Tommy Johnson ’09 and his father, also Tommy Johnson, share a lot of similarities: the same name, a passion for the trumpet, and as of March 4, they both have played with Wynton Marsalis’ band.
The elder Johnson’s love of the trumpet comes from humble beginnings—both self-taught and classically trained, Johnson started playing at the age of eight and played his first paid gig at the age of 13. “When I was 13 they paid us two dollars to play at a National Guard Armory,” he said. “We were in heaven and that’s when I decided, hey, we need to play more music.”
The younger Johnson’s passion, on the other hand, began as a result of his dislike of cold weather—seriously. “In the fifth grade we had a choice where we could have 30 minutes more of recess or we could go do band,” Johnson said. “I love recess and I love basketball but I think that it was wintertime and I didn’t like the cold and going outside so I picked band and [my father] happened to have another trumpet lying around.”
The senior chemistry major continued to play trumpet throughout high school. His desire to excel primarily came from an opportunity extended to him because of his father’s musical prowess. “In high school I wasn’t that good but my band director was obviously a fan of [my father] and got me a spot in the symphonic band which is the top band in our high school,” Johnson said. “I was like, oh, wow—I should probably start practicing so I don’t make a fool of myself.”
Though both of his parents are professional musicians and majored in music at college, Johnson decided not to major in music, enjoying instead the relaxing quality of playing the trumpet, both by himself and with his dad.
His father, however, once nearly had to stop playing the trumpet. Four years ago, the elder Jonson developed Bell’s Palsy in his face, leaving the muscles in his face paralyzed—one of the worst fates for a trumpet player. After not playing for a few months, and toying with switching to the piano, Johnson discovered that if he held his lip in position, he could still manage to play. “I knew I wasn’t going to quit music when it happened but it was a shock to my lifestyle,” he said. “But then I figured out, hey, if I hold my lip I can get air to go through the horn and I ended up staying with the trumpet because of it. It was kind of a eureka moment when I figured out I could do this.”
During the post-Marsalis concert in Lyle’s Pub, the elder Johnson, who drove to Grinnell from his home in Lawrence, Kansas, used this technique in order to play with his son and with Wynton Marsalis’ band. Though the elder Johnson has played any of the same venues as Marsalis, the two don’t know each other personally.
The elder Johnson first encountered Marsalis back in 1981 at a jazz consortium in Chicago, where the two ended up playing on the same pinball machine in the lobby of a hotel. “He had just mosied over and he seemed like a nice kid and we didn’t think anything of it but four days later at the end of the concert he was playing headliner—he played at the end of the concert and just blew everybody away,” Johnson said. “And Columbia Records got him on contract and were giving out his albums which are collectors’ items now given what he’s done.”
Despite running in similar circles musically—“When you travel especially in the jazz circles you tend to run into the same people over and over in different cities,” the elder Johnson said—neither Johnson had never thought they would have the chance to play with Marsalis’ band.
Though the younger Johnson was performing with professional musicians, he said that he was not anxious about his performance at Lyle’s. “I wasn’t that nervous because I knew a lot of people in the audience so that made it a little less nervewracking,” he said. “But I mean, we’re just out there making music, you know?”
“He’s not going to need to be nervous from now on,” his father added.
Mostly, the younger Johnson is appreciative of Marsalis’ band for playing with a student group, and the College, especially Rachel Bly, for organizing a post-performance at Lyle’s Pub. “It was amazing that they can come to Grinnell and play with students like that,” the younger Johnson said. “It was funny, because Brian Cavanagh-Strong’s ’09 busted-ass keyboard, it’s got that one key that sticks the whole time. And I told the piano player and during the show he kept on looking down like … uhhh I want to play that note but …”
Busted-ass keyboard or not, Grinnellians present will not soon forget seeing jazz greats playing at Lyle’s Pub, and both Johnsons won’t forget playing with them.