Interview With Jazz Musician: Kevin Johnson

Welcome to week 2 of our February theme: Jazz music!

Today I would like to address the subject of why we should be using this genre in clinical practice. We are at a very interesting turning point for music therapy as far as jazz music is concerned. Patient preferred music is often most beneficial for use in a clinical setting; usually meaning music that was popular when our clients were young adults. Sadly, the generation of young adults who grew up listening to, playing, and dancing to jazz (especially Big Band) are disappearing from our communities and nursing homes. The question is, will this genre of music start to disappear from our well-used repertoire as well? I hope not! This is a great opportunity for us as clinicians and musicians to start picking apart the therapeutic aspects of this music (since the powerful nostalgia component may not be as relevant to our clients).
Instead of speculating from my own classically-trained brain that has very little experience with Jazz, I am going to share with you words from a Professional Classical and Jazz Trumpet player.


Kevin Johnson is a trumpet player, multi-instrumentalist, and published author from Niagara Falls, New York. He is a Cirque du Soleil artist and currently on tour with their production of “KOOZA” in Australia.

Known for his versatility, Kevin’s diverse performance background includes appearances with the Columbus, Owensboro, and Carmel Symphony Orchestras, an extensive list of musical theatre productions across the nation, accompanying the Grammy award-winning New York Voices at the renowned Jazz at Lincoln Center, and travelling throughout the Caribbean and Central America as a musician for Carnival Cruise Lines.

Writing for the world’s largest sheet music company, Hal Leonard Corporation, Kevin has published The Beatles Session Parts, a collection of the Beatles’ orchestral transcriptions, and Trumpet Aerobics, a day-by-day trumpet routine book.  Kevin’s composition “The Seventh Trumpet” was released on Cleveland Orchestra member Jack Sutte’s 2014 album, Fanfare Alone.

Johnson holds a Bachelor of Music in Trumpet Performance from Baldwin Wallace University and a Master of Music in Jazz Studies from Indiana University.

I was so fortunate to connect with this busy musician and conduct an informal interview via Facebook. So here are his own words on the significance of jazz from the inside:

How do you experience jazz differently than you experience other genres?

        I think I experience the genre differently because of the nature of what it is. Jazz in unique in the fact that there is so much emphasis on the individual. It’s all about his or her creativeness, expression, and spontaneity. Preexisting melodies (standards as we call them) are always embellished and interpreted as the performer wishes, and solos are created out of thin air. It’s the performer’s uniqueness that makes the performance so interesting. And this all happens in a language of our own, but I’ll talk more about that in a minute.

How is your relationship to music different during improvisation?

For improvisation in general, not necessarily jazz, it’s the most meditative thing I do in my life. My mind turns off and I can just let the music go where it wants to go.  I like to think of jazz improvisation, on the other hand, as more of a cerebral challenge. Because of the often-quick tempos and rapidly changing harmonies, it’s like a big puzzle of getting from point A to point B in the most creative way as possible.  As demanding as it is though, even this becomes meditative the more and more you practice it.

How have you changed as a musician since learning jazz?

I’ve learned an incredible amount from studying jazz.  It teaches you to be calm and in the moment even in the most demanding and stressful of situations. It teaches you to be aware of your surroundings to react accordingly. It teaches you to REALLY listen.  I’ve learned more music theory through jazz than any other genre or even though our music program.

People often refer to jazz as “a different language,” do you think this means you need certain skills or personality traits to be a jazz musician?

This goes along with another important question that’s important for you to ask while you’re being challenged on whether or not to continue using jazz in therapy sessions. And that is, who even really likes jazz?

You’re absolutely right in saying that jazz is a language of it’s own, and it’s a language that most people don’t understand. The natural reaction to not understanding the language is to be dismissive of it.

I won’t go into the entire history of jazz, but ever since the creation of the genre, there was a new style of playing, much less refined than other genres and more focused on expression and trying to sound like the human voice. That tradition became a key characteristic of the music and was elaborated on for years and years.  Today, jazz performers dedicate an incredible amount of study to immersing themselves in the entire canon of our music, and by doing so, taking on the tradition’s characteristics. It’s our foundation to base our own voice from. That’s why the language is so important to us, and also why a gap is created between what we love and what “outsiders” understand.

        BUT, I do believe that absolutely everyone can enjoy listening to jazz, as long as they know what to listen for. It goes along with a lot of what I’ve already said, but it’s all about the performer’s creativity, expression, and spontaneity. You could give a thousand performers the same set of chord changes and no two solos would be the same. Some would be gentle, some harsh, some lyrical, some disjunct. What matters is the freedom to be yourself.

Could you name a few helpful resources for musicians who are new to playing jazz?

Jamey Aebersold and David Baker both have fantastic series that teach everything about the genre, especially improvisation and theory. The absolute best thing a student can do though is to listen to all of the best albums. Really listening to the albums, to the point of being able to sing every note and nuance along to it. That’s the foundation of all of our playing, and only from there can we build our own identity as an artist.

What are your top 5-10 jazz standards?

Dolphin Dance
Giant Steps
Green Dolphin Street
Joy Spring
Round Midnight
Seven Steps to Heaven
There Will Never Be Another You


I initiated this interview as a way to stir some motivation from my readers towards implementing Jazz into their daily clinical practice. I hope you are feeling it, because I sure am! You can really sense the genuine enthusiasm he has for music in Kevin Johnson’s writing. I am looking forward to reconnecting again a few years down the road to see where else life will take him!


For the rest of this month we will be exploring a few basic jazz concepts further and Becky will be posting about improvisation. Let us know if you are joining us in the music!




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s