Have saxophone will travel - Music of Magnolia jazz cat took him 'round the world

It's commonly said that in life, there are no guarantees. It's also true that in life there are no scripts. Things tends to just happen and we're expected to do the best we can with what we're dealt.

It was no different for longtime Magnolia resident Johnnie Jessen, who passed away Oct. 7 at the age of 94.

The youngest of five children, Jessen's father had envisioned his son's life spent outdoors, cutting, hammering and constructing houses as a building contractor. Despite his father's best efforts to persuade him to follow in his footsteps as a master builder, Johnnie spent his life welded to his saxophone, sweating out the hours as he worked to the beat of his own master - twelve notes, five lines and four spaces, perfecting his craft as a jazz musician.

A far cry from raising A-frames and two-stories.

Born in Seattle in 1909 to Danish-immigrant parents, Jessen was a musical prodigy by the age of nine, when he picked up a dusty violin in his family's attic and started plucking the five strings.

"When I found the violin in the closet, I took it out and I got to strumming on it, sliding my fingers back and forth, and playing those little tunes," Jessen wrote in his autobiography. "I just went on learning the violin by myself, by listening to the tunes and playing them by ear."

Pick it up he did, and at the age of 12 he and two neighborhood friends, Freeman "Tubby" Clark and Mel Goodchild, formed the Rinkydinks. The band gained some attention, and eventually became a common sight at social parties and dances in the Seattle area. About that time, Jessen switched to the saxophone, lulled by the sound of the popular music he heard on the radio at home.

Like a fish to water, Jessen took to the sax. He started blowing and didn't stop for the next eighty-two years. Music, according to popular thinking, makes the world go round. In Jessen's case, however, music made him go round the world.

After graduating from Seattle's Lincoln High School in 1928, he was offered the chance to take his sax, along with four friends, on a cruise ship, The President Jackson, providing musical entertainment for the ship's passengers. Jessen hopped aboard and set sail for the Orient, visiting Hong Kong, Japan, Shanghai, Manila and Hawaii on a three-month voyage. For a self-admitted "innocent little kid," fresh out of high school, the experience was enough to make his head swim. In his book, Jessen tells the story of being involved in a "high speed rickshaw chase" through the streets of Shanghai, pursued by a thief intent on getting hold of his wallet full of American dollars. Jessen made it to the ship unscathed but shaken, and laughed about it years later.

After returning to the states, he found work in the radio industry, providing musical accompaniment for any number of programs. Through his work in radio, he was offered a job playing with the then-famous RKO Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit, a traveling showcase of performers and musicians. For the next four years, he played backup for the likes of Judy Garland (then known as Frances Gumm of the Gumm Sisters), Sammy Davis Jr., Betty Grable and even Rin Tin Tin, the famous performing dog.

Settling back home in 1932, Jessen picked up where he had left off, playing radio spots for local stations. While practicing with one of his fellow musicians, he met Anne Wohleitner, whom he wed a year later.

Still in the midst of the Great Depression, the two began their family. In order to support them, Jessen moved to Los Angeles for a short time for the sake of a paying gig, doing backup work on the Jack Benny Radio Hour. The time apart was difficult for the couple and he eventually moved home to Seattle once again.

Jessen's career as a performer was unquestionably a wild ride around the country and the globe, but in 1940 he switched gears and decided to try his hand at passing along his passion for music to the coming generations through teaching.

He put his roots down at the Sherman & Clay building in downtown Seattle and started taking on students who showed a desire to learn. Applying the same attitude to the lessons that he did to his performing, Jessen quickly became one of the area's number one instructors.

"He gave his heart and soul for the teaching," Anne, his wife, said. "He didn't want students unless they were serious about it."

Among the countless students he tutored over the course of fifty years, many went on to have distinguished careers of their own, and more often than not, when asked, they credit Jessen with having given them the tools necessary for success in an industry not known for its easy access. One of his students, perhaps the most recognizable, was Seattle's own Kenny Gorelick, better known to his fans as Kenny G, the pop-jazz saxophone player. Having studied with Johnnie for 12 years, Gorelick attended Jessen's retirement party from the University of Washington in 1989, where he had taught music for 10 years. At the ceremony, Gorelick told a crowd of Jessen's friends and family that his time with Jessen was directly responsible for his success in the music industry.

"I made a breakthrough after I started studying with Johnnie," Gorelick told the audience. "One morning I woke up, and I could play twice as fast. He had this great tone on flute, and got me to the point where I was doubling on clarinet and flute."

Indeed, Jessen was a demanding instructor, and it comes as no surprise that he held himself to the same standard as he did his students.

His daughter, Joel Jessen, recalls a particularly vivid childhood memory of coming home every day from school, walking into the house and hearing her father downstairs playing the same scales he was telling his students to practice. That he was already a world-class musician didn't matter to Jessen. In his world, the basics were what counted and the basics were what needed perfecting.

Although he stopped teaching in 1999, he continued playing for the rest of his days.

Jessen is survived by his wife, Anne; his daughter, Joel; his granddaughters, Jodi, Jana and Jennifer; and several great-grandchildren. A non-profit charity fund has been set up in his name, the Jessen Music Foundation (P.O. Box 99458, Seattle, 98139), which helps aspiring musicians.

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