2002 Ends With a Birthday Bash for Dick Johnson

jazz logo The year started in March with the Paul Broadnax Quartet. Based on the success of a Sunday concert the previous year I scheduled this concert for a Sunday afternoon. No conflicts to worry about in early March; NFL football was over and the college basketball tournament had yet to start. A Sunday concert offered people an upbeat alternative for a winter day.

PowerJazz unit

PowerJazz unit

April brought the return of The Kubota PowerJazz Unit with Yasko Kubota on piano and Japanese taiko drum, Archie Kubota on bass, taiko drum and bamboo flute, Mike Peipman on trumpet and Larry Finn on drums. The last time Yasko and Archie had performed for Highland Jazz was in 1987. I was amazed; it seemed such a short time ago. Since then PowerJazz had been thrilling audiences with its innovative style.

Yasko began her professional music career at age 18 when she was recognized as a brilliant, young concert pianist. Her love of jazz brought her to Berklee College, where she graduated Cum Laude. the American Music Trust Fund recognized her as one of the “Three of the Best Jazz Pianists” during a celebration of the piano’s 300 year birthday.

Warren Wolf

Warren Wolf

In May we showcased an ensemble of young musicians: the Berklee All-Star Jazz Ensemble. They were an extremely talented and energetic group. Warren Wolf played vibraphone, Kendrick Scott was on drums, Marco Panascia on bass and Jeff Gitelman on guitar. The audience gave them a warm reception, knowing that this was a chance to hear some dynamic musicians as they started their professional careers.

Another newcomer to the Highland Jazz series was the Victor Mendoza Latin Jazz Sextet which opened the 20th season in September. Victor is a Mexican-born vibraphonist and composer. Jazziz Magazine described his music as “variously introspective, pretty and out-and out rhythmically hot.” He was joined by Dick Odgren on saxophone, Rafael Alcala on piano, Pablo Bencid on drums, Egui Castrillo on percussion and Fernando Hergo on bass. Numerous videos on Victor’s website illustrate why he is in such demand as a soloist.

The Fred Haas Quartet presented a program in October called Bossa Nova High, which was a tribute to Charlie Byrd, Stan Getz and Joao Guilberto. The program illustrated how much Brazilian music has influenced jazz. For this concert Fred played both tenor and piano. He was joined by Dave Newsom on guitar, Dave Clark on bass and Jim Lottini on drums.

Marshall Wood suggested that Highland Jazz plan a surprise birthday celebration for Dick Johnson who would be celebrating his 77th birthday on December 1. I thought it was a terrific idea and Marshall agreed to contact the musicians and co-produce the event.

Dick Johnson

Dick Johnson
photograph by Ruth Williams

Our first idea was to hire Dick for the evening and not mention the birthday angle. His wife Rose agreed to keep the secret. Our mistake was sending out fliers describing the event as A Surprise Birthday Celebration for Dick Johnson. His family and the musicians revealed nothing, but the week before the concert one of Dick’s fans mentioned the birthday concert to him. Although it was no longer a total surprise he arrived not knowing how many tributes he would receive that night.

Dick Johnson Birthday Bash

Dick Johnson Birthday Bash left to right Dick Golden, Marshall Wood, Dick Johnson, Gary Johnson
photograph by Ruth Williams

The MC for the evening was Dick Golden of WQRC in Hyannis, MA. Dick Johnson was joined on stage by his long-time musical partner, trumpeter Lou Colombo, his son Gary Johnson on drums, his long-time pianist of choice, Paul Schmeling, bassist Marshall Wood and a favorite vocalist Donna Byrne.

After Dick Golden’s introduction Dick played Artie Shaw’s signature piece “Begin The Beguine.” He then described his early playing days with Lou Colombo who moved the audience with his beautiful rendition of “Stardust.”

It was a night full of surprises: there was a birthday cake complete with singing candle; a tribute from Artie Shaw, who wrote that “No matter how long you live, Dick, you’ll never catch up to me;” and a letter of congratulations from then Massachusetts Governor Jane Smith. After singing Melancholy Baby” Donna described her conversation with Dave McKenna about Dick.

I felt at the end that it was a wonderful way to honor a very special person.

Where are they now?

Warren Wolf’s website explains that he began playing at the age of 3. He was trained on vibraphone, marimba drums and piano. After graduating from Berklee in 2001, Warren was active on the Boston scene. In 2003 he became an instructor in the percussion department at Berklee. Since leaving Berklee he has been very much in demand. He plays piano for the Rachel Price group and is the drummer for alto saxophonist Tia Fuller. He tours widely with three other groups: the Donal Fox Group, Bobby Watson’s “Live and Learn Sextet,” and Christian McBride “And Inside Straight.”

Kendrick Scott leads his own group “Oracle.” His debut album Conviction was recorded by Concord Jazz in 2013.

Marco Panascia now lives in New York City and is a featured player with many working bands, including Kenny Baron, Natalie Cole, Eric Reed, Andy Bey, Peter Bernstein and Dado Moroni. He has also appeared at numerous jazz festivals and venues such as the Montreux Jazz Festival, the Hollywood Bowl and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. His website features a video of his version of “Body and Soul.”

Jeff Gitelman performed on guitar with Stevie Wonder at the NAACP Image Awards in February 2014.

Dick Johnson died on January 10 at the age of 84. The Jazz Times article points out that Dick started his musical career during WWII when he played with the navy band on the USS Pasadena. The Boston Globe article  includes anecdotes and personal remembrances from a variety of musicians.

Dick Golden, the marvelous MC at Dick Johnson’s birthday concert, now lives in Washington, DC. where he teaches jazz traditions at George Washington University. In this interview he reflects on jazz and radio broadcasting.


Mergner, L. (2010). Jazz Clarinetist Dick Johnson Dies at 84 Boston-based player fronted Artie Shaw band for over 20 years.JazzTimes. Retrieved from http://jazztimes.com/articles/25619-jazz-clarinetist-dick-johnson-dies-at-84.

White T. (2010). Dick Johnon, 84, jazz artist with Artie Shaw, Tony Bennett.Boston.com. Retrieved from http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/obituaries/articles/2010/01/13/dick_johnson_84_jazz_artist_with_artie_shaw_tony_bennett/.

Alimansky, Nancy. “Dick Johnson’s 77th Birthday Celebration.” Online video clip.
YouTube. YouTube, 30 May 2014. Web. 9 Sept. 2014.

Alimansky, Nancy. “Dick ‘s 77th Birthday Celebration at Highland Jazz.” 9 Sept. 2014.

Alimansky, Nancy. “Lou Colombo at Dick Johnson’s 77th Birthday Celebration.” Online video clip.
YouTube. YouTube, 30 May 2014. Web. 9 Sept. 2014.

Alimansky, Nancy. “Donna Byrne at Dick Johnson’s 77th Birthday Celebration at Highland Jazz 12/7/2002.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 30 May 2014. Web. 9 Sept. 2014.

Alimansky, Nancy. “Dick Johnson at his 77th Birthday Celebration.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 30 May 2014. Web. 9 Sept. 2014.

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