*All photos by Abby Wood unless noted
Aaron Johnson, engineer and musician, became Aaron Johnson, musician and scholar, practically overnight. In 2006, he found himself jobless after a massive layoff at Telcordia Technologies in Morristown, New Jersey, where he had been employed for over twenty years. Having specialized in optical fibers and advanced DSL technology, he was certainly qualified to find engineering work elsewhere. But in his late forties and married with no children, Johnson decided to pursue something he always dreamed of: teaching music.
“I don’t think he really looked for work at other companies,” says his former colleague Bobbi Rentko, “because when he and I had a conversation, he said, ‘You know, it’s time for me to pursue my dream,’ which was his music.”
While Rentko and other coworkers would occasionally go see Johnson play at gigs, his musician friends didn’t know about his life as an engineer. Eddie Allen, trumpeter and bandleader, for one, had no idea, despite having known and played with Johnson for over ten years. “We’re always dealing in music,” says Allen, “so the subject of engineering I guess never really came up.
Johnson decided to keep his two lives separate when a band contractor stopped hiring him.
“I think he made a calculation about what I needed and didn’t need,” he says. “Like, ‘This guy has a good job as an engineer, he doesn’t need this gig.’ And I don’t want anyone in that position to tell me that.”
In 2007, Johnson entered the PhD program in Historical Musicology at Columbia University. While this pursuit seems more cohesive with his playing, he remains fairly guarded. Ellie Hisama, professor of music, is aware that Johnson still plays gigs here and there, but was surprised to learn just how many. “He kind of keeps it quiet, I think, probably for strategic reasons because in a PhD program, it’s like your job. You’re supposed to be focused on that primarily and not, you know, getting distracted.”
It’s not that Johnson is hiding anything, just that his two lives never seem quite to overlap. He calls himself “an extremely compartmentalized individual,” and he kind of likes it that way.
Now, in his seventh year of study and about to defend his dissertation on the presentation of jazz on American radio, Johnson must figure out how he will balance a new duality: Aaron Johnson, professor of music and professional musician.
Growing up in Washington, DC, Johnson began playing the trombone at age 12, when he joined the DC Youth Orchestra, a popular community summer program. He originally wanted to play the trumpet, but the program didn’t have any available. He was offered the horns they did have and did not hesitate. “If you’ve ever seen a baritone horn in its case, and you imagine a fifth grader with that,” he says, “you can see why I was like, ‘Ehh, I’ll try the trombone.’” In high school, he switched to the bass trombone, and that’s when he began to stand out.
Unlike the more recognizable tenor trombone, the bass trombone is built with a larger bell, wide bore, and valves that work to produce a fuller, deeper tone in the lower registers. Achieving a beautiful tone on the bass trombone is a difficult enough task, so using it to play parts written for a lead tenor trombone, as Johnson did in high school, is “insane.” He likens it to driving a Hummer around Manhattan: “Not the easiest thing to do and not the most convenient vehicle to have around.”
Johnson played in multiple neighborhood bands, and remembers one of his first “real professional gigs” playing for the city’s Summer in the Parks series. He truly honed his skills under the direction of band director and noted trumpeter, Peter D. Ford. Ford often invited his advanced jazz students to join him at gigs, where Johnson got to meet Rick Henderson, bandleader and former member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. As a teen, Johnson was thrilled to cut his teeth with these veteran players that influenced his playing for years to come.
Johnson says he was lucky to have such great musical support growing up, as neither of his parents were musical. His father was a mapmaker for the government, and while his mother died when he was ten, he remembers her being very involved in the community and their church. His father became devout after retirement, but Johnson says he’s never been particularly religious himself.
“I consider myself spiritual more than religious,” he says. “A lot of jazz musicians say that—none of us really know what it means.”
Johnson sitsin front of a mountain of carbs at Panera Bread in the cozy town of Summit, New Jersey. He and two fellow musicians, trumpeter Steve Wiseman and saxophonist James Stewart, eat here between the 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. services at the Fountain Baptist Church, where they play every first Sunday of the month. “It used to be twice a month,” says Johnson, who has been leading the group for six years, “but the church has fallen on some hard times.”
Back at the church for the second service, Johnson and the other players simply go through the motions. They mechanically rise and sit with the congregation while playing background music for the choir, and emphasize the reverend’s lively sermon with well-placed melodic runs. Between songs, Stewart dozes off and Johnson and Wiseman disappear out the back door.
But about an hour into the service, Johnson taps out a text on his cell phone: “Our big number is next, during the offering.” Sure enough, while white-gloved women pass around silver platters for donations, the horn section, suddenly perky, stands and plays “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho.” The baritone sax, bass trombone, and trumpet trade off a funky rhythm emphasizing the offbeats, each getting his turn to improvise. Later, on the way to the car, Johnson explains that the lively number was his own arrangement. “It’s a Negro spiritual,” he says with a sly smile, “but it didn’t sound like one, did it?”
For Johnson, the decision to pursue engineering over music wasn’t a complicated one. “I didn’t know how to be a professional musician; I didn’t know what that meant,” he says of his early years. “Especially since the role models around me were not doing so well as professionals…a lot of excellent musicians were high school teachers or post office workers.”
Still, as an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Johnson joined the school jazz band, but soon became “disgusted” with their “fast, high and loud” playing. He began going down the road to play with the University of Pittsburgh band, which he credits as the source of his core jazz education.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and economics, Johnson still felt like he “didn’t know a damn thing when I got out of undergrad.” He applied for a GEM Fellowship (National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering and Science), which paid for his master’s degree at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and set him up with a summer job at Corning Glassworks in Corning, New York, where he was introduced to the cutting edge field of optical fibers.
Johnson began work at Bellcore (which would later become Telcordia Technologies) in 1984, where he quickly established himself as an invaluable asset. Rentko, who was the Senior Director of Network Engineering at the time, remembers in particular an algorithm that Johnson developed in the late nineties that formed the basis of a highly successful side business for Telcordia. The algorithm provided a way to gather information remotely on a customer’s DSL availability, eliminating the need to dispatch technicians. “It was amazing,” says Rentko, “We had a lot of customers around the world that used that as their single way to qualify customers for DSL.”
All the while, Johnson remained active in the jazz world. By the time of the Telcordia layoffs, he had already earned a reputation as an experienced sideman, composer, and arranger, playing with the likes of Jimmy Heath, Gladys Knight (“with and without the Pips,” as he likes to say), The Mingus Big Band, and the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, to name a few.
On the second Monday of every month, Johnson plays with the Eddie Allen Aggregation Big Band at Zinc Bar in Greenwich Village. This November, during the same week, he also played with the Oliver Lake Big Band at the Jazz Gallery in the Flatiron District.
At both gigs, Johnson arrives early to set up his instrument. He has a deep, booming voice that rivals only his instrument, and his hearty chuckle can be heard echoing throughout the venue as he makes his way to the stage, stopping to rag on fellow players along the way.
The four-person trombone sections of both bands take up the right side of the stage, with Johnson all the way at the end, tucked into the shadows. While the rest of the group is warming up, adjusting reeds and slides, and chatting among themselves, an inconspicuous Johnson simply finds his seat, leans back and observes the crowd. If it weren’t for his large stature, signature felt fedora, and glasses reflecting flashes of light, he may not be noticeable at all.
Then the music begins. For the Eddie Allen band, it’s an impressive array of jazz classics, including Mile Davis’s “So What” and Duke Ellington’s “I’m Beginning to See the Light.” The heavy tone of Johnson’s bass trombone resonates over the entire band, yet does not overpower, instead laying a sturdy foundation for the melody. Johnson does not have a solo, like some of the others in his section, but he seems perfectly content to hang back out of the spotlight. The Oliver Lake band, on the other hand, plays experimental, free jazz, full of cacophonous solos and screeching horns, often verging on the unpleasant but never quite getting there. Johnson excels in this environment as well, playing multiple rhythmically complex solos that overlap with other players.
In 2009, Johnson released his own album, Songs of Our Fathers, to great acclaim within jazz circles. “Here is a real jazz gem,” composer Stan Pethel said of the album in a review for the International Trombone Association Journal, “reminiscent of some of the great performances from the 1960s.” On the ten tracks—nine of which he composed himself—Johnson showcases his talents as a soloist. Generally, the bass trombone has one volume: loud. But Johnson manages to play softly, creating stunning dynamism in his diverse melodies. On “Shamba,” a sensual jazz tune, he plays a solo that dips and dives from bellowing low notes that seem to echo endlessly to whispered high pitches that sizzle out into nothing.
Johnson is older than most other PhD students. Hisama says that has been a great advantage to him in multiple ways. “I think with the wisdom of years, he’s not afraid,” she says. “He’s someone who was always very focused, he knew what he wanted out of the program.”
Hisama says Johnson has also come to be known as a mentor to his fellow students, often helping them through difficult times. Kate Heidemann, a PhD student in Music Theory, has become close friends with Johnson over their years together at Columbia. “Everybody has that sort of imposter complex where it’s like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, my work is crap,’” says Heidemann. “But he was just really supportive of me and a bunch of young scholars, just being like, ‘Your work is good, you should say more about it more often,’ so he’s been really great in that regard.”
One thing that does set Johnson apart from many of his fellow students is the amount of time he dedicates to playing. On top of his regular gigs, he often takes on last-minute playing and recording jobs, such as playing on a track for Jay Z’s 2007 album, American Gangster. He says he will always cram in as many things as he can—as long as he can do them well—because “being idle is when you get into trouble.”
“It might be for him, I’m not really sure, but it might be like having separate lives,” says Johnson’s dissertation advisor George Lewis. “And the question would be, how to kind of integrate that.”
This semester, every Tuesday and Thursday evening, Johnson teaches section 33 of “Masterpieces of Western Music,” a humanities core class at Columbia College.
Before class begins, he’s a bag of nerves, fretting because he hasn’t figured out what he will say to begin the day’s discussion. But once students start shuffling in, he’s regular old AJ, joking around and giving some of them flack for late assignments. During the lesson, Johnson paces back and forth in front of the desks, often dancing and reacting histrionically to the music. He pantomimes playing a saxophone solo, thrusts his finger in the air to emphasize a note. The students are entertained, if somewhat perplexed, sending each other confused sidelong glances, when he starts to play examples of different scales on the piano. He often brings in his own experience to the lesson, saying things like, “We jazz musicians call these diminished scales.”
Like most PhD students nearing the end of their dissertation, Johnson has been applying for positions at schools all over the country since last year, but, as Hisama puts it, there simply “are not enough jobs to go around.” He’s done well so far, even making it to the final round of interviews for one, but has not yet been offered a position. Both Hisama and Lewis believe this will change sooner rather than later, however.
“There are the sort of research universities that will be mainly interested in his academic work,” says Lewis, “and then there are the sort of places, because he knows about arranging, composition, performance…that value that too. But I think that AJ has much to offer in both areas, and the ideal place for him to be is somewhere where he can get involved in both and advise top-notch students in both areas.”
Salim Washington, Johnson’s long-time friend and bandmate, is confident in his friend’s prospects, as well. Having earned his own PhD from Harvard in 2000, Washington says it was his practical experience as a musician that ultimately landed him his teaching position at Brooklyn College, adding that “the interdisciplinary approach is something that is the future of these studies.”
No matter where he ends up, Johnson knows one thing: he will continue to play. In fact, he hopes that being a professor will bring him even more opportunities to do so.
“I hope to always be playing,” he says. “It’s a joyful part of the process. It’s how I express myself. But you know, because I’m in musicology and scholarship and it’s all about writing, I am now expressing myself in writing in ways that I did not when I was an engineer…I’m expecting that things will come to me…I’ll be busy, but being busy is good. It beats being bored.”Columbia University, dissertation, electrical engineering, jazz, Jazz Gallery, musicology, PhD, trombone, Zinc Bar
Congratulations! I’ve known AJ since high school, and your article has highlighted a few details that I never knew about him. It’s very well thought out, well-researched, and clearly presented. Bravo! And to the subject of your piece, who will soon be “Dr. Johnson”: “Break a leg!” Well done. You, and your story, continue to inspire me!
This article was a pleasure to read. The article on Aaron Johnson’s re-education in music, after a distinguished career in engineering was so detailed, and flowed so well, that it gave a wonderful picture of a multi-talented individual. I was an English teacher at McKinley High School when Aaron was a student, and the band gave me a great deal of pleasure back then. It is inspiring to me to learn of a graduate who has pursued his dream to such great effect!
Aaron and I have grown up together coming from the same neighborhood, going to the same elementary, jr high and high school. Both of us have an extreme passion for music that cannot be shaken. As a good friend of Aaron I am so proud of his accomplishments and achievements. I have no doubt that he will get hired and land that position will allow him to pursue and follow his two passions: Music and Engineering. Aaron is extremely smart and witty with a sense of humor that keeps him the life of party. Aaron Johnson, you rock!!!