The Troy Street Observer

Another Dick Johnson Riff

Photo of Hal Galper in 1982
Hal Galper in 1982

A number of readers commented on my Dick Johnson Reprise post from a few weeks back, and I’m happy to see that level of enduring interest in Dick and his music. I received some of the comments via email. One of those emailers, Hal Galper, worked with Dick in the early 1960s in his Boston days. I believe they served together in Herb Pomeroy’s big band then. Wrote Hal, “I worked many a gig with Dick—always a sweetheart,” and he included one of his favorite memories of Dick Johnson on the job:

One gig was in a Boston club we all thought was run by the mob, don’t remember which one. We’re playing a tune and this expensively dressed gal comes up to the bandstand. “Guido wants to hear Moonlight In Vermont,” she says in a Chelsea accent, and walks away. Dick ignores her completely, continues to solo uninterrupted. About ten minutes later she returns. “Guido wants to hear Moonlight In Vermont,” she says, adding a little more emphasis to the request, and walks away again. Dick ignores her and keeps on playing. About ten minutes later, we’re playing another tune and this big, ugly, pock-marked, cauliflower-eared guy in a $500 silk suit lumbers up to the bandstand. In a rough, mean-toned, gravely voice he says, “Guido wants to hear Moonlight In Vermont,” and stands there staring at us. Dick takes an instantaneous segue: Moonlight in Vermont!

By the way, that guy was not Guido. We never did see him.

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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:

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Mar 16, 1984: The New Artie Shaw Orchestra

Photo of Dick Johnson and Artie Shaw
Dick Johnson and Artie Shaw, 1984. Photo Donna Paul.

Opening night of the 13th Boston Globe Jazz Festival featured the return of one of the most newsworthy figures in the music’s history. The new Artie Shaw Orchestra, under the direction of Dick Johnson, made its Boston debut at the Imperial Ballroom of the Park Plaza Hotel. About 1,500 dancers, nostalgists, and the just plain curious turned out for it.

Shaw himself was on a Boston bandstand for the first time since 1953 to emcee and conduct while Johnson played his parts on “’S Wonderful,” “Back Bay Shuffle,” “Stardust,” and more. “We recorded “Stardust” in one take,” said Shaw. “I’d like to see Fleetwood Mac match that.” The crowd loved it.

Artie Shaw—articulate, opinionated, controversial—was back in the news.

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July 11: Remembering Jimmy Derba

Photo of Jimmy Derba
Jimmy Derba, 1963. Photo Salem State Archives.

Jimmy Derba is one of those musicians who is often overlooked. Not a big name, but a talented musician whose career was sadly cut short. He was best known as a baritone saxophonist, but he played all the saxes, clarinet, and flute. He was born in Everett, Mass. on June 26, 1935 and died on this day in 1981.

Like many other musicians, Jimmy Derba had a day job. His was as an engineer, with the Boston Redevelopment Authority and later with the Massachusetts Port Authority. But jazz was his passion.

Derba studied at Berklee and took private lessons with Tony Viola, and was a member of Herb Pomeroy’s backup band (the one Phil Wilson calls “the B-Band”) in 1954-55. In 1959 he replaced Jimmy Mosher on baritone in the Pomeroy Orchestra (Mosher moved to alto), and remained when Pomeroy downsized in 1960. He also played with Varty Haroutunian’s Octet, the Wednesday night band at the Stable. He sat next to Dick Johnson in both Herb’s and Varty’s bands.
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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.

Music for Swinging Moderns Cover
Music for Swinging Moderns, 1956

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.

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Ain’t Misbehavin’ Comes to Boston

Ain’t Misbehavin,’ the revue based on the music of Fats Waller, opened at the Wilbur Theatre on February 28, 1979. Ain’t Misbehavin’ ran for over 1,600 performances on Broadway, winning the Tony award for Best Musical in 1978. Within weeks of its closing, the touring company, with Yvette Freeman leading the cast, set off to its first stop in Boston. The show included more than 25 tunes Waller wrote or played, including “The Jitterbug Waltz,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” “The Joint Is Jumpin’,” and “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now.”

Ain't Misbehavin' Poster
1979 Ain’t Misbehavin’ Poster

There was a fine local band on hand to play Wallers music:  trumpeter Herb Pomeroy, Andy McGhee and Dick Johnson on reeds, trombonist Kenny Wenzel, bassist John Neves, and drummer Rudy Collins. The show’s pianist and musical director was J. Leonard Oxley.

Waller was a frequent visitor to Boston, at nightclubs of the late thirties and early forties like the Tic Toc and Southland. He also starred in stage shows at the RKO-Boston that were the inspiration for Ain’t Misbehavin,’ such as the Connie’s Inn Revue and the Hot From Harlem Revue, both from 1936. It was during the run of the latter show that Waller made the momentous appearance at the Theatrical Club that I described in The Boston Jazz Chronicles.

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Jan 10, 2010: Remembering Dick Johnson

Star Dust & Beyond

On January 10, 2010, reedman and bandleader Dick Johnson, favorite son of Brockton, Mass., died at age 84. Although his band Swing Shift was immensely popular locally, Johnson was best known to the national audience as the clarinetist picked by Artie Shaw to lead his revived orchestra in 1983. Said Shaw of Johnson’s clarinet playing in 1980: “He’s the best I’ve ever heard. Bar nobody. And you can quote me on that, anywhere, anytime!”

Dick Johnson spent six years on the road with Charlie Spivak and Buddy Morrow; enjoyed lengthy musical associations with fellow New Englanders Lou Colombo, Herb Pomeroy, and Dave McKenna; and released recordings on Emarcy, Riverside, and Concord. His final recording was Star Dust and Beyond: A Tribute to Artie Shaw, in 2006. Not once, but twice, his hometown of Brockton declared “Dick Johnson Day” in his honor, on September 6, 1984 and May 1, 1999.

It’s good to remember Dick Johnson was much more than a Shaw acolyte. Wilder Hobson reviewed Johnson’s Riverside recording Most Likely in Saturday Review in 1958, on which a grittier Johnson played only alto. The others in his quartet were Dave McKenna, Wilbur Ware, and Philly Joe Jones. Wrote Hobson: “Johnson, who like all modern altos has listened to Charlie Parker, and who is especially fond of Lee Konitz, plays himself with irresistible verve and invention; he composes intricately jaunty tunes; and his rapport with the other three players is perfection. A good deal of the briskness of a New England October has gotten into this music, but Johnson can also suggest the summer shore.”

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