A new generation of jazz
Son of musician helps carry on once-thriving jazz scene in Lawrence
Catch trumpeter Tommy Johnson Jr. playing at one of these upcoming performances:
Dec. 21 with Blueprint, Five Bar and Tables, 947 Massachusetts St., 7 p.m.
Dec. 24 with Dave Shelton, Tap Room, 19 E. Eighth St., 10 p.m.
Dec. 28 with Blueprint, Five Bar and Tables, 947 Massachusetts St., 7 p.m.
Dec. 28 with Dirty Dillons, Jazzhaus, 926 1/2 Massachusetts St., 10 p.m.
Friday nights at the Five Bar, there’s a throwback to a different era of Lawrence’s historic music scene.
Don’t call it old-fashioned — these twentysomething players are thoroughly modern — but there’s a sense of history in all jazz music, evoking memories of musicians with names like Dizzy, Bird and Count. Catch Tommy Johnson Jr. gracefully bringing his beloved trumpet into the fray on one of those nights, and there’s just that bit extra. On top of the stories about jazz legends, Johnson’s playing can tell you stories about the lesser-known local heroes, of the Gaslight Gang and of an era when jazz flowed up and down Massachusetts Street just as often and as beautifully as it did at 18th and Vine in Kansas City.
Johnson, 25, is a Kansas University doctoral student in chemistry currently on a fellowship in California. But he’ll be back in a couple of weeks, and the old-timers and new generation of Lawrence’s jazz scene will be waiting for him.
Talking with Tommy Jr., in an interview in the Kansas Union before his last Lawrence gig for a while, his face brightens up into a sheepish grin as he admits he tries to listen to music that isn’t jazz on his iPod. He really tries, but jazz is just too good, too easy to get lost in. Jazz is so complex, he says, so historically significant and yet so ever-evolving. It’s about collaboration.
It wasn’t really until high school that he discovered jazz and began playing it. Before then, he always knew it was there, growing up with his trumpet-playing, band-member father, Tommy Johnson Sr. But it wasn’t until later that Tommy Jr. felt it in his bones.
Tommy Jr. says his parents didn’t heavily influence him to take up trumpet, or to pursue a career outside of music to pay the bills as they did. He came to those decisions on his own, but watching his passion develop into dedication, talent and awards, local jazz regulars can’t help but see a significant lineage in the younger Tommy’s craft.
The Rev. Paul Gray is one of those local jazz regulars, though he doesn’t play as he used to be. He was an undergrad from 1965 to 1969 and, with the late Tommy Sr., started the Gaslight Gang, a sometimes seven- or eight-piece jazz band of full-time, professional musicians that lasted until the late 1980s.
Gray started the Jazzhaus, 926 1/2 Massachusetts St., in 1974 and owned it until 1982. The club’s house band was a big deal — big enough to make it to the finals of pre-reality TV’s “Your All-American College Show” plus record an “Andy Griffith Show” special in Hollywood — but they weren’t the only gang in town.
“Lawrence was always a rock town,” Gray says. The 7th Spirit, an underground club that was literally underneath where Liberty Hall is now, was a good spot for rock bands with horn sections. “But in the ’70s and ’80s especially, there was jazz. You could find live jazz five, six, seven nights a week. There was somewhat of a resurgence.”
Those days are no more, he’ll tell you, but the Gaslight Gang’s legacy lives on in its small ways. You can still find their recordings, if you look hard enough, and Gray and Tommy Jr. are two of many members of Junkyard Jazz, a multigenerational group that plays weekly at the American Legion.
Gray, now a pastor at New Life in Christ Church, 619 Vermont St., says that his decision — like Tommy Sr.’s — to stay in Lawrence was based on the belief that Lawrence is a place where a musician could have a good life.
“I thought if I could make this our home base, I could do it, and raise a family in a Midwestern-values kind of way. Fortunately, it worked out for a couple of decades,” Gray says.
Tommy Jr. says that it was at his father’s funeral two and a half years ago that he felt the community of Lawrence and Kansas City musicians come together, a sense of bond that he’s pursuing through his regular gigs today.
“It’s tough to see the jazz culture here, but when you find the musicians and really hear their stories, you can see Lawrence has so much potential,” he says. “Musicians (here) are so close and accepting of all kinds.”
And so Tommy Jr.’s generation forges Lawrence’s jazz onward, in his band, Blueprint, and others playing weekly shows at Five Bar and Pachamama’s, musicians in their own right, but with that sense of history.
“I can close my eyes and it’s easy to imagine it’s his dad playing,” Gray says with a hint of nostalgia in his voice. “And that’s a good thing. He’s very good.”