By: Ben Lokovsky
Imagine listening to a seasoned jazz musician rip into a bebop solo so sizzling and smooth it makes your senses tingle. Close your eyes and play along. Try and picture the sweat bouncing off the performer like the notes that leap through the air. See if you can hear the mesmerizing melodies go up and down, bringing you through joy and sadness, taking your emotions on a sensory experience unlike any other. Now picture that musician and his beloved instrument: His voice.
That's the art of vocalese, and that's what native D.C. son George V Johnson Jr. has been doing for over 40 years.
Working as a performer, a D.C. Metrobus driver and a New Jersey train conductor at different times throughout his life, Johnson's latest work has taken the form of pedagogy. He has become a teacher and mentor to both aspiring and established vocalists from around the area, and most recently he has lent his years of experience and talent to AU, leading the AU jazz vocal ensemble.
Despite his lack of formal musical training, Johnson was exposed to music early in his life, straight from some of the greatest jazz pioneers in the District's history. Even before he was 10 years old, Johnson was already hanging out at the jam sessions held by the resident manager of his apartment building, also a pianist. There he would come to watch and - if he was lucky - sing for pocket change from local legends like Shirley Horn and Buck Hill.
When he was 22, Johnson showed up for a workshop at the famous Pigfoot Club, now long gone from the D.C. landscape, only to win over the respect and affection of pianist John Malachi, an international star who was a member of the original Billy Eckstine Be Bop Orchestra. He played alongside luminaries like Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon and Sarah Vaughan. It was through his relationship with Malachi that Johnson was able to meet and befriend his childhood idol, singer Eddie Jefferson. Considered by many as the father of vocalese, the practice of setting recorded instrumental solos to lyrics, Jefferson already knew of Johnson when they first met in Fort Dupont Park in Southeast D.C.
"I guess my reputation preceded me up to New York, because [traveling musicians stopping through the Pigfoot] would tell Eddie, 'There's a young cat singing your stuff,'" Johnson said.
After three years of patiently watching Jefferson perform, Johnson finally received a call from up to the stage to perform with him at a club in Philadelphia. Johnson still remembers the exact words uttered by Jefferson that night: "This is one of my students, George V Johnson ... he's next in line," Johnson said.
Years later, after Jefferson was murdered in Detroit, Johnson made the essential exodus for any jazz musician: A trip to New York City. Within a year of moving there he was already busting his chops with some serious jazz heavyweights, singing with the likes of James Moody, Lou Donaldson and Pharoah Sanders, and even writing lyrics and performing for Sanders on his classic 1981 record "REJOICE."
After singing for 10 years with Moody in New York, Johnson was forced to get a day job to help support his growing family. He never forgot his main love though, and would travel sporadically down to D.C. with Moody and his band. It was during those many trips that he first performed at the Twins Lounge in Northwest D.C. After moving back to Washington in the summer of 2005, Johnson resumed his relationship with the Twins establishments, organizing and hosting a 12-hour music marathon with 100 local musicians as a fundraiser for Hurricane Katrina Victims.
Since then, he has performed and taught a weekly vocalese workshop every Wednesday at Twins Lounge, where on many nights you can stop by and hear him lending his rich, throaty yet smooth vocals to revered jazz standards as well as wide range of original pieces. His voice is distinctive yet amazingly approachable, but when he attacks a solo, he often transforms into a churning chromatic trumpet, blazing away at a rate at which any instrumentalist would be jealous.
One instrumentalist who couldn't help but take notice was AU music professor Dr. Will Smith. After playing together at the former BET jazz club, Smith immediately felt a connection with Johnson's unmistakable voice. It became clear that Smith knew his collaborator formally as Mr. Johnson, [the voice of the train Smith would take every day from New Jersey to high school in Manhattan.]
Currently, Johnson is dedicated to putting lyrics to the songs of Hank Mobley, and is also striving to lead the world's first vocalese choir.