“One of his mantras that he would always say to me,” Calvin Johnson Jr. recalls of his uncle—the late, great jazzman Ralph Johnson—from Preservation Hall’s courtyard offices, “was, ‘The world is just waiting for that melody. Until you have it, shut up.’”
Johnson is laughing as he recounts stories from a childhood steeped in such lessons learned in the method only New Orleans musical family hierarchies can teach. He was first brought to Preservation Hall at age six by his father, Ralph’s younger brother and one of six children in a family where all the boys played music. Now in his thirties and a well-established saxophonist and composer best recognized for his work in Chapter:SOUL and his own Native Son project, he recalls that experience: “I sat down on the bench directly adjacent to the drum set and I watched [Albert] ‘June’ Gardner on drums.”
“I caught Kid Sheik [George Colar] playing trumpet in the last eight months of his life, Gregg Stafford, John Brunious—‘Ya gotta shake that thing’—Carl LeBlanc strumming it out on banjo,” Johnson continues of his formative Preservation Hall concerts. “That’s just stuff you never forget.”
A NOCCA alum, Johnson came to the Hall for countless lessons growing up as well. “Lessons in school are very different from hanging around professional musicians,” he says. “They believed music was a reflection of life, not something like a science, and jazz wasn’t taught in a school environment when they were learning it.”
He is now at work “drawing from that firsthand experience and knowledge of that material.” The inaugural event is scheduled for Saturday, April 15. “The Hall came to me a few months ago and said they were looking to create a new concert series,” Johnson explains. “They asked me, ‘What are some things truly in your heart, musically speaking, that you want to say here?’ That was the inception of this mutual concept.”
Saying he wants to keep the band members and song selection a secret (an element designed to create a connect-the-dots game for local jazz aficionados), Johnson will play in the ’90s-era Hall instrumentation with himself on soprano sax in a band rounded out by cornet, trombone, banjo, upright bass, tuba, drum set and piano.
“The stories I’m going to tell, the melodies I’m going to give,” Johnson says, “are not an abridged copy. They’re coming straight from a third-generation jazz musician sitting in the same exact seat where I learned to play.”
Catch Calvin Johnson & Native Son Threauxback to the Great Pres Hall Bands of the ’90s on Saturday, April 15 at 3 p.m. at Preservation Hall (726 St. Peters St.).