Tampa Bay jazz great Fred Johnson talks music and finding his family

The 68-year-old artist has worked with all the big names. But helping the community is his purpose.
Fred Johnson, who still performs locally, is community engagement specialist and artist-in-residence at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa.
Fred Johnson, who still performs locally, is community engagement specialist and artist-in-residence at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa. [ Courtesy of Tampa Jazz Club ]
Published Oct. 17, 2019

Jazz vocalist Fred Johnson isn’t one to name-drop, but B.B., Miles, Dizzy, Aretha and Herbie and other late, great one-name icons would gladly sing his praises. Johnson has shared the stage, singing and scatting, with all of them and many others, since his first St. Pete Beach gig in 1977. The musical sage also raises his voice far beyond entertainment.

From Memphis to the Middle East, Johnson traveled into areas of conflict creating a language of song and rhythm through storytelling, chants, drumming and sacred texts.

“I engage Israelis and Palestinians with music … police and the community in Memphis with theater,” Johnson said. “You know the quote; the longest distance in the world is from the head to the heart. There is a texture of angst in the air now so we have to create a louder voice. It’s doable … as artists if we can get people to meet halfway.”

From 1996 to 2005, Johnson made music and theater more accessible as vice president of education at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, renamed the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in 2009. He left to become artistic director of Intersections International in New York, “creating experiences that remind us our humanity transcends language, religious and cultural divides,” he said.

He’s back now, lured in 2017 to be community engagement specialist and artist-in-residence at the Straz. His wide-ranging portfolio includes programming for veterans and diversity outreach. And Johnson, 68, is always tuning up more entertaining projects, currently Improvised Shakespeare, the classics transformed into jazz songs aimed at young audiences, and simultaneous art performances where he both paints and sings.

Johnson and his wife Sandy, an elementary school physical education teacher, share eight children and 11 grandkids.

“We have to reserve half a restaurant when we get together,” he said.

To his great joy, the family tree recently branched out to reconnect with his birth parents and five siblings. All musically gifted, by the way. We caught up with Johnson, who is performing at the Clearwater Jazz Holiday Saturday.

RELATED: Clearwater Jazz Holiday at 40: A look at its past, present and future

We’ve got to start with the mind-blowing list of jazz legends you’ve performed with: Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Chick Corea, Herbie Mann, George Benson, B.B King, Nat Adderley. How did you get those bookings and do you have a favorite?

I most appreciated touring with Chick Corea, for his artistry and nurturing. I became known as a strong opening act so I guess there’s something to being feisty. Starting out, when I was in the Marine Corps in San Diego, I heard (Count Basie Orchestra singer) Joe Williams was in town. I took a cassette tape to his hotel and gave it to his wife. The next day he called and says, “You must be something to get my wife to get me to play this tape.” He told me to come to the club that night and I sat in with Joe Williams. Another time, a guy came up to me and said, “My sister Aretha wants to hear you.” I went to Detroit and auditioned in her basement. Her brother said, “She’s cooking chicken but she’ll come down if she likes what she hears.” He became my manager for a while and I opened for her a few times, including at Ruth Eckerd Hall.

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Have you always wanted to be an entertainer? Always been able to communicate through music?

I became a ward of the state of New Jersey from the age of 18 months. My own voice was my companion. Singing and elongated sound was my way of knowing myself. I began to notice that people liked the sound of my voice and that through song I got a response from people that I never got before. God gave me this gift for my own well-being and connection to others. I was adopted at age 5 in Trenton, and when I was about 7, my parents took me to the RKO Trent Theatre to see the premiere of Carmen Jones starring Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte. It was a big event, everyone was there, and the announcer said, “Don’t leave after the movie because we have a big surprise for you.” I must have fallen asleep on my dad’s lap and I woke up to Nat King Cole with a full orchestra. It was a transformational experience. I saw the joy on people’s faces, saw the pride and the connection to the music. I felt I would love to replicate that experience.

Tell us a bit about your music performance training.

Music has always been an important part of my life. I was in chorus and played baritone horn in middle school. In high school I was in West Side Story, The Music Man and South Pacific. On a visit home to see my parents when I was in the service, I went to the public library and watched a mime create all these characters. I later studied at his school in Boston, the National Mime Theater, for three years and became a principal performer. From there I directed the first African-American classical mime company in America. I used contemporary music and I got some criticism for that. One of the biggest challenges I faced in a Eurocentric world was the mime’s white pancake makeup. I didn’t feel comfortable in it because it denoted another thing to my people. One of my teachers, a master mime, surprised me by having a special light tan makeup made for me.

Jazz performer Fred Johnson, the Straz Center's artist-in-residence and community engagement specialist.
Jazz performer Fred Johnson, the Straz Center's artist-in-residence and community engagement specialist. [ ANGELIQUE HERRING | Special to the Times ]

How did you come to live and work and play in St. Petersburg?

Also while in San Diego, I played gigs with a great piano player also stationed there. He traveled the country and eventually ended up at what is now the Hurricane Lounge in Pass-a-Grille. He called me in Boston to come down and sing for a weekend. The audience was so welcoming … great little club, on the beach, and I got multiple job offers. But a big thing, besides the environment, was during that visit I spent some time with families and kids in south St. Pete.

I was troubled by what I heard and saw. I thought, I have the skill set to be a catalyst in this community. Art and music were always my ally in finding my sense of purpose. I went back home and gave four weeks notice. That was 1977.

How did your book, Quiet Callings, come to be written?

I had a mild stroke in 2009 and I lost my vision for six weeks. It magnified my inner vision. My mind downloaded 26 phonetic phrases, “quiet callings” I understood were designed to bring me calm. I realized they were useful for meditation and began to use them around the world where languages are all different. The book is a by-product of that.

You literally opened the performing arts center in downtown Tampa as the grand opening act in 1987. You joined the education staff for almost a decade, and two years ago the Straz Center lured you back. How’d they do that?

I was ready to come home and bring my international experience to expand the Straz legacy. Any given evening, 2,600 people walk into Morsani Hall, all from different walks of life, with different opinions and educations. The one thing they have in common is a ticket to the theater. The lights flicker and 2,600 individual outlooks share a common artistic experience. That, without a doubt, enriches us. I’m very excited, as both a vet and an artist, to oversee VetArt Span with the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital to demonstrate the importance of art in rehab and reintegration. With a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and Americans for the Arts, we created the Florida Creative Forces website where you’ll find videos, podcasts and a military cultural competency curriculum. The Straz is also in a wonderful collaboration with Johns Hopkins University to study the impact of art on our minds, body and spirit, biologically and aesthetically. ... I also started Arts Legacy Remix, a series of six free events on our Riverwalk Stage — music, dance, spoken word, food and visual art — to celebrate the cultural diversity of Tampa Bay.

Two years ago, against all odds, you found your birth family. How did you find each other?

At age 66, through a wonderful mandate in New Jersey, I got my pre-adoption birth certificate and reunited with my parents, three older siblings who hadn’t seen me since I was 18 months old and two younger siblings. And they can all sing. One brother makes his living as an amazing R&B singer. We all went into foster care but I was the only one adopted so I lost the family name. A whole other world of people were looking and praying for me and I didn’t know they existed. Now we talk every day.

If you go

Fred Johnson will perform at the Clearwater Jazz Holiday for a 40th anniversary tribute to jazz vocalists featuring Belinda Womack, Valerie Gillespie, Theo Valentin, La Lucha and more. Tickets start at $20 per day, $35 for Saturday-Sunday and $70 for the weekend. 5:15 p.m. Saturday. Coachman Park, Clearwater. (727) 461-5200.

Johnson performs as part of Diavolo Dance Theatre: Architecture in Motion, a collaboration between Diavolo, local veterans and dancers. $35 and up. 7:30 p.m. Oct. 25. David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. (813) 229-7827.

Johnson performs in Classic Black: A Tribute to Marian Anderson, presented by the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum. $15-$40. 4:30 p.m. Nov. 10. The Palladium, 253 Fifth Ave. N, St. Petersburg. (727) 822-3590.