Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Bassist Alphonso Johnson's ability to lay down and maintain a groove have kept his services in high demand since the 1970s. As Weather Report's bassist from 1974 to 1976, Johnson's warm tone and fluent chops contributed to the bandís initial breakout from avant-garde into funk fusion.
Johnson was born on February 2, 1951 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As a child, Johnson played the trombone and double bass before he switched to the electric bass.
Like so many other musicians born in Philadelphia, Johnson was exposed to many styles of music beyond jazz, which included gospel, funk, and R&B. Though he was well versed in many styles of black music, Johnson was also classically trained on the double bass, and studied with former Duke Ellington bassist John Lamb at the Philadelphia Music Academy.
Johnson's performance career blossomed when he joined Woody Herman's big band in 1972. Johnson went on to appear on the Herman recording The Raven Speaks, an album where Herman experimented with traditional big band instrumentation featuring an electric (Johnson) bass instead of a traditional acoustic bass.
Johnson then joined trumpeter Chuck Mangione's band. The story goes that after Mangione's rhythm section of Steve Gadd and Tony Levin moved to New York, Mangione heard Johnson and Joe LaBarbera playing with Herman and persuaded them to join his group.
Johnson performed with Mangione's band through 1973 and appeared on his hit album, The Land of Make Believe. The Mangione group opened for Weather Report on a string of tour dates, and Johnson's playing came to the attention of its founders, keyboardist Joe Zawinul and saxophonist Wayne Shorter.
Weather Report was in a transitional phase at the time, and Johnson's playing was much different than that of founding Weather Report bassist Miroslav Vitous, who was on his way out of the band. Shorter asked Johnson to record on the classic album Mysterious Traveler, which ushered in a change for the band utilizing a funk emphasis compositionally and replacing the acoustic bass with electric bass. Johnson co-composed two tracks on the album, "Cucumber Slumber" and "Scarlet Woman."
Johnsonís playing ushered in the sound Weather Report would adopt for the rest of their existence. Johnson played very funky lines, which were versed in the blues tradition but contained their own original sound. His ability to work with different drummers also played a huge role in the success of the band since they changed drummers so frequently.
Johnson's influence helped Weather Report delve into funk and groove-based playing. In 1975, Weather Report, along with Johnson, released the Columbia album Tale Spinnin' which featured extensive Wayne Shorter solos and synthesizer work by Zawinul.
In 1976, Johnson appeared on his last Weather Report album, Black Market. He played on five of the album's tracks, and newcomer Jaco Pastorius finished the other two. Johnson composed the song "Herandu," and also appears on the song"Elegant People." It was also during this period that in 1976 Johnson released his first solo album Moonshadows for CBS Records.
Johnson left Weather Report in 1976 to join the newly formed group led by pianist George Duke and drummer Billy Cobham. This group also featured a very young guitarist named John Scofield who would go on to fame playing alongside Miles Davis and others. This group released several albums including Live On Tour in Europe and Alivemotherforya.
During the late 1970s, Johnson began playing and recording with an instrument called the Chapman Stick, which is a bass with an extra five strings so a player can simulate bass and lead guitar tones simultaneously. In 1978, Johnson appeared on trumpeter Eddie Henderson's fusion album Sunburst, which came out on Blue Note Records. Johnson appeared alongside multi-reedist Bernie Maupin, keyboardist George Duke, and drummer Harvey Mason on the song "The Kumquat Kids."
In the 1980s, Johnson played extensively with rock guitarist Carlos Santana. Johnson appeared on several of Santana's albums, including Beyond Appearances in 1985 and Freedom, released in 1987.
On September 21, 1987, Johnson was playing with Santana in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, when bassist Jaco Pastorius tried to join the band onstage. Pastorius, who had been in steady mental and physical decline since the late 1970s was drunk and disoriented, and was kicked out of the club. Sadly, Pastorius suffered fatal head trauma as a result of an encounter with a bouncer later that night.
Since the late 1980s, Johnson has continued to demonstrate his musical versatility. He was a longime member of Grateful Dead guitarist Bobby Weir's band, Bobby and the Midnites. This band also featured his friend and drummer Billy Cobham. Johnson was a founding member of the group Jazz Is Dead, which covered Grateful Dead songs and put their own spin on them, resulting in a mixture of funk, jazz, rock, and blues. The other founding members of Jazz Is Dead were keyboardist T. Lavitz, drummer Billy Cobham, and guitarist Jimmy Herring.
Johnson performed with Jazz Is Dead until 2002, and appears on the albums Blue Light Rain, Laughing Water, and Great Sky River. Johnson has taught all over the world and in 2004 he was appointed associate professor of music at the University of Southern California, whose jazz faculty includes drummer Peter Erskine and keyboardist Alan Pasqua.
Selected Discography as Alphonso Johnson
as Alphonso Johnson
Moonshadows (CBS/Epic, 1976)
Yesterday's Dreams (CBS/Epic 1977)
with Duke/Cobham Band
Live On Tour in Europe (Atlantic, 1976)
Alivemotherforya (Atlantic, 1978)
with Weather Report
Mysterious Traveller (Columbia, 1974)
Tale Spinnin' (Columbia, 1975)
Black Market (Columbia, 1976)
with Eddie Henderson
Sunburst (Blue Note, 1978)
with Carlos Santana
Beyond Appearances (CBS, 1985)
Freedom (CBS, 1987)
with Jazz Is Dead
Blue Light Rain (1998) Laughing Water (1999)
Great Sky River (2000)
Contributor: Jared Pauley