“Nobody in the capacity house at John Hancock Hall could see him, of course, but you can wager your paycheck that Lennie Johnson was sitting in last night for that all-star gig they threw in his memory.”
So began Ernie Santosuosso’s review in the Boston Globe on March 6, 1974, the morning after the concert.
Johnson had been an instructor at Berklee for about five years at the time of his death in October 1973, and Berklee sponsored the concert, the biggest of the 1973-74 school year, and colleagues galore turned out to participate. Berklee had no large hall of its own (the Berklee Performance Center did not open until 1976), so whenever the school needed an auditorium, it rented the 1,100-seat John Hancock Hall.
On this night, they needed every seat. Concert organizer Andy McGhee made sure there would be enough great music to draw a crowd—and raise money for the new Berklee scholarship created in Johnson’s name.
The guests of honor were Clark Terry and Jaki Byard, both old friends and bandmates of Johnson. And there was a sizable contingent of Berklee faculty, beginning with McGhee but also including Gary Burton, Steve Swallow, Alan Dawson, and John LaPorta.
Santosuosso mentioned a few of the more notable tunes. Herb Pomeroy, backed by Ray Santisi, John Neves, and Joe Hunt, played a delicate blues on “Why Are You Blue,” a song Gary McFarland wrote for Lennie in the days of the Pomeroy Orchestra, when Johnson played lead trumpet and McFarland was part of the band’s brilliant team of arrangers.
Phil Wilson played a sly “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” Jaki Byard came over from the New England Conservatory to play solo variations on the theme of Cole Porter’s “I Love You,” the Berklee College Jazz Ensemble played the old cowboy lament “He’s Gone Away,” and Clark Terry called upon his alter-ego, Mumbles, to remind one and all that “Johnson was a hearty, big bear of a guy, with a laugh like thunder.”
Terry, who worked with Johnson in the bands of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Quincy Jones, recalled that “We used to refer to Lennie as the ‘Big Daddy of the Trumpet.’ You could always depend on him no matter how rough the going was.” In fact, it was Terry who urged Jones to recruit Johnson for his band in 1959. Terry had long admired Johnson, with whom he shared a modernist viewpoint as well as an abiding respect for the traditions of jazz.
(In my earlier blog entry on Johnson, I noted that I could find no evidence of his time with Ellington. I recently discovered that Johnson took Cat Anderson’s place for about a month in summer 1951. I’m still looking for something of longer duration.)
The Lennie Johnson Memorial Trust raised $6,000 that night, the start of a fund that is still used to help students with financial need to obtain a music education.
I could not find “Why Are You Blue” with a trumpet playing lead, but I found something just as good. Here is McFarland’s tune performed by the MJQ, from their Lonely Woman LP.