“All things come to those who wait,” so said British poet Violet Fane, back in 1892. Heinz spinned it with “The best things come to those who wait.” Whoever gets the credit, that’s the moral of the story about how TrueFire connected with jazz guitar monster, Henry Johnson.
Henry had been on my personal radar screen for a very long time. I’d always been a big fan of the organ trios from the sixties, which featured legendary guitarists like Howard Roberts, Grant Green, Kenny Burrell, George Benson and Wes Montgomery.
From my viewpoint, their guitar work in those organ trios had monumental impact on the guitarist’s role in every band setting to come. It featured: long improvised solos, blazing fretwork, and sophisticated comping. As a guitar player, how could you not be drawn to that music? Henry certainly was.
“I started playing guitar at a very early age — mostly gospel and R&B — but when I started listening to the music of Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, and George Benson, I knew immediately that was the direction I wanted to go myself.”
Henry’s first tour was with Jack McDuff, the seminal organ trio leader. He went on to work with Hank Crawford, Freddie Hubbard, Ramsey Lewis, Jimmy Smith, Sonny Stitt, Stanley Turrentine, Joe Williams, and many other groundbreaking artists. Old enough to have played with artist such as these, Henry was also young enough to carry the torch forward and craft his own signature sound.
Henry’s debut album, You’re the One, won a five-star rating from Downbeat magazine, was nominated for a Grammy, and was described by a JazzTimes review as “a thoughtful piece of work, which may well become a jazz guitar classic.” Henry has recorded a number of other albums and has recorded and performed with luminaries such as Ramsey Lewis, Vanessa Ruben, Richie Cole, Nancy Wilson, and Dizzy Gillespie, among others.
I’ve followed Henry’s rise almost from the beginning, and was finally introduced to him through a mutual friend. Naturally, I practically begged the man to come and do a TrueFire project with us. That was almost ten years ago. Henry was open to the idea, but he was (and still is) a very busy cat.
We’d touch base with each other a few times a year. I’d dangle whatever carrot I could to get him to carve out time for us. But the stars just didn’t align…that is until just a few months ago, and we leapt on that opportunity with everything we had.
We filmed his Jazz Expressions course and launched it as quickly as we could. Response was through the roof (as I knew it would). Sometimes, you just don’t know how a project will be received, but I had no doubt about this one.
Sure, a commercial success is always rewarding. But for me, getting to spend some quality time with a guitar hero of mine; getting to see him in the flesh do his thing; getting to know him a little better — that was the big payoff.
Truth is, there was no better time to do this project with Henry, and we wouldn’t have achieved what we did if we attempted it ten or even five years ago. So yea, I’ll go with Heinz on this one, “The best things come to those who wait.”
We asked Henry if he would answer our Proust-like questionnaire so that Riff readers could get to know him a little better and of course, he happily complied.
What is it about the guitar that attracted you to it originally, and still fascinates you today?
What continues to fascinate me about the guitar is its ability to fit into so many roles in all genres of music. It can be an unaccompanied solo instrument, a featured instrument, part of the rhythm section, an instrument which can accompany, and an instrument to compose on as well. It can be musically, almost anything to anybody. I guess that’s one of the reasons why it has maintained its long-standing popularity.
Your idea of happiness?
Happiness for me is seeing and meeting people who are affected in a positive way by my music; this is why I play music. Hopefully, I can leave the world a better place than when I came into it.
Whether living or dead, who would you like to have dinner with?
LOL. Well, that list is a LONG one indeed, and seems to change every week with me. But, at this moment, I would love to have dinner with Wes Montgomery. Everyone who knew him told me that he was a very funny guy, but very wise, as well as being an outstanding musician.
Name three things a player can do to improve their musicianship.
Well I guess the first thing would be to LISTEN to a lot of the great music that came before you. As boring as it may sound, a solid knowledge of where your particular instrument’s place is in history will help you grow as a musician. Knowing the historical path of where your instrument came from will push you to want to see where else it can go. This goes for ANY genre of music.
The second thing I would say is to become a student of the music you like. I don’t mean in a book kind of way, I’m talking about developing a curiosity about the music. Finding out why and what it is that gives you so much pleasure and joy when you listen to music. Why does it make you feel the way it does? Can you learn to use that in your music? Yes? Then, borrow those elements for yourself as well!
The third thing I would mention is to think of music like a language; how do you learn to improve any language skills? Learn more vocabulary, and how to use it! Music is a life long journey; you’ll NEVER know everything there is to know about it, but if you keep adding more musical knowledge to what you do know, you’ll just keep improving and getting better, and that’s really what we’re all trying to do.
If not yourself, who would you be?
Hmmm, that’s an interesting question. Both of my parents did a pretty good job of teaching me how to be accepting of myself and comfortable in my own skin. I was taught this at a very early age, so the thought of being anyone else has never crossed my mind. It’s like the thing with your own shadow; wherever YOU go, there YOU are.
Given the changing business landscape of the music business and how tough it is to sell records etc. — what are the positives about the current evolution of the music business?
I have to say that the music business has changed so much, that it’s almost unrecognizable to older artists who came up with record retail stores, record companies, and radio stations not owned by corporations. But, having said that, technology and social media have leveled the playing field for independent musicians everywhere.
Successful live gigs have always been about filling up seats in a room. Back then, the only way of getting to people was advertising on the radio, TV, newspapers, and word of mouth. But now, artists have direct access to their fans and all it takes is an email blast to get the fans to come.
I would say that’s a definite plus, because it can lead to more opportunities for work, where you can sell your products to your fans who support you. As your fan base grows, so does your name value.
It’s always been tough for independent artists without a label to sell records, but now it’s tough for everybody. It’s great to see how these young artists have learned how to market themselves to their fans, and use it as a means to succeed without getting ripped off by big labels. Hey, even Dolly Parton has her own label!
Your favorite motto?
“Energy follows thought; and powerful thoughts will turn into things”
What do you dream about? Literally.
I use my dreams to solve musical problems, or any other issues that I may be dealing with. For me, if I think of the issue as I fall off to sleep, my subconscious mind is free to work on solving it for me. Some sort of answer usually comes to me during the day when I’m awake.
What are your aspirations?
To keep doing what I’ve been doing all my life; play music, share it with other people in the world, and hopefully, try to make a difference in someone’s life from playing it.
What one event in music history would you have loved to have experienced in person?
That one is easy; I would’ve LOVED to witness “Smoking At The Half Note” being recorded live by Wes Montgomery and the Wynton Kelly Trio!
Your favorite heroes in fiction?
I don’t normally do a fiction thing, but I did grow up liking the Marvel Universe and DC Universe super heroes. The fact that technology has advanced to the point where these super heroes can be presented in movies in the same fashion they were conceived is really a lot of fun for my generation.
What or who is the greatest love of your life?
That would be my wife, Lynn. We were looking for each other when we met. We knew it right away. Her having almost the same LP collection that I had, was a dead give away too! Even now, when she comes to hear me play, she will later tell me what song melodies I sneaked into some of my solos. She knows more songs than me!
Your favorite food and drink?
I have been traveling the world since 1976, so I have way too many favorite foods and drink to list here, but we can start with Cajun food from New Orleans.
In your next life, what or who would you like to come back as and why?
Well, that poses the question of, how do I know who I was in my last life, and how could I be sure I wasn’t repeating some of them? I can’t answer yours without answering this one first. Sorry, got to be sure, you know? LOL
The natural talent you’d like to be gifted with (other than music)?
Hands down, I would like a photographic memory.
In life or in music, what is the one central key learning that you’d like to pass on to others?
I would pass on this: learn to accept yourself and your uniqueness as an asset; don’t worry about trying to be different when you were already born that way. Ever wonder how ten pianists can sit down at the SAME piano, and all sound totally different? It’s ten different personalities! No matter how much you try to sound or play like someone else, your DNA only allows you to be YOU. Take your hero’s knowledge, and allow it to emerge through your unique personality. Be proud of your own uniqueness.