By Calvin Wang, Global Voices Metcalf Fellow
Interview by Hanna Pfeiffer, Global Voices Metcalf Fellow
On Saturday, February 11, International House will host the Seventh Annual WHPK 88.5 FM Jazz Format Black History Month Celebration, entitled “Jazz… Our Gift to the World.” The concert will feature Grammy–nominated jazz guitarist Henry Johnson and musicians Billy Foster, Eric Schneider, John Ramos, and Charles Heath.
Johnson, the Chicago native who headlines Saturday’s concert, is excited for this upcoming performance because it will honor pianist John Wright. Wright received the 2017 WHPK 88.5 FM REACH award, which recognizes individuals whose work continues and expands appreciation for jazz.
Wright and his family moved from Louisville, Kentucky to Chicago two years after his birth in 1936. Wright was first exposed to music through his mother’s church. Later, he stood outside of local taverns for hours listening to the jazz playing through the windows. Wright played in the local Chicago jazz scene until 1960 when he left for New York. There, he began recording under Prestige Records. Later that year, Wright released the first of his five albums, South Side Soul. This title would become his nickname.
After returning to Chicago in the mid ‘80s, Wright performed with vocalist Oscar Lindsey and held a residency at the renowned Philander’s restaurant. Around this time, he began inviting friends over to celebrate his birthday in late August. These get-togethers later developed into the Wright Gatherings. Today, hundreds of friends and family members attend these annual potluck picnic celebrations. The day-long festivities often include jam sessions that allow local musicians to play alongside each other regardless of age or experience.
Johnson describes Wright, now 82, as someone who is still “a strong force in the community” and interacts “with musicians of his generation and of the next generation.” Wright is not only an accomplished musician, but also a pillar of the Chicago jazz scene. Johnson says Wright is a leader and friend, and that local musicians “always feel like they can go to [him] for information or mentoring.” Johnson admires these relationships, adding that “being a musician is about the interactions with other musicians in your community.”
When describing his own musical journey, Johnson says that “the basis of [his] musical career is life-discovery.” Johnson states that his music has changed and developed throughout his life, since jazz musicians must “reinvent themselves every year.” This continuous reinvention is a characteristic of jazz, according to Johnson. He explains that unlike rock or pop musicians, who can “ride off of one hit” for years, jazz musicians must constantly innovate to succeed. Johnson believes that this need “to learn new things every year” heavily influences his outlook on making music.
Johnson began his performing career at the age of 14, so he remembers creating music in the time before technology played a major role in music production. At that time, he composed “by sweating over a piece of music, reading it, sitting down at a piano or at an instrument, and writing and working on it until it became music.” When asked, Johnson could not name a favorite piece or performance, saying that there are “too many to even think about.” He elaborated by saying that “[composers] are always thinking about composing, so our favorite piece has not been written yet; it’s something that we’re still thinking about.” Johnson is always thinking about his next project. He states that every one of his songs “has a certain story to it; each is special and unique in its own way.”
Johnson believes “live performance is still the most unique experience” and, as such, live performances are the best way to hear music. He says that musicians like himself are geared to perform live, and audience members can expect to see evidence of his affinity for live performance at International House on Saturday night. Johnson claims that his audiences “have grown to expect good quality music, and a great experience.” He hopes you will join him and his fellow musicians to celebrate jazz music, Black History Month, and John Wright.
This event will take place on Saturday, Feb. 11, at 7 p.m. in the International House Assembly Hall. Doors open at 6 p.m. Tickets are $10 for General Admission, $25 for Reserved VIP seating, and $8 for members of the Jazz Institute of Chicago or students with a valid University of Chicago ID. Tickets can be purchased at brownpapertickets.com, at 312-237-7605, or at the door. For more information about other Global Voices events and co-sponsorship opportunities, or for persons with disabilities who may need assistance, please contact Mary Beth DeStefano at (773)753-2274 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was originally published in the Hyde Park Herald.