Award-winning Madison Valley jazz singer Kelley Johnson's love for music began during her childhood on a Midwestern farm.
"For those people who have spent much time in a rural situation, where friends and families are far away and you've got chores to do, singing is a great accompaniment," she said. "I spent a lot of time singing as a kid."
She spent hours singing in her room at night - singing to the radio, to records, to musicals and pop music. In spite of the radio, her mother always had good music in the house, aided by the presence of classical music and blues artists and performers renting a room there.
Then her mother's friend gave her some different music to try. Her first three albums - by Miles Davis, Billie Holliday and Keith Jarrett - changed her life, she said. Her next purchase was music by Betty Carter, whom Johnson considered one of the most adventurous and creative jazz singers of the era, and a tremendous influence when she was growing up.
Filling the soul
Johnson said the first jazz she heard formed her sound and her musical concepts. "I fell in love with the music," she said.
Indeed, as a teenager, she wasn't intimidated by the sophisticated music and at 18, went to Milwaukee to study and perform in the burgeoning bebop nightclubs. She considers bebop to be the root of jazz.
Johnson said she had no idea that in her own city of Milwaukee, and in every other city that had a jazz-music base, many women her age were being drawn to the music, purely for musical reasons based on falling in love with the music.
Johnson said she was rebellious and drawn to the music from a social/political standpoint. "I felt like, in the music, I had the most likelihood of making a positive impact on the world through working within communities, spreading the gospel in a way," she said.
In the late '80s, while vacationing in Seattle, Johnson performed at Lofurno's, the city's premier jazz club at the time. She decided to stay and make Seattle her home in part because of the community of musicians - Buddy Catlett, Floyd Standifer, Melody Jones, and others - hanging out at Lofurno's.
"That was the sort of a melting pot of cultures, which gave it a lot of soul," she said. "For me, it was an incredible place to both learn and be accepted."
Johnson said there are similar places in Seattle, such as the New Orleans and Tula's, but that they aren't the destination locations that Lofurno's was.
"But it's a different world, a different time," she said. "Maybe as a mirror of our world, cultures aren't seeming to mix. We've lost a lot of our older-generation players."
Johnson, now 45, said she didn't call herself a jazz singer for years out of respect for the music. Now, she said, every kid who's in high school and learning a couple of standards calls him or herself a jazz singer.
"It's not that they're wrong; it's that things in the world have changed so much," she said. She said devotees refer to jazz as "the music."
Spreading the gospel of jazz
Far from the farm chores of her own youth, Johnson said working with children in the Seattle Metropolitan Urban League provides that fulfillment for her. She and her husband, John Hansen, teach jazz, composing for and conducting a chil-dren's choir in a program called Summer Children's University.
Johnson said many children of color attend classes there, receiving history, arts and literature lessons from teachers working in those fields.
"I can't help but see the irony of being taught by 70-year-old black men, making me re-sing a phrase 20 times - more like 120 times in a lesson," she said. "Now I'm turning around and giving that to 10-year-old, African-American kids in my own community.
"It's really a gift and an honor to be chosen to be able, and be chosen to do that. More important, it's soul-filling. It fills your heart, and it's really nourishing," she said. "I'm fried after working with these kids because they have more energy [than I have]."
In addition to teaching, Johnson placed first in the 2003 and 2004 Worldwide Jazzconnect Jazz Competition and was chosen by the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts and the State Department to act as a jazz ambassador in Russia and Central Asia in 2004.
"Jazz is a completely international language," she said. "It is an American art form that comes directly from our melting-pot experience, but it's an international language that has been accepted by musicians all around the world."
Indeed, Johnson traveled with her quartet to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, where musicians were studying in music schools and jazz schools.
"In Russia, we were complete heroes because the people saw American jazz as the most liberated form of artistic expression," she said.
Johnson, who performs regularly throughout the Seattle area, has recorded three albums, with two other projects in the works. She commissioned some of her favorite arrangers to collaborate with her on a big-band project, which she hopes to record for her next CD.
She's performing some of the new material with Jim Cutler's Big Band at Tula's in Belltown on the first Sunday of each month. And she'll perform on Aug. 24, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Madison Park summer concert series.[[In-content Ad]]