Welcome Jazz Guitar Lifers to Dr. G.’s Spotlight Series featuring Chicago Jazz Guitarist Henry Johnson. Enjoy 🙂
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I recently made a trip to Chicago to spend some time with a very important person in my world of jazz guitar: Henry Johnson
Henry is one of the members of my “inner circle.” He is by far, one of the most gifted musicians I have ever had the privilege of meeting. Being in the presence of a true master musician is something that is a wonderment (even my big brother Rodney Jones acknowledges his greatness). If you remember an article I wrote on Wes Montgomery last month, I mentioned in great detail that it was Henry who “pulled my coattail” to the fact that it was the active working duo of both Creed Taylor and Montgomery’s manager John Levy who successfully orchestrated the moves for Wes’ career and chose what material to record and release—not just for Smokin’ at the Half Note, but also for all subsequent material related to that era.
Henry has been a true “big brother;” he is always there to guide me and share his wealth of knowledge and experience. After all those late-night phone calls, emails and texts, I knew what I had to do. It was time to meet him in person—so I did what I had to do. I hopped on a plane.
He was busy hosting the jam sessions for all the guitarists who wanted to hang out and play during the 2022 Chicago Jazz Festival events…but he took the time out to be with me.
I brought over my chocolate colored- Gibson ES175—the one I named “Carmela” and recorded Chronicles of Carmela, my first album of original tunes I wrote on my own Little Apple Records label. All the songs were inspired by the guitar I bought from a friend in Boston and fellow jazz guitarist John Stein. Henry complimented my guitar right away, saying that the way the action was set was quite comfortable and to his liking—very much the way he preferred his guitars to be set.
While he played mine, I had the pleasure of playing one of his gorgeous guitars—he showed me five different custom-made Heritage guitars.
He told me the story of how he became only the second client of the new company established by a team of factory workers at Gibson who decided to defect when Gibson company owner Henry Juskiewicz decided to move the operation from Kalamazoo and relocate to Michigan (the legendary country guitarist Roy Clark was the first!) My guess is that Jim Deurloo, Marv Lamb, and JP Moats, along with Bill Paige and Mike Korpak might have been among the people Henry met at a NAMM show in Chicago in 1985, when he was recording his guitar albums on the MCA/Impulse label. Henry’s popularity was on the rise, and as his profile increased, so did the Heritage guitar brand, because Johnson played their guitars every chance he got, and was photographed everywhere with them—album covers, television shows, concert venues, magazine covers, etc.
It was wonderful to see his name inlaid in pearl on the pickguard of his honeyburst Super 400 model Heritage guitar. Henry casually launched into a version of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On,” a tune I just happened to know. Without hesitation, I jumped all over that tune with him, and the groove was flowing between two Chi-town brothers.
He then showed me how to arrange in the manner that he did—using the tune’s melody, inventive chord voicings to support the melody, and chromatic connective tissue to tie the two together. He picked one of the most sophisticated tunes in the pantheon of jazz compositions—Bully Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.” This was followed by a killer arrangement of “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” and it was no less staggering than the one before. I felt like he could have sat there in his chair and done this for hour and hours.
He did it over and over again, weaving his tapestry like a magician. He knew that my favorite musician was George Benson—and I knew he’s learned lessons from George directly, a bond that went all the way back when he first met George as he was the guitarist struggling with the break-neck tempos that George had already mastered when he himself sat in the guitar chair with Brother Jack’s band.
Now, right in front of me, Henry spun endless Benson-flavored licks—much to my delight—and described the technique and mental approach to achieving the hard-swinging bop lines that are so indicative of Benson’s style. I was especially enthralled with the right-hand thumb technique that Johnson demonstrated, which is so deceptively hard to execute but equally as easy on the ears for the listener’s pleasure. Using both downstrokes and upstrokes he produced the most buttery tone by employing a particular angle that combined some blend of thumb and nail.
He gave me specific pointers on how to orchestrate my own tunes. He said, “You’re not that far from knowing how…just start with a song you already know.” I can’t remember how this particular tune came up but I started playing “Watch What Happens,’ (the Montgomery version from A Day In The Life), and he pounced on the opportunity to use that as my first vehicle to attempt his specific approach to chord soloing.
We talked about Pat Martino—the guy who I’m currently doing some deep-dive research to understand the impact that he had on a generation of guitarists. It was Henry Johnson who really helped me understand the full impact of Martino’s relationship with GB. It was when finally got around to reading Pat’s autobiography (a signed copy with Martino’s patented cursive signature on the inside page) given to me by my then-student Steve Knight back in 2011 that I appreciated Martino’s full body of work.
He played spontaneous chord solos of tunes that seemed to just flow form his fingers effortlessly. Ia sked him to document the progression, and he said, “I just do them on the spot, and the next time I might have an entirely different set of fingers and progressions. I said to him, “Yeah that’s kinda how it is when you’ve been doing it for fifty years!” he just nodded, smiled and said, “yeah, I guess that’s true.”
Henry talked to me about developing guitar vocabulary and how to speak the language of bebop. He spoke about the importance of developing the ability to swing, and what makes jazz phrasing so unique. He dissected the bop blues tune, “Billie’s Bounce” as an example, deconstructing the melody to analyze the harmonic structure that lay inside the melody itself, and highlighted the chromatic notes combined with displaced accents in this particular Charlie Parker tune to further illustrate his point.
We later ordered Chinese food and had a great meal. Now it was time to wrap the session— I’d arrived on a Saturday at around 3 o’clock and stayed for 6 hours until he had to leave for his jam session gig. He and his beautiful wife were such gracious hosts, and I left his home feeling like the luckiest guy in the world to be able to have a private session with such a master musician. I couldn’t wait to have the opportunity to do it again, but was even more excited about coming home to write about how awesome an experience it was…and to be able to share my joy with you, the readers.
Here’s to Henry Johnson—a man who deserves that spotlight!
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