How did you become a jazz guitar musician ?
Art Johnson : "When I was 7 years old, I played the accordion - it was a big fashion in the USA at the time - and I didn't like it very much. I played it for about two years.
The guitar came very late, I didn't really have the desire to play until I was fifteen or sixteen years old. I had to go to hospital for an operation on my leg, and it came out I was going to be in bed for six months. A friend of mine brought me a guitar so I could mess around with it and it kind of started that way.
Then I heard some very famous guitarists on the radio and I was really knocked out. I always tell people "I didn't find music, it found me"."
What was your first encounter with jazz ?
Art : "I have an older sister and she had a record collection of jazz as it was the popular music of the 50's. So I would go into her boudoir and put on a Miles Davis' album... It was curious to me, I liked it, but still I was really young and nothing really grabbed me.
Like I said, it was listening to the radio one day - when I was sixteen or so - when I heard Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel and the great classical guitarist from Spain, André Segovia. I didn't know who they were, but I wanted to know "how did they do that?".
It became a puzzle in a sense. And as far as having a career as a musician, it is one of those things that kind of fell into place. I was in my town, my sister was dating a bass player who heard me practising in my room and asked me to join his band. It started out that way, it was never anything planned, there was no school.
In fact I tried to major in music later on. When I was eighteen or nineteen I went to a college in San Diego and after one semester the Dean of the music departement asked me to come in his office - of course at the time jazz was not accepted as a study at all, so I was trying to play classical guitar but I wasn't that good - and he said "You know, I really think you should find something else to do with your life, you're not talented enough to play music".
I just left his office, took all my books and threw them in the trashcan and went home to practise. The funny thing is they've asked me to teach at that college twenty years later !"
Musical encounters and start of your career in Los Angeles?
Art : "My first encounter was another kind of accident. I had moved to Los Angeles and I was trying to make some contacts and not much was happening.
Gabor Szabo was a very famous guitarist, particularly at that time, 1969, but he had a habit of disappearing ! He was to record an album for Mercury in Los Angeles and they couldn't find him. The group did not want to use somebody already famous to take his place because it wouldn't look right, and they were trying to find somedy unknwon that could play professionally with them. I went to audition, got the engagement and entered their recording studio doing the entire album. A famous jazz critic of the time, Harvey Siders wrote a huge article about me in the LA newspaper after hearing me at the studio, and right after that, the phone started to ring !
The next thing I knew I was in five or six very famous ensembles at the same time !"
In 1994, you started playing the violin? Can you tell us why ?
Art : "I had a flirtation with the violin when I was 23. I had moved to L.A. at the time and there wasn't much to do. Like I said, I was trying to make contacts.
I was going to the library a lot and I found a biography of Mozart who had writen all of his violin concertos by the time he was 24 years old. And I thought : "I have to get a violin and find out about it".
So I got an old violin, a bow and a case for about 25$ and I was too stupid to know that probably it had been in the shop for years and that it needed to be fixed. I just came home and started playing it. It was horrible ! I struggled with it for a while and gave it up.
Years later, again an accident. I had a cheap guitar I'd given to a little music store to sell for me. I wanted 250$ for it. So I went in the store one day to see if they had sold my guitar. They had sold it, but the guy didn't have the money. Instead, he had a violin worth 250$, so I took it home. I didn't have a bow, but then a very strange story : I was playing a jazz trio and a guy who repairs violin's bows walked in. He listened for a while then came up and introduced himself. He told me : "you left your violin bow with me and you never picked it up." and he handedt it to me and left !
It is a very difficult instrument, very demanding. You should really start when you're five years old. It's an in and out instrument. I think the violin is the most living of all musical instruments, more so than the guitar would ever be. It talks to you, it tells you what it wants you to do and you have to listen. I'm not just talking from my standpoint. A lot of great violonist have said that. Then, there are little secrets about how to play and everybody has to find their own - because technically speaking it is impossible to play this instrument in tune and it has never been played in tune. We think it is in tune, our ears tell us it's in tune but you have to be able to hit something that is less than 1/10th of a millimiter with something that is 3 millimiters cross, how can you ? It is impossible. So by pushing it and hitting the note not quite right but by having your ear correct it in 100th of a millisecond, everybody thinks it is fine.
And to improvise on the instrument, that's where it becomes really difficult. It is not like playing a piece of Bach, where the notes are right in front of you. In jazz there are no notes, so you have to hear them. It's an instrument that demands that anyway, no matter if you're playing classical or Celtic Irish music or folk music... you have to hear the notes you want a split second before you play it - and that's a requirement in jazz, no matter what the instrument is.
Probably in some small way it was kind of my own intellectual rebelion against technology because you cannot push a button and play the violin.... a quiet revolution against the easy way."
How do you combine both instruments ? How do you decide when to play which ?
Art : "I answered it the other night because I had a wonderful quartet with my favorite musicians : Jean-Marc Jafet on bass, Jean-Luc Danna on drums and Jean-Yves Candela on piano. Jean-Marc Jafet had never heard me play the violin, Jean-Yves and I have played together the violin and the piano and Jean-Luc and I have played in trio with a bass, like the Coltrane style : violin drums and bass - no keyboards nor guitar.
I was thinking about it only maybe an hour before I went to play that night : Am I going to play guitar first and then play the violin or what ?
And I just decided no. I'll play violin first, that was the mood I felt like.
think the word mood has a lot to do with it. Sometimes I take the violin out and I can tell it is really going to be a struggle... How do I choose ? That night I decided I play violin first and I am glad I did because it was some of the best jazz violin playing I ever did...
The funny thing is after I started playing the violin, it started to affect my guitar playing."
Violinists who have influenced you ?
Art : "Didier Lockwood. I discovered him went I went to Paris for a vacation in 1997. He is a fabulous musician and a great composer. France should be very proud of him. He's opened a school for jazz. He's always helping young players.
Jean-Luc Ponty is the one who really showed me the way and left the Grappelli's style. Most people end up imitating Grappelli. I don't, even though I have 40 or 50 CD of him. I've listened to him a lot, he was a big influence but I didn't try to imitate him.
Jean-Luc Ponty did that album [H/L/P - Dreyfus Jazz] with Eddy Louiss on the organ and Daniel Humair in 68. He was only 19 or 20 years old - that was a whole new treatment of jazz violin playing. That was when the modern school of jazz wiolin was started. With Grappelli, Ponty and Lockwood, you have a whole series of great French violonist players."
What attracted you to come the South of France
Art : "I first came to the South France when I was on a tour with Lena Horne and came back under my own name a year and a half ago.
My wife is French - from Nice - and I've always been a francophile amateur. I've read French poetry and I've always been attracted to the French culture. Debussy, Ravel and Satie, they gave us the harmony. America has a lot to do with jazz but the modern school of harmony comes from the French composers. Bill Evans thought that, I don't think it is a controversial issue.
I came here last summer with a real unusual quartet : two guitars and two percussions - no bass. We played in different places, festivals and clubs and I got a lot of newspaper coverage.
I came back in November just by myself and met a lot of musicians, did some more work and a couple of free concerts. 9/11 had happened and I wanted to thank France for some of the volunteers work they had done, so I did free concerts for the mentally handicaped children in Menton. That was a great experience. The kids were marvellous.
We kind of let music become a trash can in the last 30 years or so. It is unfortunate. There are so many amateurs who are famous because they have a wonderful image or they won a contest or something like that... we need to start correcting that quickly or we're not going to have any music left soon.
Real music - which is done by real disciplined people who have put the time in - does have a way of communicating on levels that are not sensorial. It's like Louis Armstrong answering to some guy asking him what kind of music he was playing : "There is only two kind of music, there is good music and bad music. I play good music."
And that's really what it's all about wheither it's classical or jazz or alternative or rock..."
Do you continue teaching in San Diego ?
Art : "No. Actually, one of the reasons I came here was to take a break from teaching. I was a professor of jazz at San Diego State University for five years and I did a lot of private teaching over the years, and I have pretty much decided not to teach anymore. There is so much I want to teach myself, and there are a lot of different schools about teaching. Bill Evans had a great thing. I asked him once why he never taught : "Well, if I show somebody something I deprive them of the privilege of discovering it by themselves."
I've had hundreds of jazz students, not only guitarists, just learning to improvise and I don't think I've done anybody any harm except maybe me !
In a very funny way, I didn't get any teaching except from being around people playing better than me and trying to find what they did and listening. It is a listening art and I find that too many of my students were not listening in many ways. Some of them studied with me for three semesters and never came to see me play once. They missed the whole point.
I took lessons with Barney Kessel when I was in LA and I went to watch him everytime I could [He quit studio work and teaching all together and went to London in 1969]. I don't really have the desire anymore to teaching. If something came up that I thought I would really be indispensable then yes, a position that I thought I would have some good influence, but not just teaching."
You have recorded a guitar solo album produced by Barney Kessel... What is a challenge ?
Art : "The solo is a funny thing. I really love to play solo, it might be my favorite way to play because you're responsible for all the good and the bad and no one can get in your way. The bad thing is no one can help you either. It does give a certain sense of freedom and a certain feeling of accomplishment.
It was especially a challenge because the first tape was destroyed and I had to do it all over again when I thought I was done in my mind. So I waited about a month and went back to the studio and did the whole thing in two nights. It was a weird experience from that standpoint, plus being in the studio is much more difficult than the live. Live you're really focused on the audience - and I really play off the audience. If you're playing live, you're usually getting a more spontaneous affecting your jazz. In the studio you're looking at this dark room with some engineer who is about to fall asleep and you have to like psyche yourself into it. You have to really close your eyes and go somewhere with the music and sneake around until you find it. It is challenging and rewarding."
What are your projects ? Are you going to stay in France ?
Art : "More of less I really haven't decided about all of that. I am going back to the States at the end of November and I'll be there for three months doing some projects in California and then I'm planning on returning to Nice in March, doing some more concerts around here, also in Europe, hopefully maybe doing something in Paris while I'm here...
I would very much like to do a quartet album with Jean-marc Jafet, Jean-Yves Candela and Jean-Luc Danna. I'd like to do another solo guitar album but this time strickly on acoustic guitar - maybe classical guitar - with a lot of original compositions I've been kicking around in my head - some material that is kind of half classical and half jazz.
I've got seven or so CDs out and a lot of them were recorded one or two a year, and I'd like to just sit back. I have a nice demo CD with the quartet playing live with some very nice musical moments on it.
But my projects, you know, getting up in the morning and see what's up there!"
How do you see the evolution of jazz since the end of the 60's, when you started your career ?
Art : "It is a difficult question to answer with a cohesive, concise and complete statement. Jazz has to be defined in certain terms I think.
Jazz is an art form of the modern era. It started before WWII with the swing jazz and Django style and after WWII there was the bebop and then the cool jazz in the 50's - the more reflective, introspective style of jazz, much closer to Ravel and Debussy - then came the fusion style jazz and the post modern avant-garde.
I think we can look at some different famous personalities who exist right now, it is easier to talk from this vantage point.
A Pat Metheny writes a lot of his own material and a lot of it is very popular. It has a lot of rock element in it, he uses a very defined sound that he developped himself and everybody has copied it. It is fusion oriented. Even his album [Beyond the Missouri Sky] with Charlie Haden is what I would call a folk album, it is not a jazz album. I think that's how he intended it. It's a tribute to to folk music he heard in the Middle West when he was coming up.
So we have Pat Metheny who is encomposing a lot of influences as far as technology goes as far as pop music goes, and a Keith Jarrett who is playing simple standards. He's not playing all these Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane... incredibly hard tunes. He's playing "Autumn Leaves", "I love you", "I should care", "My Funny Valentine". I mean tunes that a lot of jazz players have thrown away because they have been played too much.
I lean a little more toward Jarrett's thinking. The tune, as long as it is a solid tune to explore and to continue to explore it and find new things on an old battleground is really where all of the joy does come.
You get a Dave Liebman and the Brecker's brothers and all these guys who are doing these incredible new things, technically really superior with all kind of chord sequences that people have never played before, really hard challenging stuff. That's another whole school that's not necessary on rock or pop influence but is what they call the New York jazz scene. There are a lot of global influences from the New York scene.
The real problem with jazz right now in its evolution is that it's name has been used by everybody who is not a jazzman : acid jazz, Cuban jazz, fusion jazz... there is only really one kind of jazz and it is guys playing standards : acoustic piano, acoustic bass, lighlty amplified guitars, drums, trumpet, tenor, trombone, whatever... that is jazz, the chore of what jazz is. And it is still what it always was.
I went to see Saint Germain at the Nice Festival last year to kind of have a look at this new thing and I liked it more than I thought I would, with the DJ conductiong the band. I thought it was an interesting move for jazz. I don't thing it will last long. I think people want to acoustic instruments.
We have a problem with the evolution of jazz because the main school of all jazz players were the clubs and it's not anymore because the club scene is not what it used to be. They were the schools. You grabbed your instrument and you went to the all night jam session that started at 2 and went on till 6 in the morning, and if you were not good, you'd go home and practice and come back again, and the musicians would smile if they saw you came back.
All jazz players stand on the shoulders of every jazz players that came before, good or bad. You learn a lot from bad musicians, you learn what not to do, which is just as important as learning what to do.
I think, to finalise, that jazz is very intricately connected with the social and economic fabric of the entire world. As long as we have a Jennifer who can make a lot of money, even thought she has not talent, as long as we keep this lowest common denominator quick buck kind of thing - that was born in America - this commercial jump in / jump out attitude, all music that is any worth