Mar 5, 1974: A Memorial Concert for Lennie Johnson
“Nobody in the capacity house at John Hancock Hall could see him, of course, but you can wager your paycheck that Lennie Johnson was sitting in last night for that all-star gig they threw in his memory.”
So began Ernie Santosuosso’s review in the Boston Globe on March 6, 1974, the morning after the concert.
Johnson had been an instructor at Berklee for about five years at the time of his death in October 1973, and Berklee sponsored the concert, the biggest of the 1973-74 school year, and colleagues galore turned out to participate. Berklee had no large hall of its own (the Berklee Performance Center did not open until 1976), so whenever the school needed an auditorium, it rented the 1,100-seat John Hancock Hall.
Trumpeter Lennie Johnson was at his playing peak in the late fifties and early sixties, but even then he was well known in the business and little known outside of it—the proverbial “musicians’ musician.” He’s another one who never got his 15 minutes of fame.
Johnson was born in Boston on October 2, 1923, and died there on October 7, 1973, barely 50 years old. We first hear of him in the early forties, as one of Tasker Crosson’s youngsters. He also formed group with altoist Tom Kennedy in 1942. He entered the army in April 1943, but I don’t know where he served or if he played in an army band. After his discharge, Johnson returned to Boston.
Johnson was with Jimmie Martin’s orchestra in 1948-49. Hi Lockhart, who played beside him in that band, said Lennie was “the high-note man, the power in the section.” Those same years, he worked with Jimmy Tyler at Wally’s Paradise (more on Tyler here) and they were a good match: rooted in swing, experimenting in bop, working out their own modern approaches. When Sabby Lewis reorganized his band in January 1950, Johnson was part of it, and he was with Lewis on and off through 1953.
July 31, 1949: Jimmie Martin Orchestra at the Rio Casino
I dedicated a chapter of The Boston Jazz Chronicles to Boston’s two late 1940s big bands, the “white contingent” of Nat Pierce (in the blog on July 5 and July 16) and the “black contingent” of Jimmie Martin.
The bands had much in common—passionate and talented musicians, skilled arrangers, and a decidedly modern outlook. Unfortunately, they also shared a mostly empty schedule, and if the Pierce band only worked a little, the Martin band worked a little less. In what little mention the Martin band merits in the jazz literature, it is often called a rehearsal band.
Some members of Martin’s orchestra became household names, at least in jazz households—Jaki Byard, Joe Gordon, Gigi Gryce, Lennie Johnson, Sam Rivers. Some, while not household names, were quite influential. Trombonist and arranger Hampton Reese was B.B. King’s music director for almost 25 years in the 1950s-1970s, and trumpeter Gil Askey, who had the same role with Diana Ross, was one of the founding fathers of the Motown Sound. Still others were active sidemen on the national scene (Jack Jeffers, Clarence Johnston), or doubled as performers and educators (Andy McGhee, Floogie Williams). (more…)