Do those canary-yellow drums look familiar? That’s because they belonged to the late Tony Williams, who gave them to trumpeter Wallace Roney. Today Wallace allows Mark Johnson, his current drummer, to use them for rehearsals. A lefty on a right-handed kit, Mark is a strong player who can effortlessly pull off many of Tony’s trademarks, including those rapid Swiss-triplet tom fills.
Meanwhile, there are other traditions to keep alive. For example, last year Mark released a CD titled Johnson Brothers: Featuring “Scat” Johnson. Although Mark and bassist Billy Johnson have cut several albums under the family name, including Beam Me Up, this one immortalizes a performance by their father, “Scat,” who was a jazz singer in the ’40s and ’50s. The elder Johnson’s nickname was conferred by actor Bob Hope when both men joined Jack Benny entertaining the troops in the South Pacific during World War II. The name stuck long after the war. Before “Scat” passed away in 1995, the mayor of Milwaukee presented him with the keys to the city. “Everybody knew him there,” says Mark. “In fact, Al Jarreau used to go and watch him sing.”
Apart from writing material for The Johnson Brothers – not to be confused with The Brothers Johnson’mark has worked steadily in the New York jazz scene. A fiery drummer who has no problem with breakneck tempos, Johnson got a humble start on his dad’s cocktail drum. People began to take notice, one of whom was Art Blakey, who prodded the young Mark. “He told me that I could play the drums in any small city, but that people wouldn’t get to know me,” says Mark. “To really learn the drums, and the music, he said I would have to come to New York. I visited in 1978 and immediately began to work with everybody, starting with Walter Davis Jr. So I stayed.” Other employers include Abbey Lincoln, Geri Allen, Stanley Turrentine, Cassandra Wilson, David Murray, and Ray Spiegal, who gave Mark tabla lessons. “Max Roach told me that’s how he got his concept – from tablas,” says Mark, who plays drums and tabla on a new David Murray Octet release celebrating John Coltrane’s music.
Mark pauses and takes stock of his life: an indie record company, a full calendar, world tours, and the respect of his peers. “Art Blakey was right,” he reflects. (Readers can contact Mark at [email protected].)