Student/Staff Spotlight Series: Jazz Professor, Russ Johnson

“It smelled like Franksville during sauerkraut season,” confessed Parkside’s jazz professor, Russell Johnson, reflecting on just one of the interesting yet unusual experiences in his time as a jazz musician. It was on stage in France, playing aside the legendary jazz musician Lee Konitz that Russ encountered the offensive smell.  “I’m sitting there, eyes watering, next to this legendary saxophonist thinking, ‘what’s going on?’” he said. Konitz then proclaimed “I’ve got cabbage on my knees!” The then 80-year-old Konitz had visited a homeopath in France to alleviate pain he was having in his knees just before his gig with Russ. There they had applied ointment and then wrapped his knees with cabbage leaves, the culprit of the pronounced smell.

This is what you can expect from Russ. He’s chock-filled with interesting and amazing stories, which is expected, considering that he has played the trumpet since fifth grade, “…played in 45 different countries and been to every state except for 4 in the U.S.”, and has been a sideman with countless main jazz figures such as Lee Konitz, Steve Swallow, Bill Frisell and many more. Not only has he been a sideman in many bands, but he leads a few of his own bands. His main band that he leads is called “The Meeting Point Quartet,” in which he composes all the music himself. They released a record last year, which was incredibly well-received and made the “Best CDS of 2014” list. He has had an extremely fulfilling and successful career as a jazz musician, and still does, but has worked incredibly hard to get to where he’s at.

He first started playing the trumpet in the fifth grade after his older brother, who also played the trumpet, introduced it to him. Ironically, he says music wasn’t a part of his household. No one really played or listened to music, other than his brother. Russ then began borrowing many of his brother’s jazz records and recalls specific records that have “changed his life,” such as Miles Davis’ records “Workin’,” “Steamin’,” “Cookin’” and “Relaxin’”. At age 16 he then went to a jazz camp which “solidified that he wasn’t alone” and was an affirmation of his career path. After that, his parents couldn’t stop him from practicing his trumpet. Russ has always been completely devoted to his career as a musician. He says that he “never had a job other than playing his trumpet, from age 19 to 45, when he started teaching.” So how has Russ Johnson, this notably successful jazz musician, come to grace Parkside with his presence, and what made him choose Parkside?

After living in one of the greatest U.S. jazz communities for 24 years, New York, he started teaching at Parkside in January of 2010. During his first year and a half of teaching, he was dedicated to commuting from New York to Parkside for a year and a half until he moved here in 2011. But what finally drew him out of the bustling Big Apple to the quiet Midwest? His family. When it came time to enroll his daughter in school, he wasn’t confident about raising his daughter in the Brooklyn public schools. Russ tells me he actually grew up in Racine and was familiar with the location, schools and people here, so that is why he looked into transferring to this area. One of the most appealing things about Parkside for Russ is that it is only an hour from Chicago, another major jazz community. “My playing career is extremely important and I’m still very active… so Parkside is a perfect fit,” said Russ.

Besides the location, Russ says that the students are what he likes the most about Parkside. “I knew the general type of student that I was going to be working with,” he said. “I get as much from them as they get from me. I have some very, very talented students that I work with.”  Even with the relatively new musicians, Russ said that “it’s unbelievably fulfilling… to see them develop as musicians and people.” He also said that some students are so strong that they even push him forward in his career.

To conclude, I asked Russ if he had any advice for other young musicians and students. “It requires so much hard work, and dedication, and you need to be fully committed… and then the pay-off is incredible,” he said. Russ also had further advice for music students. “Create a practice journal and go into it with a plan, and this can go for any type of study,” he said. “Finding ways to organize your time is extremely important. And it is very easy to waste your time, to pick up your instrument and just have fun. It’s not about having fun, it’s about working really, really hard and the fun will come later. It is unbelievably rewarding, but it requires a lot of work”. He also said that choosing you career path really isn’t “a decision.” You just know. You have to go with your passion, but prepare to work hard. So in Russ’s words, find what’s in your heart, work hard and it most surely will pay off in the end. It definitely did for Russ.​

I can’t think of a better way to hit off our Student and Staff Spotlight series, which honors outstanding members in Parkside’s community, than by showcasing professor Russ Johnson. It was a privilege and joy to interview Russ. He is an all-around stand-up guy with amazing talent, passion and dedication to his career. We are most blessed to have him here at Parkside, as a mentor, fellow colleague, friend, professor or just as a great person in general.

Article by Liv Gripko

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