Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Johansson, Jan

Jan Johansson possessed a clear technical virtuosity on many instruments, and is viewed by many as Sweden’s most important jazz pianist. His top-selling 1964 album Jazz på Svenska was the first to use Scandinavian folk songs as vehicles for jazz improvisation.

Jan Johansson was born on September 16, 1931, just outside of the eastern coastal town of Söderhamn in the Hälsingland province, which lies approximately 140 miles (225 km) north of Stockholm. His family endeavored musically, but mainly as a hobby. Johansson’s father, Valter, was a self-taught amateur musician who directed and wrote arrangements for a local brass band.

Valter also had a curiosity for shortwave radio and other technology, which Jan inherited. When Jan was at the elementary and middle school level, his mother (who was a teacher), taught him piano. He continued to develop as a classical pianist, and by his early teens played challenging solo repertoire by Schubert, Mozart, Chopin, and Beethoven.

Learning to play jazz in local groups, he tackled accordion and guitar between 1947 and 1950. Once high school ended, Johansson entered compulsory military service in the Signal Corps, where he continued to play classical piano and guitar as a hobby. In September 1952, he entered the Chalmers Institute of Technology in Gothenburg, aiming to become a civil engineer with a concentration in low-voltage electro-technology.

While at Chalmers, he became the musical director for university theater productions called “spex” which were parodies of historical subjects dominated by song and witty dialogue. In selecting the music for one spex called Gustav E:son Vasa (Gustav Vasa the Eleventh) in 1955, Johansson happened upon the song “Emigrantvisa” (also titled “De Sålde Sina Hemman”), which he would make a jazz classic in Sweden some years later.

Johansson’s years in Gothenburg were spent directing the musical spectacles known as “spex” and jamming in local nightclubs like Wauxhall and Gasque Cellar. Here he would play with visiting musicians of note such as Clifford Brown, Danish violinist Svend Asmussen, and local active musicians like bassist Gunnar Johnson and drummer Kenneth Fagerlund.

In the summer of 1955, Gunnar Johnson put together a group to play and tour the Swedish folk parks with vocalist Sonya Hedenbratt. Johansson was hired to be a part of this band, which collaborated with Stan Getz towards the end of its tour in a sudden stint of concerts. In December, tenor saxophonist Hacke Björksten led a quintet featuring Johansson in a recording session in Stockholm, and the resulting EP went on to win the Golden Disc award from Orkester Journalen the following year.

In May of 1956, Johansson would record his first session as a leader in Gothenburg, a trio date that he described as “an ideal opportunity for self-torture.” The fledgling jazz pianist spent the upcoming summer again touring Sweden with Gunnar Johnson’s Quintet. While most of the year had less work other than club dates and short weekend tours, the summers continued to be full of gigging opportunities for Johansson. He continued to work with Gunnar Johnson in Gothenburg club dates, summer tours, and various recordings. One tour led the group, with Getz participating, to Norway, after which one reviewer summarized Johansson’s playing by saying, “He owns a virtuosity seldom heard in jazz pianists, displaying truly modernistic phrasing and a rich register of harmonic tools that emphasizes dissonant tonalities.”

Johansson now had enough experience to pursue being a musician full-time, although he hesitated to give up the prospects of a regular working life for some time. His ability to live this double-life of daytime studies at Chalmers and nighttime gigging would only last so long, and at some point between 1956 and 1958, his time at Chalmers ended unsuccessfully, and without a diploma.

In the winter of 1959, Stan Getz formed a quartet to play at Jazzhus Montmartre in Copenhagen, Denmark along with Americans Oscar Pettiford (bass) and Joe Harris (drums). Getz asked Johansson to join the quartet, and this apprenticeship at Montmartre lasted for ten months (with short breaks), allowing Johansson to gain wider recognition and gain influence from legendary jazzmen, namely Pettiford, who would continue to record with Johansson after the Montmartre gig ended in 1960.

With the relation to Getz solidified, Johansson was fortunate enough to be included on concerts in Stockholm and Copenhagen as a part of Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) in Europe shows, and notably was the first European to be a part of this organization. The Stan Getz Quartet would include Oscar Peterson Trio bandmates Ray Brown (bass) and Ed Thigpen (drums), with Johansson holding down the piano chair.

Gothenburg was becoming less fertile ground for jazz music towards the later 1950s, due in part to the influence of rock music on local establishments. Johansson found an outlet through a record company devoted initially to documenting the “spex” productions at Chalmers. Megafon records released a series of three EP’s by Johansson, the first of which was titled Mäster Johansgatan 12 (Master Johan’s Street, No. 12), which won Johansson a Golden Disc award from Orkester Journalen in 1960. This would be the second time his involvement resulted in this award, but more were still to come.

After a move to Stockholm in 1961, Johansson began associations with top Swedish jazz artists. Saxophonist/clarinetist Arne Domnérus hired him as a replacement for pianist Gunnar Svensson for recording projects and showcases at the famous dance hall Nalen. A trio album titled 8 Bitar Johansson (8 Pieces of Johansson) won the pianist his third Golden Disc award from Orkester Journalen, and includes the songs “Willow Weep for Me” and “Prisma.” Johansson also began recording with guitarist Rune Gustafsson around this time, appearing on the latter’s Young Guitar, as well as dueting on guitar on the album Johansson & Gustafsson.

Between 1962 and 1964, Johansson released three significant EPs of Swedish folk songs from various counties of the country. These selections, which included “Emigrantvisa” and “Visa från Utanmyra” were researched from a twenty-four-volume compendium of Swedish songs published between 1933 and 1944.

The songs were arranged for duet with acoustic bass, provided by Georg Riedel, a colleague from the Arne Domnérus Band at the time. The resulting tracks were then compiled on an LP released in 1964 titled Jazz på Svenska (Jazz in Swedish).

Johansson had captured lightning in a bottle with these recordings, and his place in Scandinavian jazz was solidified. The album since has sold over 200,000 copies, and among Swedish jazz lovers, it is regarded as an enduring “must-have” similar to Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue or Dave Brubeck’s Time Out.

Following up on the success of Jazz på Svenska, Johansson collaborated with a team of Sweden’s best jazz arrangers – Georg Riedel, Bengt Hallberg, and Bengt-Arne Wallin – in order to submit material to the Radio Monte Carlo competition titled Le Jazz de Ville et le Jazz des Champs (City Jazz and Country Jazz) in 1965. Their program of music titled Äventyr i Jazz och Folkmusik (An Adventure in Jazz and Folk Music) won the competition, and featured the Jan Johansson Quintet playing sprightly jazz to a field recording overdub of a vocalist singing a fiddler’s tune by mouth, imitating the sound of the fiddle on “Lapp-Nils Polska.” Subsequent “regional song” albums included a quartet album of Russian songs titled Jazz på Ryska, which included the song “Stepp, min Stepp.” A collaboration with Danish violinist Svend Asmussen on a theme of Hungarian music also resulted in the album Jazz på Ungerska.

Leading a number of working bands in the mid-1960s, Johansson was busy with his trio of bass and drums, along with another trio of the piano-bass-guitar format popularized by Nat “King” Cole, Oscar Peterson, and others. This trio, featuring Georg Riedel on bass and Rune Gustafsson on guitar, would record a memorable concert at the Tallinn Jazz Festival in Estonia in June 1966. The Jan Johansson Quintet would also go on to record an exploratory album titled 300.000 in 1968. Some tracks on this album employed the use of overdubs (of a river stream, as well as an astronaut’s voice), and a solo recording of “St. Louis Blues” is also included.

With a busy career as a composer for large orchestras, jazz bands, and film soundtrack projects, Johansson produced a large collection of challenging ensemble material. For television, he made music to accompany calisthenic exercises called Rädda Sverige (Save Sweden), and also wrote music each year for the ballet and jazz collaborations that the Arne Domnérus Band did at the Royal Opera House. Johansson appeared also on Swedish television with Monica Zetterlund, in addition to writing the theme song to the television show of Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking and music to numerous films, including by directors Ingmar Bergman and Hans Abrahamson. Other large-scale works are Till exempel I, II, III, a piano concerto titled Helgeandsholmen, and an album titled Den Korta Fristen (The Short Respite) which won a Swedish Grammy. This album was recorded by Radiojazzgruppen (The Radio Jazz Group), an ensemble of composers and arrangers that formed in 1965 after the disbanding of Harry Arnold’s Radio Band, another ensemble where Johansson was a featured member.

On his way to a church concert in Jönköping, Sweden on November 9, 1968, Johansson was killed in a car accident when an airport bus headed in the opposite direction veered into his lane, colliding with his car head on. Subsequent memorial concerts, the establishment of a scholarship stipend in his name, and the founding of a re-issue label (Heptagon Records) by his two sons Anders and Jens, have helped keep the memory of Johansson’s impact on Scandinavian jazz alive.

Contributor: David Tenenholtz