Trombonist keeps Legacy alive

Step into Jax Bar & Grill on Brand Boulevard any night that Steve Johnson’s Jazz Legacy band is on the stand and you’ll quickly notice the quintet’s full sound. Johnson’s trombone and Carl Randle’s tenor saxophone coalesce into thick sonorities, regardless of the tempo. Another feature is the easy camaraderie of the players. Ages may vary, but the singularity of purpose unifies it in overt and recessed ways.

The band has tremendous propulsion and visceral force. Randle, long known for his work with Gerald Wilson and the late trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, is one of the great local saxophonists. He’s a dynamic player who builds his solos with intuitive architecture. Pianist Serge Kasimoff says, “When Carl solos, the rhythm section can get a little aggressive.” Drummer Mel Lee, another veteran, seems to hit a little harder — without moving the time — behind Randle.

The convivial setting — Jax is a restaurant and bar, after all — doesn’t crimp the music at all. Their music is a living monument to the music of pianist and composer Frank Strazzeri, who also plays frequently at Jax.

For Johnson, the band is a culmination of his life in music. A degreed musician, Johnson found job security in the L.A. Unified School District — first as a teacher, then as a counselor. In his retirement, leading a band is a long-held ambition that all of his years playing in big bands, Latin outfits and rehearsal units never quite satisfied.

A Syracuse native, Johnson’s family moved to Glendale when he was 6. He picked up the trombone in grade school, discovered jazz on KBCA-FM and played his first job at 13. “It was at the Three Oaks in Montrose on New Year’s Eve, ’64-’65,” he chuckles. “Twenty dollars for four hours’ work and I was hooked.”

Johnson graduated from UCLA and played in the bands of Don Ellis, Tommy Vig, even Ray Charles. Though he supported his family with public school work, Johnson always kept his hand in music.

He had a weekly gig at the Hilton Hotel on the Universal City Walk for a year. When he needed a substitute to sit in with the band, Strazzeri was suggested. Johnson used to hear the pianist in the company of one of his trombone idols, the late Frank Rosolino, in the 1970s, so he was doubly awed at the idea of working with Strazzeri.

“Rosolino is my favorite trombone player,” Johnson says. “I love his fluidity, his swing and his highly original technical approach. It’s very advanced.” Johnson’s ballads at Jax showcase his own lush sound.

When Johnson formed Jazz Legacy, Strazzeri’s book — a treasured corner of jazz writing — was a natural choice. Bassist Chris Haller, who also plays in Strazzeri’s trio, observes: “His tunes are state-of-the-art masterpieces. There are no clinkers. I wake up in the morning singing those tunes in my head.”

“Even though I’m a trombone player,” says Johnson, “I’m really inspired by Strazz. I love his ideas, the sound he gets from the piano, his swing and his clear chord voicings. For me, he’s the total package.”

In the fourth grade, Johnson had the drums in mind when music instruction was offered and he resisted the pressure to play violin. “I held out until the next year,” he recalls. “I wanted to play melodies, but I didn’t want to play a reed instrument and they had all the trumpeters they needed, so I got the trombone.”

He adds: “I got into music for the sound.” Judging by the results at Jax and elsewhere, Johnson got what he wanted.

KIRK SILSBEE is a veteran writer and critic on jazz and culture and is a frequent contributor to Marquee.

DETAILS:

The Jazz Legacy are set to perform 8 p.m. March 1 at Cafe 322, 322 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre, (626) 836-5414 and cafe322.com; and 8 p.m. March 2 at Jax Bar & Grill, 339 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale, (818) 500-1604 and jaxbarandgrill.com.

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