV

  2. During the early 1970s, I was in a church-sponsored marching band that changed over to a stage band. The music instructor, Al Tobias, was a friend of Dick’s, and had him come in and play for us, just to give us a demonstration of what improvising was all about. While we played simple blues changes, Dick took off on alto and stunned us. It was like a bomb had gone off in the room – they guy dazzled us. RIP

    • Dick always said the clarinet was his first love and his favorite ax… but he’d play that alto and he could just WAIL. “It was like a bomb had gone off.” Yeah, that’s about right. Thanks for being a reader and taking the time to write. –RV

  3. Yes! Please post the whole album on You Tube. I can’t find a copy of the recording anywhere. Thanks for the memories and this homage to a great musician. I did many society dance gigs, when a vocalist was added to the mix, with the Swing Shift and it was always a pleasure standing side by side with that 4 horn lineup! and in front of the swinging-est rhythm section–usually Gary Johnson, Paul DelNero and Paul Schmelling.

    • Hello Ruthie, thanks for the good words and I’ll get to work on the YouTube uploads. I’d be very happy to trade a copy of this album for some Rompa Stompa music of the same vintage! Thanks for stopping by. -RV

          • OK. Let me look for them. I threw out most of my audio cassette tapes last year, but I think I saved the Rompa Stompa tapes. How are you familiar with Rompa Stompa? Not a name that comes up very often!!!

          • Somewhere in my research for Boston Jazz Chronicles Vol 2 (there will be one), I learned about your old band. I might have even heard it, at Ryles maybe, in about 1981. And it would be great if you still had a tape. Meanwhile, a reader of this blog has loaned me a different cassette, “Ruthie Ristich Plus 3 and 4,” with a half-dozen tunes. No date on it. I’ll listen to that one soon, so stay tuned! –RV

    • Hello Jimmy, I’m not sure about Mugsy, but I do get the part about Brockton, Dick’s life-long home. In fact, Brockton declared “Dick Johnson Day” twice — on Sep 6, 1984 and May 1, 1999. I think the city should make it a permanent, and use it as a day to play music all over town. –RV

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