“I’m not necessarily just trying to play music, I’m using music to imitate life,” says the ever-soulful and spiritual saxophonist Clarence Johnson III. “Guys like Wayne Shorter, they’ll go in the backyard and listen to the hummingbirds because everything around you is music. That holistic philosophy and thought is not just how I play music, it’s how I live my life.”
A native of New Orleans, Johnson, 43, hit this city’s modern jazz scene as a teenager impressing listeners with his already individualistic sound. Actually, by that time, Johnson had been blowing sax for quite a while, beginning on alto in grade school, adding tenor while performing in the marching, concert and stage bands at Brother Martin High School and later taking up the soprano while attending Loyola University.
It’s somewhat surprising to learn that Johnson was a drum major during his senior year in high school and also that he found holding that position to be significant in his development.
“The main thing was that it gave me an opportunity to be a leader and be responsible for a large percentage of my peers’ musical product,” Johnson explains. “That kind of paved the way for me to lead my own bands and be a leader in other areas such as in big bands and musical productions.”
Johnson, who earned his graduate degree at the University of New Orleans, has been very involved in academia and finds that he takes his cues from those teachers who guided him through the years. Presently he teaches at Lee High School in Baton Rouge and has worked at various locales in the New Orleans school system. While residing in Atlanta following Hurricane Katrina, he joined the faculty at the prestigious Morehouse and Spelman Colleges.
“I like teaching because when people worked with me, all of my teachers, like Marty Hurley [at Brother Martin] and Victor Goines [Sunday afternoons at Tipitina’s], it made me feel special in that they were sharing the gift of music, sharing their knowledge of music with me. They were making sure that what they were doing would last and continue on to our generation. It’s a sense of duty—passing it on, paying it forward—that I have to do the same thing.”
“The other thing that comes from that,” Johnson continues, “is that the more open you are and the more engaging and genuine you become with your students, you’ll find that a lot of times, you’re learning from them. They’re dealing with their times and we’re coming from our different perspectives. You can learn a lot from them culturally that you can add to your repertoire. It’s really cool to see that bridge come together.”
Johnson has also been expanding his own “repertoire” in the field of education by digging into the technical side of music making. At Lee High School he teaches music technology including instruction on music writing and recording software and sampling.
“I really got a jump start on that when I was in the studio working on my album, Watch Him Work, that I produced,” he explains, adding that he also received training at LSU’s Digital Media Arts Department.
In recent years, much of Johnson’s time has been spent in classrooms resulting in him having to put performing and recording on the back burner. His last album as leader was 2013’s Watch Him Work, which he released on his own label, Like Father, Like Son Records. Johnson, who can blow in any number of genres, steered into the smooth jazz realm for this outing, though in his capable hands, he put an edge on smooth and pushed its boundaries with his signature saxophone pops. Johnson says he didn’t necessarily plan to go in that direction. “The way the material came inspired me so that’s the way it came out,” he explains. “That’s the creative process.”
Beyond leading his own groups, Johnson has worked/recorded with a range of artists including bassist George Porter, pianist/vocalist Davell Crawford, pianists David Torkanowsky and Henry Butler, pianist/singer Bruce Hornsby, drummer Ricky Sebastian and more. He never stylistically restricted himself and eagerly blew imaginative lines on material including hard bop, avant-garde, straight-ahead jazz, spirituals, swing and rhythm and blues. Though the genres changed, the intuitive saxophonist could always be counted on to bring his inherent spirituality to the music.
“I remember hanging out and having a discussion with [saxophonist] Alvin ‘Red’ Tyler and then two days later I’m sitting at the [Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong] Summer Jazz Camp with Kidd Jordan. I just soaked all of it up and took it and ran with it.”
“I think the most important thing is to be yourself,” Johnson continues.
“I can’t go and be another John Coltrane because there was already a John Coltrane. I can’t be another Branford Marsalis, there’s already a Branford Marsalis and Branford is doing Branford much better than anybody else can.”
Since Johnson’s appearance as a member of pianist/vocalist Ray Charles’ band in the outstanding biopic Ray, he still gets recognized. “It has a lot of mileage,” he adds, calling his involvement “a beautiful experience.”
“I’m a firm believer that this gift comes from Him,” Johnson, a man of deep faith, humbly acknowledges of his talents and success.