Primary Instrument: Vocal
Kelley Johnson reaches her audience with storytelling, subtlety, soulfulness and swing. Twice chosen to be a Musical Ambassador abroad, her quartet auditioned live and was chosen by Wynton Marsalis and Lincoln Center in 2007, and the Kennedy Center in 2004 for lengthy tours for the US State Department. Kelley is the 2003 first place winner of the International Jazzconnect Vocal Competition, and the Jazz Education Journal listed her “Live at Birdland” as a Blue Chip Jazz Vocal album of 2004. Most recently, the CD recording “Music is the Magic” with it’s passionate world-view and original spoken-word, rose to#15 on the national jazz radio chart, Jazzweek. Kelley’s lithe velvety voice mixes with a feisty delivery, tricky colorful arrangements and spirited players like Geoffrey Keezer, Ingrid Jensen, John Hansen, and Brian Lynch. The result is music that is personal and moving.
Kelley Johnson grew up all over the place, but mostly she grew up in Ironwood, Michigan. Surrounded by the sounds of music, her mother was a painter who filled the studio with the music of the 60s, 70s, R&B, country, jazz and especially the blues. When her mother was severely injured in a tragic auto accident, her family took in boarders to make ends meet. Among their guests were singers, songwriters, actors, and comedians who introduced Kelley to more music. Around the time that she and her mother and sister moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, she began to absorb Billie and Miles records. “Jazz had become a beacon for me”, she says. She began hanging out at Milwaukee’s Jazz Gallery learning the vernacular from Brian Lynch, David Hazeltine and the cats while studying Betty Carter five nights in a row on her annual visit to town. Her education grew to be both both formal (Magna Cum Laude from the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music) and informal (gigging in Milwaukee jazz clubs). This two-fold education and her subsequent career experience produced a schooled musician who was growing into a jazz singer.
When Seattle became home in the late 80s, Johnson made a key connection with jazz vocal eminence Mark Murphy at a workshop he was doing. His mentoring both helped her develop her talent and facilitated getting the word out that an impressive new vocalist was on the scene. “Good news for jazz vocal fans!” notified Murphy. “Listen to her sureness of pitch, imaginative song selection and her ability to lyricize to a Joe Henderson theme. Many treats here, my friends. In a world of noise, yahoo, and recorded B.S., the first thing you hear here is none of that. It’s because this girl knows she is a jazz singer and doesn’t have to do anything else!”
Seattle welcomed Kelley. She had the privilege of working with and being encouraged by the greats Buddy Catlett and Clarence Acox until she met and forged a lasting musical relationship with pianist John Hansen. Kelley Johnson and the John Hansen trio with bassist Paul Gabrielson and drummer Jon Wikan gave her the modern roots jazz piano trio sound with a “horn” up front, much like Miles’ early rhythm sections. Having found the sound and the camaraderie she was looking for, her artistry bloomed, as did her arranging and lyric writing. Her first album featured both Hansen and Fred Hersch. Hersch, perhaps the preeminent vocal accompanist extant, produced her first album, “Make Someone Happy” which also featured Larry Grenadier, Steve Wilson and Lewis Nash.
“Music is the Magic” was recorded in Brooklyn in 2002. Produced by the brilliant trumpeter, Brian Lynch, this recording again featured some of Kelley’s favorite musicians Lynch, Hansen, Wilson, Geoffrey Keezer, Essiet Essiet and Jon Wikan. Johnson’s work always showcases her ability to shine as a storyteller in the company of exceptional musicians while showcasing their work as well. In 2004, Johnson won the International Jazzconnect Jazz Vocal Competition. The first place prize was a CD recording, “Live at Birdland”, to be taped in one special night at the historic New York City jazz club. The album’s success is again, as much the quintet’s ensemble playing as it’s success in featuring Kelley, Ingrid Jensen, John Hansen, Ugonna Okegwo and Jon Wikan.
As a performer and a teacher Kelley Johnson has lived the adage that music is the universal language. She won the opportunity to tour Japan in 2005 for the Kobe-Seattle Sister City Association where she and the Japanese audiences had a foot-stomping good time. One highlight was having 400 people clapping in perfect time to her up-tempo version of “Tea For Two” in Nagoya on a memorable summer night! For the U.S. State Department in 2004, she and her now husband, pianist John Hansen, bassist Nathan Peck, and drummer Jon Wikan took a quartet to Central Asia, playing 40 concerts in six weeks in seven former Soviet countries, under the auspices of the State Department's Jazz Ambassadors program. An email from an appreciative fan from Kyrgyzstan exemplifies the power of musical communication: I felt your spirit through the meanings of your songs, the spirit of revolutionary person who is for true and fair world of people. As Wynton Marsalis says, “Swing is a natural agent of diplomacy”. Apparently he felt that Kelley and her trio were delivering the goods as his panel of Lincoln Center judges picked them for the 2007 American Music Abroad tour this year. Their travel dates and destinations are not yet determined.
Johnson is adjunct professor at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle and Musicworks Northwest in Bellevue. In the summers, she conducts and co-arranges the Seattle Metropolitan Urban League’s Kid’s Jazz Chorus. She and John Hansen live in Madison Valley in Seattle where they provide a home for Nana, the cutest kitty on earth.
Always technically accomplished, with a songbird's lightness to her voice, Johnson took a big chance on her last release, Music is the Magic, improvising freely with both words and music. A singer of new spiritual depth emerged, adding Abbey Lincoln-like soul to her Ella Fitzgerald clarity. --Paul de Barros, Seattle Times, September 2006
This terrific album [Music is the Magic] certainly has been worth the wait. Johnson's vocal armoury includes a beautifully mellifluous tone, with an especially captivating lower register. The emotional heart of the album presents a fascinating interweaving of Abbey Lincoln's 'Music is the Magic' with Johnson's own spoken word peice 'The Celebration Place', a daring idea and one which the singer carries off quite brilliantly. Her dovetailing of 'Brother Can You Spare A Dime?' And 'God Bless the Child' also scores highly in the imaginative stakes, as does an unusual reworking of the Bacharach/David classic 'What The World Needs Now.' --Peter Quinn, Jazzwise, May 2006
Kelley Johnson's new album features her own arrangements for the most part. She's able to project smooth to robust tones from her deceptively petite frame. ...her enunciation is flawless at warp speed. --Harvey Siders, JazzTimes, July/August 2006
...crisp, clearly executed, relaxed jazz vocals, ...Johnson has the control and sardonic elan of Carmen McCrae... --Paul de Barros, The Seattle Times
Make Someone Happy' is a Cd that rewards repeated listenings with its unusual frameworks and consistently mature singing...it introduces a potentially significant new voice. --Scott Yanow, L.A. Jazz Scene
From the opening note [you become aware of] her phrasing, the trademark of a real pro...arranged by Kelley to perfection...Kelley delivers an outstanding performance. 'So Many Stars' is sheer beauty. --Stix Leonard, The Green Mountain Jazz Messenger
...a singer who can improve on the melody while communicating the emotion of a lyric. When Kelley heads off for some unexplored territory, she never fails to take her audience along for the ride. She packs a lot for the journey; sure pitch, energetic time, great ears and a wide dynamic range. --Nina Harlan, Earshot Jazz
Her voice has warmth and a very attractive underlying sexiness. She is right on each note and phrases with a graceful swing, making it sound all too easy...a sweet and winning debut... --Alan Bargebuhr, Cadence Magazine
Kelley Johnson warmed the room with her comfy low tones and emotional highs. She traverses her range effortlessly, and all of her delicious ornamentation makes sense. --Sandy Bradley, The Seattle Press
With a strong, engaging voice that's winsome without being sweet, Johnson is the kind of singer you can lose yourself in for an evening. --Mark Fefer, The Seattle Weekly
Willing to teach:
Advanced students only.
In addition to her work with Cornish College of the Arts and MusicWorks Northwest, Kelley is available for private lessons with piano accompaniment at her Capitol Hill studio.
Info: Offered at Kelley's home, this 4-week class concludes with a public performance at Tula's, Seattle's premier jazz club. It's a wonderful opportunity to develop material and play with some of Seattle's finest jazz musicians. Each singer works with the band on their own material, but you also learn from listening and watching each other. You will learn how to rehearse and communicate with the musicians, stylize a song, communicate a lyric, improvise, and transpose songs so they are in the right key for your voice.