Meet the Makers – The Colors of Jazz with Bonnie Johnson
This past Sunday, I went to visit my friend, Bonnie Johnson, at the studio of WICN 90.5FM, where she hosts the show The Color of Jazz. They had a special program titled Woman of the Jazz Age: Weaving Their Story through Contemporary Voices: a program that Bonnie explores pioneer women of the Jazz Age and the continuum of women’s voices in celebration of Women’s History Month. The program had a goal to “weave women’s stories – individually and collectively – into the essential fabric our nation’s history”.
Bonnie Johnson is a friend, a friend to many others, and not just limited to music. On air, Bonnie knows the precise path to flow through interviews. The way Bonnie pronounces her beloved city Worcester as “Wocestah”, makes one feel at ease. It’s always delightful to see Bonnie, no matter how long the time gap might have been – you will just pick where you had left off with Bonnie right then, like old friends. You definitely want to invite Bonnie to your concerts, she knows the art of call and response -she voices out from her heart and sways with the tempos. We sat next to each other at Scullers for one of Betty Buckley’s gigs; music is always better with Bonnie.
Jazz and contemporary vocalists Joan Watson Jones and Nedelka Prescod performed in the live broadcast from the WICN Performance Studio. Joan Watson-Jones and pianist Frank Wilkins had the first set and followed by Nedelka Prescod with guitarist Michele Beneforti. Here is an interview with Bonnie and followed by personal reflections after the show from Joan, Nedelka and Michele.
Bonnie, please tell us a little about you. What was it like growing up in Worcester?
Growing up in Worcester was rich in arts & culture. My mother played a tremendous role as a leader in the community over the years. Her appreciation of not only the arts, but people and music had a huge impact on my life. At age seven, I was enrolled in the choir at All Saints, the same church where she grew up. Coming up, I went to choir camp every summer, traveled with the group throughout the United States and from Worcester, MA to Worcester, England where we toured the United Kingdom. During that trip, I think I learned all of the words to songs from the Beatles catalog. My understanding of theory and appreciation of the legacy of music was reinforced by church and school activities; playing the bass drum in middle school, later attending the Royal School of Church Music at National Cathedral in Washington, DC and singing in the Worcester Concert Choir. My tenure singing liturgical music in the Anglican tradition continued through high school and later into my adulthood, when for a short time, I sang again and managed the same church choir.
I remember hearing music from my mother’s collection like it was yesterday. Her LP’s included an array of artists, from Sergio Mendes to Mandrill, Stanley Turrentine, Miriam Makeba, Burt Bacharach, Roberta Flack, The Temptations and Isley Brothers to name a few. She had an eclectic ear and loved Broadway sound tracks. We cleaned the house on Saturdays with the music of “Jesus Christ Superstar” playing in the background. Every year, as spring approached, mom would be singing Handel’s “Messiah” around the house, encouraging us to learn it and reminiscing on her experiences singing with the Worcester Chorus. It was always a point of great humor for me. The first Broadway musical my mother took us to see was “Ain’t Misbehavin’”. I think it was the touring show at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston. Back then I had no idea the significance of Fats Waller, but became familiar with his music.
As a teenager, I had summer jobs, working for Neighborhood Youth Corps. My sister and I began collecting 12 inch singles and eventually bought DJ equipment. I aspired to be a mix-master and began recording R&B and hip hop music with a passion. I even won a couple of contests in the community. Nobody ever encouraged a career in communications or hosting radio. When I went through high school, long before STEM became a concept, I found myself on the fast-track with math & science and ultimately enrolled in the School of Engineering at Howard University.
I know you have mentioned Jazz had “found” you, can you explain that? When did you become of radio host?
When I say “jazz found me”, it is mainly because while I was acutely aware of Black American Music, my interest in jazz truly sprang to life when I discovered WICN as a listener. I always loved ballads and slow jams and jazz reminded me of that music. Little did I know I would become so deeply involved with the station and actually presenting jazz on the radio.
I became a radio host in 2011; however, in years prior, I had a chance to sit in a couple of times subbing for former WICN jazz host Joe Zupan (he passed away last year). Additionally, I recall that as a child of eight or nine years old, my first exposure to the process of radio broadcasting came when my mother roped me and my sister into voicing an ad for her summer program at Prospect House. She had talked a local station into running the spot and I still remember the words to the little jingle she wrote. The thing I like most about being a radio host is meeting people and sharing the universal language of music.
The Colors of Jazz, what a lovely title for your program! What’s the story behind it?
I had been volunteering at WICN Public Radio for several years when the former general manager invited me to host. I remember asking her what she wanted me to do for the show. Her response was, “It’s your show, do what you do best and call it what you think it should be.” I decided to introduce the program to the public at a Juneteenth Festival to be held in Worcester a couple of weeks prior to the launch. I didn’t have a name yet, but set out to secure a media table at the festival for WICN. I planned to hold a coloring and logo design contest where people could help me to choose a name. Dubbing the contest “Colors of Jazz”, I enlisted a local art store and area restaurant for some gift certificates to be given as prizes. The lucky winner would also have a chance to sit in with me on the radio and we posted the best designs on the WICN website. Anyhow, over a glass of wine one evening, I was telling my friends about needing to name the show, we began brainstorming. My friend said, I thought you said it was “Colors of Jazz”… We realized the title was perfect; I had every intention to play music that shaped my own life, jazz, soul, a little R&B and Broadway tunes; “music influenced by jazz”. At the Juneteenth festival folks of all ages from 12 months to 75 years old were engaged with coloring and designing. It was a lot of fun and our volunteers and staff helped choose the winning design.
Where do you seek your inspirations from as a radio host? How do you decide on the theme of certain special programs?
My inspiration as a radio host comes from listening to new and old music, other hosts on the radio and online as well as following blogs. I have always been one to play a piece over and over again until it grows on me. When we were kids, my sister and I would write down all the lyrics to our favorite songs when they weren’t included on the cover. When it comes to hosting I am truly a “taste-maker”; I find that I still listen in that vein and my taste is reflected in the choices I make for air play. I like to surprise the listeners with my inherent “eclectic ear”. The theme of the program often depends on what’s going on or sometimes what I’ve heard that week. In general, I know that I will play at least a certain half-dozen selections and often build the show around those tunes. If I’m doing an interview, I like to weave the artist’s music into our talk and putting them in the spotlight. Sometimes I focus on jazz birthdays, holidays or life changing events like “Celebrating 50 Years: The March on Washington”. This year for my Women’s History Month project, I took the theme of “weaving their stories” from the national project.
Is there a central motivation behind your interviews? How do you decide what to ask? Do you “study” their music and read about their experiences?
Generally, the interviews I conduct are designed to promote a musician’s new release or upcoming live concerts. I like to do advance interviews largely because I can spend more time in discussion, editing and figuring out what music fits best with our talk. This is especially true when an individual or their music is new to me. I do spend a good amount of time “studying” the artists’ music as well as past interviews. The advent of internet services such as Vimeo, YouTube and Sound Cloud has made researching easy. Usually the title for an Interview comes last and I have fun with that.
About deciding what to ask, I always let my guests know that I’ll speak in no particular order and keep our talk light and casual. I usually try to steer the guest away from or build upon their documented responses from past interviews. With free talk, I find that people are more relaxed and the answers come more from the conversation than formal questions. In general, we are focused on their career in music and then I’m interested in sharing the artist’s experience and inspiration. Oh, and in keeping with the evolving “Colors of Jazz” theme, I do my best to remember to ask “What color is influencing your day?” That idea came from my voice coach Lau Lapides. There have been some truly thought-provoking answers and I’m having great fun sharing my guests’ favorite “colors” with the listeners.
Are there memorable moments/events you could share with us on/off air as a radio host? How did these events or people impact you?
I am most interested in reaching youth through the music. A couple of years ago, the NAACP Chapter in Worcester invited folks in the community to read in the classroom at Worcester Public Schools. I joined the effort and shared a picture book on jazz with a group of 3rd graders. They were surprisingly quite expressive in affirming their knowledge of “jazz”. Later, they sent thank you notes that brought tears to my eyes. In August 2014, I accompanied two busloads of students (age 7 to 17) from Greater Boston public schools to the 60th Newport Jazz Festival with JazzBoston leaders and some local music teachers on a trip sponsored by the Newport Festivals Foundation, Inc. and Natixis Global Asset Management (NGAM). I had a chance to speak with the teenagers on the bus and hear thoughts on jazz, the festival and their love of music in general. The students were eager to talk with me, very open; it was inspiring. Later, in September 2014, I hosted the Natixis stage at the Berklee Beantown Jazz Festival, serving as emcee for the youth jazz bands; Sapporo Junior High from Japan and the Berklee City Music Big Band. The students are pictured here with me, celebrating the next generation in jazz! These young players were truly amazing.
Besides jazz, what other music do you like to listen to? What’s on your playlist now?
I spend a good amount of time reviewing jazz CDs; there is always a ton of new music being released. I like a wide range of music and listen to everything from soul, urban contemporary, show tunes and country music. One of my favorite past times is country line dancing.
What other interests do you have? Can you share something people might not know about you?
I like to read, travel and explore international food. For the most part, I spend a good amount of time strategizing around the jazz, networking and trying to make things happen. I have an abundance of ideas to bring to life; living the dream.
A few things about me… Something people might not know is that during my “free” time, I am engaged with development, actively seeking underwriters to partner with WICN. I work full-time as a database analyst at a major global investment firm. We develop innovative cloud-based marketing solutions. I work with big data; in past have been a web-mistress and software developer, so I guess I’m truly a geek in disguise. Fun fact; A couple of years ago I met and interviewed Quincy Jones at the first Platform Summit held at MIT; he’s on the Advisory Board of the MIT Media Lab. The premise of the conference was exploring how to encourage under-represented populations consisting of women and minorities to work in science & technology. Last fall, I attended Jazz Foundation of America’s “Great Night In Harlem”. It was a thrill to meet the key players including director Alan Hicks from Quincy Jones’ co-produced documentary film “Keep On Keepin’ On”. It’s a film about his mentor Clark Terry’s relationship with pianist Justin Kauflin. Presently, I am on the planning committee for WICN’s 45th Anniversary Gala to be held at Mechanics Hall in Worcester on April 2, 2015. I think people will have a memorable time celebrating with us.
Jazz and contemporary vocalists Joan Watson Jones and Nedelka Prescod performed in the live broadcast from the WICN Performance Studio. Joan Watson-Jones and pianist Frank Wilkins had the first set and followed by Nedelka Prescod with guitarist Michele Beneforti. I asked Joan and Nedelka to reflect on the program with their own personal connections.
From Joan Watson-Jones and her family connections to Jazz:
When Bonnie asked us to perform in the studio; she wanted me to talk about my parents and their connections to Jazz. Bonnie opened her program with Billy Strayhorn’s Upper Manhattan Medical Group(UMMG).
After two songs in which Frank Wilkins and I introduced ourselves musically, Bonnie asked about my Dad. In 1958 my Father, Dr. Ulric Carrington with Dr. Arthur Logan, who was Duke Ellington’s physician, and twenty other doctors opened the Upper Manhattan Medical Group on 152nd St and Amsterdam Ave in Harlem. When the clinic opened, it was the very first in NYC to be owned completely by Black Doctors.
After the interview, Frank and I moved on to what I call Billy Joel’s New York State of Mind: A Travelog. In our rendition I weaved snippets of New York City related songs to briefly tell my autobiography and also to take the listeners on a trip throughout the city. That was a lot of fun to invite the audiences in.
Having mentioned Duke Ellington living a block away from our home and Jazz Legend Singer Dakota Staton next door; we moved on to two songs dedicated to Dakota Staton – Crazy He Calls Me and The Late Late Show, then on to Solitude – a classic Duke Ellington ballad.
After the song Solitude, Bonnie showed the video that I had produced in 2010: The Smile that Captivated Paris or Mother Wore Boxing Trunks. It tells my mother’s story, a story of being a dancer and boxer on the Moulin Rouge in Paris in the early 1920’s. Mom had also performed in a number of Black Revues in the 1930’s; with songs such as Messin’ Around, Fast and Furious, and Change Your Luck with music by the composer/pianist, J. C. Johnson.
I recently have learned that J. C. Johnson remained a friend of the family and often visited our home. Also, with some research I discovered more about him from Gary Holmes, who was friends with J. C. Johnson in his later years. There were two J. C Johnson tunes Believe it Beloved and This Joint is Jumpin. We ended the program with Here’s to Life, the opening number on our CD Quiet Conversations-A Duet with Frank Wilkins on Piano.
Here are the poignant and powerful reflections from Nedelka Prescod:
For this program, I set our list on: Come Sunday, St. Louis Blues, Lullaby of Birdland, Strange Fruit, Honeysuckle Rose and Anima Christi. As I think about why I chose the songs I performed last Sunday, the words “introduction” and “honor” come to mind. In no particular order, my thoughts on last Sunday’s repertoire.
I started listening to jazz my first year of college. Before that I remember hearing Dave Brubeck’s Take Five and Nat King Cole’s Christmas album (as an annual ritual) but on a whole, jazz was not a part of the normal sounds-cape at home. The musical sounds in our home were dominated by classical repertoire and traditional Anglican hymnsong and anthems. I don’t know what started it, but I spent my four years of college on a musical diet of everything Ella with a few touches of Sarah, Dinah and Nancy (I had a cassette recording of the Great Ladies of Jazz). I was fascinated with Ella Fitzgerald’s playful and agile style. It was so different from my heavier contralto, and tendency towards singing ballads. She seemed free. Free in a way I couldn’t imagine. I nervously sang along with her and Louis… and then Sarah and Dinah and Nancy. I had no idea about the theory of it all. I didn’t know what chords they were singing over or how they managed to have such attitude and sass in their singing. I just knew I liked it. While singing with those recordings, especially that one cassette, I learned my first few jazz standards. They taught me their melodies and showed me how these great women departed from it in their own unique ways. There were my introductions. They immediately came to mind when Bonnie invited me to celebrate Women’s History Month (Women in Jazz) with her. Lullaby of Birdland and Honeysuckle Rose were from those years in my life.
I knew Come Sunday because I could sing it as part of the African-American respected repertoire at the churches and African-American classical music concerts I sang in. At first I never knew it was a jazz standard. It felt like Duke Ellington had written a spiritual that I could sing and really feel. I should have known it was jazz. Singing it felt like how jazz made me feel when I listened to it. Preparing for last Sunday allowed me the opportunity to dig a little deeper into the lives of Women in Jazz. Bonnie placed on her list of women, Carline Ray, the mother of Catherine Russell. But, it’s not Catherine that I am more familiar with, it is her mother, Carline Ray. Living in NYC I spent a lot of time pursuing music (listening, attending, creating). On one musical pursuit I attended a Jazz Mobile outdoor performance because it featured an all female jazz band, Jazzberry Jam. Carline Ray was on bass, Bertha Hope (wife of jazz pianist Elmo Hope) was on piano and Paula Hampton (niece of Lionel Hampton) was on drums. Seeing/hearing that quality of musicianship was mind-blowing. And they were women. Carline Ray’s only vocal recording, Vocal Sides, released shortly before she passed, includes her version of Come Sunday. Her deep and rich contralto affirms me. Last Sunday I wanted to honor the gift of affirmation she shared with me through her recording.
I’ve known Strange Fruit for some time. Billie Holiday’s voice was tremendously difficult for me to understand years ago. It was everything I was told not to do. But I understood her clearly when she sang Strange Fruit. As a teacher I taught it to students as an important historical/cultural/social music commentary. The reality that the song still holds great relevance is unacceptable and disgraceful in this modern day and time.
I started getting acquainted with the blues after listening to jazz… not the normal order of things. It’s such a huge genre spanning decades and regions, and even continents once we trace the roots. I’m still learning. Preparing for Sunday I went to Bessie Smith. Bessie Smith made St. Louis Blues a thing. Her’s is straight, strong and a lesson about the earlier days of the blues.
Mary Lou Williams was another name on Bonnie’s list. A woman I definitely heard of many times yet didn’t quite know her story. Mary Lou Williams was a nurturer. She played, composed, established an organization for musicians with addictions, took Monk and Dizzy to church, became Catholic and spent a great amount of time fusing jazz with sacred music. I completely relate to her. Her understanding of her life’s work as a musician and contributing member of society speaks to me. Mary Lou Williams’ Anima Christi feels like Come Sunday to me. Jazz, church, soul and blues, rites and rituals, the feeling of my life in those college days.
These women and many more are to be honored, always. Their music and contributions must live on.
“Your art and your talent are what you see life through, and are ultimately how you feel life. The most important thing is self-acceptance and ownership of that life, acknowledging the blessings along the way…When searching outside of myself to better myself, a lot of times it was really about looking inside at what I already had and working with that: appreciating it, using it, polishing it, and refining it.”- Nedelka Prescod
Also, reflections from the Italian guitarist, Michele Beneforti –
My name is Michele Beneforti, I’m from Tuscany, Italy. Currently, I am a student at Berklee School of music. It’s really an honor to be part of the program “Woman in Jazz” on WICN 90.5FM in celebration of Woman’s History Month. To me, this was more than a performance, it’s an experience that I would treasure. Topics like this are so important for our society – because we can’t and shouldn’t forget the past. The past is where our roots come from and how everything had begun.
I had the pleasure to play with Nedelka Prescod, who is also my professor at Berklee. We played long-standing songs carried with notions that apply to modern-day subject matters around slavery, feminism and racism. I believe as musicians, one of our tasks is to inform the public and reach out to our audiences through music; and to sendoff messages as a reminders that the bitter history shall not repeat again. One of the songs we performed is Billy Holiday’s signature tune “Strange Fruit”. It’s a significant song that should be played over and over again; we should not divide or judge people by their nationalities, their sexual orientations, their religious preferences, or simplify by the colors of their skin. Every time I play this song on my guitar, my main aim is to carry on with this message. We must keep the history book open.