Drum Dynamo J.J. Johnson’s Saving Grace
Powerhouse Austin drummer strips down to his bare essence
Existence for J.J. Johnson means continually stripping down to one bare essence: Drums.
"You've got to put the work and time in, to be armed and prepared," he says. "Being in position is being in any position. Then, also doing it with feeling, and learning from it. Those are important principles for me."
If there's one thing Johnson isn't, it's flippant. About anything – music, relationships, his stylishness. Even when he pronounces the avocado toast "amazing," he does so with intensity and intention. He means everything.
The longtime Austinite's disciplined drumming runs a parallel gamut. Controlled phrase shaping and power peppering evolved through decades of practiced reasoning and sheer enthusiasm for craft. Johnson thus remains a singular essence, more culmination of ideas than mere percussionist.
By shedding all excess weight – physically, metaphorically, metaphysically – he stays ready. As a result, he's performed with a broad musical spectrum, including country, pop, and rock superstars such as Sugarland, John Mayer, and his current employers, Tedeschi Trucks Band. Professionalism accounts for any and all genre accompaniment.
In hindsight, Johnson boasts two intertwined origin stories. First comes the traditional version: Jarrod Jerrell Johnson, born Feb. 6, 1970, eldest child to Frankie and Carl Johnson of San Antonio, a former school principal and retired command sergeant major in the U.S. Army, respectively. Then there's that particular breed of Texan teen who quit high school sports to pursue the arts.
"J.J. decided, as a junior, that he wanted to play in the band," begins his mother proudly. "Since he hadn't been playing, people had established their positions as first chair and so on. So his year was consumed with drum lessons. As a senior, they told him all he could play was bass drum, and he said, 'Okay, I'll do it.'
"He took on that demeaning position. Who really wants to play the bass drum as a senior?
"One day, the first drum chair was out and they asked if anyone could play his trap set," she continues. "J.J. raised his hand and they kind of chuckled, like, 'Look at this bass drummer, thinking he can play.' But, he got in there and played. They ended up taking him to competitions rather than the other young man.
"He was prepared."
"My entire life, my parents never addressed me by my proper name," reveals Johnson. "It's always been J.J. I had no real connection to my [full] name. It was just on paper."
He's not even the first "J.J." in the family. His father, a Vietnam veteran and former recreational trumpeter, assumed the nickname "J.J." with no apparent meaning for the initials until his son was born. After being discharged from an Army hospital following recovery from war wounds, the elder Johnson re-enlisted two weeks later and settled with his wife in San Antonio. The couple spent portions of J.J.'s childhood in Europe.
"He was very loving, and easy to rear – until his siblings came along," says his mother.
Kerwin, a former NAIA All-American and current coach of women's soccer at University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, arrived four years later. Sister Jade, who works in animal medicine, followed. Both remember J.J.'s bands rehearsing throughout the house.
"He played rock & roll, hip-hop, and jazz," says Kerwin. "They dressed up like Kiss some days. It was cool watching him, because nobody thought it would be what it is now."
This admixture speaks to living within the Alamo City's largely suburban musical temperament. Johnson had no predominant live scenes to gravitate toward, aside from conjunto. Internalizing his parents' soul and blues inclination, he remembers James Brown's unbridled "Soul Power" being the first groove he hammered out.
"I always had these open ideas of music," he explains. "At one point, my father was like, 'What's this wild shit you're listening to?'"
On Aug. 21, 1983, music took on a whole new meaning for the budding beat keeper.
Then 13, Johnson's other recreational outlets included hopping on the back of his best friend's motorbike. The two had beaten a well-worn track into the spotty knolls under an overpass. One afternoon, they warned another pair of riders about traversing the track backwards.
"There was an understanding about the route, and the way you rode the track," says Johnson.
He stops and starts, holding back tears, still processing the meaning of that day. At some point, he recalls tiring, and jumping off the bike.
"[My friend] goes about 100 yards and there's a blind curve with branches sticking out, so you can't see what's coming around the corner," he says. "Sure enough, I just remember time stopping and seeing two guys flying in the air. It's so fast and so slow at the same time, but the sound kicks on.
"I run over, the bike is in gear on its side, and Brent is face down. I turn him over – there's blood coming out of his nose, out of his mouth and his ears. I just knew."
Brent Williams Norris tragically lost his life at 12.
"At that point, music became what I had to do," says Johnson. "It was my salvation."
Kicks Are for Kids
Renowned instructor and musician Jeff Ryder emphasizes the technical aspects of drumming, reading music over play-by-ear virtuosity, as well as genre diversity, including various Latin subgenres and jazz.
"People are always surprised when I tell them that J.J., at his root, is a heavy metal drummer," muses Ryder. "My philosophy is the more you know, the more you enjoy playing, and the better you play. You have to have some kind of music language in order to talk to the other musicians."
"He's like, 'Look, you need to know this stuff so that you're prepared for any musical situation that's thrown your way,'" affirms Ryder's mentee. "That's what being a musician is about."
Johnson's move to New Orleans served as a viable alternative to New York or Los Angeles in pursuing jazz. He ventured out alongside bassist Eric Revis, his friend and playing partner from 1989-93. He thought about going back to college, this time at University of New Orleans, but ultimately the city's immense talent pool dissuaded Johnson.
J.J.'s talent "sort of meted itself out," explains Revis. "I tell this to my students: Teaching jazz is somewhat counterintuitive, because when you first start playing, 'more is more.' You're impressed by facility and nailing as many notes as possible. For J.J. to be that young and not be enamored with that was impressive."
Johnson credits Revis as effectively doubling down on Ryder's tutelage in real time.
"He pushed me like nobody else in the way I approach my music, and as a man – as a black man," he discloses.
Constant tearing down and building up didn't only happen with Revis. Navigating the Crescent City music scene can resemble trying to crack a Rubik's Cube. For a year, Johnson commuted regularly back to Texas to help pay his NOLA rent. He continued woodshedding, attempting to solve the puzzle, before finally moving to Austin in 1993.
Meeting up with other young bulls, Johnson fell in with guitarist Billy White, pianist Fred Sanders, trumpeter Ephraim Owens, and saxophonist Elias Haslanger. He played in many Haslanger iterations, also recording For the Moment and underrated near-classic Kicks Are for Kids.
"We had this simpatico rapport," says Haslanger. "We saw time the same way together, phrases and resolutions. Whatever I did, he was going to be right there with me. It's one of the best musical collaborations of my life."
The two locals also forged a tested and true friendship, wherein music has long ceased being the focal point.
"Music is a big part, but it's just one slice of the pie," continues the saxophonist. "Musicians are so myopic in their focus on the music that it's all they have room for. That's why relationships suffer, health suffers. J.J. sees it as part of the journey."
Five years ago, Johnson's health suffered. He contracted atrial fibrillation, an irregular, often elevated heart rate that disrupts blood circulation. Already burning the candle at both ends physically, Johnson endured a divorce as well. Mind and body fully taxed, the man charged with keeping time lost control of what kept his.
He admits that the driving beat of his career and ambition has caused resentment among his children, two adult daughters and a 9-year-old son. Truisms that we all become our parents distinctly apply to Johnson given the parallels to his father's military career. The irony in consequences isn't lost on the drummer where his kids are concerned.
"[Being a musician] is the best opportunity I have to provide for them," he says. "And that entails me being gone for extended periods. As they get older, they're more understanding, but it's definitely been challenging at times."
Are You Gonna Go My Way
In 2003, Johnson received a voicemail from one "John Clayton Mayer," asking if he'd venture back east to audition for his road band. Prior to flying out, the live music capitalist cut the entire debut of ATX indie rockers Oliver Future.
"I'm talking 10-12 songs in one day," he grimaces. "Then, I had three or four songs to learn for the audition. By the time I'd arrived, I was so exhausted that there was no room to be nervous."
Once in New York, Johnson jumped right into the audition and band.
Beginning just after Mayer's debut Room for Squares and culminating the guitarist's first trio phase, the eight-year run elevated its drummer to main stages worldwide. Open to interpretation of his tunes, Mayer actively encouraged the Texan to be himself – to shed any rhythmic inhibitions. Lenny Kravitz wasn't quite as accommodating.
Johnson's dubious turn with the "Are You Gonna Go My Way" icon began by accepting an offer to jam. Similar to the Mayer audition, he dove into the singer's staples on arrival. That's when Kravitz turned from Lenny, the superstar, to Lenny, the big-time college coach in recruiting mode, staying in his prospect's ear, giving him the full-court press.
Mayer still counted the Austinite on his payroll even as the established threesome of bassist Pino Palladino and his studio drummer Steve Jordan began to coalesce. Kravitz wasn't taking "no" for an answer then or any other time, and "on paper, it all looked great. There were things going on that made sense aesthetically," says Johnson, who called Mayer to explain the situation. "I think he was taken aback, but he respected it," says Johnson.
Transition in place, things began to go pear-shaped almost immediately. Once Johnson joined the rest of the group at the bandleader's palatial Miami estate, what he calls "Camp Kravitz" took effect. That included a specific workout regime and only eating foods prepared by Kravitz's personal chef.
"It was cultish," says the local. "We were living in this mansion, but we'd also work there. At the end of the day, I needed some distance from that."
Kravitz's studio micromanagement and bouts of pettiness also grated on Johnson.
"We'd get into these really inane conversations about parts. I'm a stickler for detail, but I felt like these were mind games. It escalated to a point where I was waking up every day hating it. I didn't even make it to the tour."
Another short stint with Mayer, who took him back after the Kravitz debacle, followed, then turns with Boz Scaggs, country-pop duo Sugarland, and Gary Clark Jr. and Doyle Bramhall II. He eventually met Derek Trucks in Atlanta through the latter Arc Angel. Trucks pitched Johnson on joining as second drummer of what became Tedeschi Trucks Band, the fusion of his band with that of now-wife Susan Tedeschi.
Johnson arrived in Jacksonville to audition and jam with drummer Tyler Greenwell from Tedeschi's band.
"He was listening, leaving space; I could hear his story," says Johnson. "So I was like, 'This could work.'"
"I don't even think the playing had anything to do with it," offers Greenwell. "We're totally different drummers, but we hear music the same. The chemistry happened completely off the stage, and away from instruments. We've gotten it to this point because of our friendship.
"I don't think it could work without it."
Let Him Play
"Oh God, you can't print our thoughts," says Frankie Johnson about her son's decision to pursue music. "Being in the military and education, you always push for professions where you get retirement, insurance."
Years ago, her husband Carl had a chance conversation with saucy San Antonio singer Mel Waiters, now deceased. The journeyman R&B legend gave his old friend blunt advice about his son.
"He told me, 'Let the guy play what he wants to play, so that he can be happy,'" recalls the patriarch.
The Johnsons thus unshackled their first-born from the pressures of unrealistic parental expectations.
"So that he can be happy," repeats Carl Johnson.
Tedeschi Trucks Band returns to ACL Live at the Moody Theater on Sept. 23.