Jazz blows through the woodwinds with the Blackstick Four

Saul Young/News Sentinel
Clarinet quartet The Blackstick Four include, from left, Tom Johnson, Teresa Lundberg, Mark Tucker, and Greg Tardy.

Photo by Saul Young, 2013 Knoxville News Sentinel // Buy this photo

Saul Young/News Sentinel Clarinet quartet The Blackstick Four include, from left, Tom Johnson, Teresa Lundberg, Mark Tucker, and Greg Tardy.

When Tom Johnson takes his bass clarinet in for repair the repairman is likely to look at him with befuddlement.

“He’ll say ‘WHAT are you going to play with this horn?’” says Johnson with a laugh.

Over lunch at the Sunspot on Cumberland Avenue, Johnson says he knew he’d probably have to start his own group to play his chosen instrument and that’s just what he did. In 2007, Johnson formed the Blackstick Four, a clarinet quartet.

“The whole idea was to experiment and see if Donald Brown’s music would work in the context of a woodwind quartet,” says Johnson.

Knoxvillian Donald Brown, who teaches at the University of Tennessee, is a local jazz legend and has had his works recorded by some of jazz music’s top artists. The Knoxville Jazz Orchestra, which Johnson is also a part of, recorded an entire album of Brown’s works.

Johnson took an arrangement of Brown song “Back Down In Lou Easy Anna” to play around with.

“I was playing it on piano one day and the tune was so strong and it was so rich I wondered if it would work with a woodwind quartet. I wrote the first arrangement and it snowballed.”

Since that time, Johnson has written 25 to 30 clarinet quartet arrangements of Brown’s compositions along with songs by Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver and some others.

Johnson, who teaches at Pellissippi State Community College, was born in McPherson, Kan., where his father taught math at Central College. However, the family moved several times before Johnson was an adult. He began taking piano lessons at the age of 7 while the family was living in Virginia.

“I felt fortunate to that I started on piano,” says Johnson. “My older brother Glenn started on accordion and my brother George started on Hawaiian steel guitar! I think my dad just shopped around for who gave the cheapest lessons!”

Johnson was 13 and living in Fayetteville, N.C., when he started playing saxophone in his school band.

“Then when I was about 13-1/2 Glenn taught me a blues scale and said, ‘OK, you’re ready to jam!’ He sat down on piano and away we went! That’s still the way I teach improvisation.”

He says it was when he heard Eric Dolphy, who was best known for playing with Charles Mingus and John Coltrane, play the bass clarinet that he fell in love with that instrument.

“That was it. I just said I want to do that!”

Johnson started joining groups and performing in military clubs around Fort Bragg. He attended St. Andrew’s Presbyterian College in Larinburg, N.C., but transferred to the University of Tennessee in 1978 so he could enroll in the jazz program being founded at the University of Tennessee.

In 1982, Johnson landed a spot playing clarinet in the DuPont Marching Band, which performed at the World’s Fair. He also began being known locally playing piano with singer Teresa Crowe. The two married and spent several years in Florida, where the supper club scene was in full swing. They returned to Knoxville and later divorced.

When Johnson began the Blackstick Four, one of the first members to sign on was legendary Knoxville musician and educator Bill Scarlett. Johnson says he had hoped the group could record an album together before Scarlett died of cancer in 2011.

Just as Scarlett was becoming too ill to perform with the group, Greg Tardy moved to Knoxville to teach saxophone at the University of Tennessee. He joined Johnson, Teresa Lundberg and Erin Bray. Knoxville Symphony Orchestra member Mark Tucker will fill-in for Bray, who had prior commitments, during the group’s show at the Clayton Center for the Arts on Saturday.

Johnson says explaining the group to people who haven’t heard it can be difficult.

“It’s not the easiest sell,” says Johnson. “It’s definitely not something people go out of their way to find!”

The Blackstick Four

With: Barry Roseman Jazz String Quartet

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, March 9

Where: Harold and Jean Lambert Recital Hall, Clayton Center for the Arts, 502. E. Lamar Alexander Parkway, Maryville

Admission: $10

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