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Skip Johnson -  An Appreciation


    Bassist Robert Campbell sent me an e-mail the other day and when I saw Skip Johnson’s name in the subject line my heart sank.  Fearing the worst, I opened the message and there, alone in my basement, I silently read that Skip Johnson had died suddenly of a heart attack.  He was 77.

     Of all the bassists I’ve worked with over the past thirty years or so, Skip is the one I worked with most often.    I first met him (I’m guessing in 1979) when Ace Tesone sent him in as a sub.  I immediately liked his playing and from then on we played a lot together in stints at Downey’s, the Palace Hotel, The Rittenhouse Hotel and innumerable gigs around Philadelphia.

     He was a fine bassist, and beneath an exterior that could go from gregarious to brusque, there beat a quiet and gentle heart.

     As for his playing, he had the breadth of the best of his generation, which is to say that while he came of age in the bop era, he was old enough to have a memory of, and even a taste for, what preceded it.  This was reflected not only by his willingness to do a broad range of repertoire – a lot of jazz players are caged in their Real Books for their entire working lives – but also in his style of playing.  While too many bassists (to my mind) were trying to play their instruments as if they were alto saxophones, lightly trebling around high on the finger board, Skip still pulled on the strings strongly, percussively.  It was a big fat sound – a bass sound – and it did what a bassist is supposed to do: lay down a rhythmic and harmonic foundation.  And when occasionally he would do a solo, he could get up high on the finger board too, but it was never fancy or showy.  His solos always had a spare lyricism about them, as though it were more important to be musical than dramatic or arcane.

     Like a lot of bass players, Skip knew his way around a piano too and I recall one time before a job Skip was sitting at the piano  playing I Could Write a Book,  messing with the ending phrase, thinking it really ought to be harmonized this way, not that way.  Skip had ideas.

     Skip knew all of the hip changes, of course, but he wasn’t tied to them.  He had the taste to shape his playing to the requirements of the job, and this accommodation not only made for better music, it made him easy to work with.  One final thing about his playing, Skip was not inclined, as I confess I sometimes was, to settle into boredom. He was always one to try to inject a little energy into things, to get something moving. In a business that can slide into to tedium more easily than one might think, this quality made Skip a pleasure to work with.

     Skip’s personality is harder to render.  The service sheet at his funeral described him as “private” which I think is fitting, for while I can still hear his booming voice and hearty laugh, there was something essentially reserved and quiet, even contemplative, about Skip.   I got the sense that he could size people up in a second, but he never let on.  He took things in and kept his own counsel.

      His self-possession manifested itself in another more gracious way.  Bandstands are sometimes subtly competitive, but Skip never seemed to get into a clash of egos.  He was a generation older and far more experienced than I but he never used that to cow me or force his way.  On the contrary, he was patient and flexible and, without being superior, he taught me stuff.

     The collegiality of musicians is an odd sort of thing.  You spend most of your time communicating non-verbally, punctuated by the standard twenty minutes of forced togetherness in which the conversation becomes too frequently a sort of shop talk ranging between banality and gossip.  Skip didn’t do the latter.  Politic and naturally reserved, Skip was loath to ever say anything bad about anyone, or reveal too much of himself.

     Still, over the years, I felt I got to know Skip. He parceled himself out, little by little.  I learned about some of the players he’d worked with, Benny Golson, Mose Allison, Earl Bostic, Shirley Scott.  I learned about his family a little, his kids Bruce and Marsha and his wife Helen, whom I knew only from the telephone.  I learned that for awhile he played classical cello, and I remember one time – getting back to his range of taste – that he admired the admittedly square Carmen Cavallero.

      In short, Skip was a man of many facets, loudly affable, but essentially quiet, famously curt on the telephone when talking business, but happy to spend a half hour on the phone in these last years when we’d chat once in a blue moon to catch up, in many ways an inward, private man and yet one with such a winning smile that the Showboat Casino used his photo in its print ads.  I am pained to think that I had intended to call Skip in the week when I found out he died, not just to say hello, but to ask him about something.  Now I must console myself with his memory.  I will miss him, but he will not be far from me as long as I am playing piano for he comes to mind on many a tune where he set me straight on a chord change or had a particular way of playing a passage.  It was always good.

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