Neither drummer Kevin Johnson nor flutist Oliver Nelson Jr. followed the career path of their fathers - trombonist J.J. Johnson and saxophonist Oliver Nelson, respectively - by becoming full-time jazz musicians. But they haven't strayed too far from the family business, and retain their passion for jazz by performing part-time. For this month's Jazz Notes, I'll talk with Johnson and Nelson about what it's like to live under the shadow of such influential musicians.
NUVO: How much of an influence did your dad have on you playing music?
Kevin Johnson: I can't overestimate the amount of influence Dad had on me. Dad had quite a few of the guys at our home in Teaneck, N.J., over for rehearsal. During that period, we are talking about Bird, Diz, Miles and Monk who were taking the music to the next level. I heard these guys rehearse for gigs and that's when I first got the bug.
Oliver Nelson Jr.: When I was a kid, Dad was my idol. I always emulated him,. listening to jazz at 5 or 6 years old. He was a big influence.
NUVO: What age were you when you became interested in playing jazz?
Johnson: I guess my earliest recollection would be around the age of 5 or 6.
Nelson: I started to play when I was 8 or 9 years old, when I was in elementary school. And in high school I started playing in different groups.
NUVO: Did you ever want to play the same instrument as your dad?
Johnson: I never wanted to play trombone. I looked at it at that age as a kind of unwieldy instrument. I thought of it as a corny instrument at that age. It's one of the most difficult instruments to play, particularly in the jazz idiom. The trumpet was the first instrument I had, but the drums kept calling me. The first drummer that influenced me to play drums was "Tootie" Heath. He was playing in Dad's band at the time with Freddie Hubbard and Clifford Jordan as the horn frontline. "Tootie" was very kind to me; he let me sit next to him and would give me sticks. I could feel, smell, touch and taste the drums, up close and personal. That really caught me and drew me in something fierce.
Nelson: Dad was a major influence, but Hubert Laws was probably one of the biggest ones. I played saxophone for a long time and stopped once I heard Hubert Laws' Afro-Classic
album. My dad gave me a flute. I went into a closet for two days trying to find out how to blow the thing. When we were in California I met Hubert Laws and asked him to try out my flute, he said, 'That's a nice flute.' That kind of changed everything for me.
NUVO: Were there high expectations and pressure on you as the sons of famous jazz artists?
Johnson: Absolutely, I think any son of someone like a J.J. Johnson or Sonny Rollins feels it. There are a lot of guys that have sons that went into music and gave it up. I did for a while when I was at engineering school but I gravitated back. How could you not be intimidated by that level of excellence? It could be incredibly intimidating. Not playing the same instrument relieved a little bit of the pressure.
Nelson: There was; they put pressure on me because my day job was a business job. You have got to find a niche. There's a saxophone player on every corner and some good ones. Nobody plays the flute like I do around here.
Kevin Johnson plays in the Joe Deal Trio Thursdays at Sullivan's Steak House. Oliver Nelson Jr. plays occasional gigs at the Chatterbox with his group. Both of them would like to play more jazz.
Indy Jazz Fest in transition
The American Pianists Association announced Feb. 17 that it is transferring ownership of the Indy Jazz Fest to a new corporation, Indy Jazz Fest, LLC, led by Owl Studios owner J. Allan Hall, Jazz Kitchen owner David Allee and Owl Studios A&R executive Rob Dixon. Outdoor concerts for this year's fest will be held at White River State Park (that's a move from Military Park). Performers and exact dates have not yet been announced. According to a press released issued Feb. 23 by Indy Jazz Fest LLC, the Fest is tentatively scheduled for late June 2009, and will become a week-long event with concerts at clubs, concert halls and outdoor stages.
An era came to an end with the passing of saxophonist David Young. Young was the only remaining saxophonist from a group of jazz musicians who graduated from Crispus Attucks High School and played on Indiana Avenue.