Bass icon discusses his Philly heritage, the Weather Report days, tackling the Chapman “Stick” and his Lifetime Achievement Award
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
February 21, 2011
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Alphonso Johnson has enjoyed a stellar career on both upright and electric bass, in addition to being a highly regarded composer, arranger and educator. Johnson recorded and toured with Woody Herman, Chuck Mangione and several other jazz artists before landing the job with Weather Report, taking over for co-founding member Miroslav Vitous. Johnson appeared on three Weather Report albums before leaving to join the Cobham/Duke band. He recorded three solo albums for Epic Records in the ’70s, Moonshadows, Yesterday’s Dream and Spellbound.
Alphonso Johnson was one of the first musicians to popularize the Chapman “Stick,” paving the way to an audition with Genesis, as a possible replacement for guitarist Steve Hackett, who had quit the band in 1977. Johnson also appeared on Phil Collins’ first solo album, Face Value, in 1981 and was part of Grateful Dead member Bob Weir’s side project, Bobby and the Midnites, and was the bass player for Santana for six years.
Other touring and recording credits include Wayne Shorter, The Crusaders, George Duke, Sergio Mendes, Tony Williams, Joe Williams, Gregory Hines, Eddie Henderson, Flora Purim, Quincy Jones, Lee Ritenour, John McLaughlin, Jeffrey Osborne, Sarah Vaughan, Dori Caymmi and many others. Johnson is currently an adjunct instructor of Jazz Studies & Popular Music at the Thornton School of Music at USC.
FBPO: Tell me about your musical upbringing.
AJ: I grew up in South Philly. Being one of seven children, most people considered us poor, however, looking back on my relationships with my family, I was actually a very wealthy being. I learned more from watching and listening to my brothers and sisters than I ever learned in school. The turntable was my teacher and the songs I heard it play provided me with a wide repertoire. Once I started elementary school, I played upright bass in the school orchestra and continued music throughout high school. Doctor George Allen was primarily responsible for directing me in the right direction and inspiring me to continue stretching my creative abilities.
FBPO: How did you end up choosing the bass?
AJ: Actually, the upright bass was chosen for me because I just happened to be the tallest child in the class. My homeroom teacher announced one day that we would go to a special room and begin music lessons. When the music teacher showed up and took us to her classroom, she turned me towards the bass and said, “Here. I think you’ll find this suitable for your height.”
FBPO: Do you ever play the upright any more?
AJ: I never stopped playing upright bass. It’s just that once my name got around about being an electric bassist, most people wanted that instrument because it was popular. It was also the least expensive way to travel! I’ve played the upright bass with the Woody Herman Young Thundering Herd, Abraxas Pool and, most recently, at the Bass Player Magazine awards.
FBPO: Philadelphia has such a rich musical heritage. How do you think growing up there affected you, musically?
AJ: Music can be a reflection of your environment. Social conditions certainly played a big part in who I am as a person, as well as a musician.
FBPO: How did you get the gig with Weather Report?
AJ: I was playing with the Chuck Mangione Quartet, along with Joe LaBarbera and Gerry Niewood, as the opening act for Weather Report. We just happened to be playing a song that featured the bass when I looked over to stage left and there was Wayne Shorter. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect because we were playing in my home town and all of my family and high school buddies were there that night. The crowd went nuts after my bass solo. When we finished, I went backstage and met Wayne, who asked me if I would like to audition for Weather Report. That audition turned out to be the recording Mysterious Traveler.
FBPO: What was it like working with Joe Zawinul? What kind of guy was he?
AJ: Josef Zawinul was, as he would always say, “the baddest motherfucker on the planet.” He had this very European foundation mixed with American jazz, but in a “down south” kind of way. Joe always reminded me of a gypsy, always searching and traveling from one place to another without any specific purpose. I learned so much from him and continue to miss his presence.
FBPO: How did you happen to discover the Chapman “Stick”? Did you take to it right away, or was it a bit awkward at first?
AJ: I was walking down Santa Monica Boulevard in California one afternoon and heard this music playing in the distance. I followed the sounds to a building and, when I went upstairs, I saw two musicians playing, one of whom was Emmett Chapman. After their set, I introduced myself and got in touch with Emmett so he could show me the Chapman Stick. As soon as I bought my instrument, I took it home, sat it in the corner of my living room and just stared at it for almost a month. Every day, I would walk by it and think about how I was going to approach playing it. Then one day I just picked it up and learned a few scales, which inspired me to play some melodies. One thing led to another and, once I was comfortable enough, I started improvising and composing with it.
FBPO: I happened to be at the Santana concert in Fort Lauderdale that fateful night in 1987 when Jaco jumped up on the stage. We all know what happened later that night, but I’m guessing that incident might have touched you in a personal way, having been right there in the middle of it.
AJ: Anything that happens in my life I feel happens for a reason. I know now that Jaco and I were put together that night for a very special reason. I will miss him as well.
FBPO: Tell me about the program at USC. What is a student prepared to do upon graduation?
AJ: Students who go through the Jazz Studies & Popular Music programs are prepared to go out and make a living as a musician. That could include a number of things like performing, arranging, teaching, conducting, composing for film or television, being a musical director or singing as a background vocalist on a world tour. They will have the skills not only to survive, but to be successful at whatever they choose to do.
FBPO: It was such a privilege to be in attendance at Bass Player Live last fall when you were presented with a “Lifetime Achievement Award.” Would you care to comment on the experience?
AJ: At first, it was just like any other gig. You know, rehearse the band, sound check, etc. But it really hit me when we started playing “Bahama Mama” and I walked through the audience and felt so much love. It was a bit overwhelming. Then, once I got on stage, there were all of these great young bass players playing my music. That was one of the greatest moments in my career!
FBPO: What lies ahead for you and your career? What else can we look forward to seeing and hearing from Alphonso Johnson?
AJ: Right now I’m just trying to get through my undergraduate studies so I can prepare for my graduate studies and eventually get my doctoral degree in Music Education. There is a short tour being planned with George Duke, Billy Cobham and me for the summer of 2011. I’m also preparing some classical pieces for the upright bass to play at my recital. Other than that, I like to be surprised, so we’ll have to see what tomorrow brings!
FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player?
AJ: I’d be a gourmet chef at one of the world’s top restaurants!