ONE OF A KIND. To the memory of Gilbert Johnson.
When I was approached by Phil Biggs to write an article about my mentor, the late Gilbert Johnson; I did not hesitate for one second. What an honor to write and tell a few memories and lessons learned from one of the most influential trumpet players and educators of our time. The aspect I did not take into consideration was that Mr. Johnson besides being my teacher was one of my dearest friends, an example, an idol and the most influential person in my career as well as in my personal life.
“Gil Johnson", was born September 10, 1927 in Turlock, California. His first musical experiences were lived close to a piano, instrument he started playing at a very young age. He was not introduced to the trumpet until the sixth grade. After a few years of training and studying in Connecticut (he received a BM from the Julius Hartt School of Music in Hartford), he decided it was time to take the next step and starts to commute almost a whole day to take trumpet lessons in Philadelphia with Sigmund Hearing. Being a very driven person kept him on this track and in 1949, he is accepted as a student in the prestigious “Curtis Institute of Music" where he studied with Samuel Krauss, principal of the Philadelphia Orchestra at the time. Before he could finish his degree he was hired by the “Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo" as their principal trumpeter. A funny anecdote here, when Mr. Johnson told the Dean of students at the “Curtis Institute of Music" of his plans to leave school in order to play professionally with the “Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo", he was told his career was not going anywhere, that was it, he was doomed and done. Later he would become the trumpet professor at Curtis and the principal trumpet of the Philadelphia Orchestra for almost twenty years.
While playing in the “Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo", “Gil" was offered the principal position with the Buffalo Philharmonic, but just before he started his new job; the World War II interrupted his brilliant career. He spent a whole year aboard aircraft carriers with no opportunities to play or practice the trumpet. After the war, Gil played principal trumpet with the New Orleans Symphony, then he would join the prestigious Philadelphia Orchestra hired by Eugene Ormandy himself. His unique sound and artistry can be heard in more than 800 orchestral recordings and up to this day he is one of the most recorded orchestral trumpet players in the world. Highlights of his recordings are the trumpet solo from “Pines of Rome" under Eugene Ormandy on RCA Victor and the “Blumine" trumpet solo from Mahler’s first symphony (this can be found on Itunes).
As an educator, Mr. Johnson taught at the Curtis Institute of Music, Temple University, the New World School of the Arts (Miami, FL) and the University of Miami. Being an orchestral player one would think that his main focus was the teaching of excerpts, but no, even though excerpts would be somewhat important on his curriculum, his main goal was to provide a student with the tools to master his instrument, musically and technically. Personality played an incredible role in Gil’s studio. He always spoke his mind and confronted you with the truth about your playing, if you were to be his student you had to be ready for this challenge. There were no excuses for tardy arrivals and showing up unprepared for a lesson could easily turn into a “suicidal attempt". They called him “Old School". Many thought he was relentless……. Well, indeed he was. He was one of the most relentless people I have ever met; but this level of intensity and demand had an explanation. He loved and respected music more than anything. In his book, music was number one and if you did not share that mentality, he did not want to have a musical relationship with you. Fishing? Sure, smoking a cigar? Of course, but not making music. Music was the loved Goddess and had to be treated with out most respect.
On the other hand, when you showed him you cared for music as much as he did, he would “give you the moon". This of course meant that you had to approach the relationship between music and you as a top priority. Always prepared, on time, dressed properly and willing to make any sacrifice for the love of music. Once I understood this, I considered myself one of the luckiest people. Here I was with one of the best trumpet players in the world who at the same time was willing to teach me to love and respect music. Why lucky? Lucky because when you go from being a student of music to try to make a living playing an instrument, you better had not lose this perspective. Discipline, character, personality and preparation play a key role in a professional musician’s day-to-day life. I was lucky, very lucky, and lucky enough to study with a musical authority that took the time and effort to shape me up not only musically but personally.
One of the most important aspects of his teaching philosophy was the need of a brass player to devote time and effort everyday to what we call “basics". He said it was our bread and butter, and he only knew two kinds of players that practice basics: the beginners, because that’s all they can do; and the players that really know what they are doing. Basics, if practiced properly, will enable you to perform at a maximum level of efficiency all times. To show an example of the level of commitment he was used to dealing with towards basics and the instrument, I will share a little experience of my own. When I was about eighteen years old I went through an embouchure change encouraged by him, and he said (I remember this vividly): “José, there is only one way to do this right". Then, I spent the next month playing a “G" on the staff, resetting my embouchure after each note I played. I remember sitting there and thinking, this is going to affect my playing, because I’m not focusing on anything else but attacks on a “G". I was so wrong, when I went back to my regular routine, not only my embouchure was fixed, but also my attacks throughout the horn got better. Retraining the air and the lips to interact together correctly through healthy repetition improved my playing. He would show you the way to fix a particular problem and, during that process, usually your whole playing would improve as a result. His teaching methods did not only involve correction but also encouragement to study yourself and be able to solve your own problems through thinking and reasoning. Gil was a true genius of the mechanical and technical aspects of the instrument and on top of that he could explain them verbally like no one else. He didn’t have to play a single note for you to understand.
Other fond memories are the many Saturday mornings he would call at a very early hour, so early is not decent enough for public consumption. The phone would ring and there he was asking: “Jose, what are you doing? Needles to say I was sound sleep, so asleep and I could not even talk. He would proceed: “I want you warmed up and ready to play in my studio in half an hour". My only reaction was: “Yes, sir". And there I was on my way to the studio of a person who did not have to be there, did not need to be there, but his commitment to teaching and music was so big, he found enjoyment and satisfaction in doing anything related to music at anytime of the day, any day. Indeed, I was very lucky.
But “Gil" was not only a teacher and a musician; he was also an incredibly witty person. As many of his students, colleagues and friends called him: “The King of One Liners". His humor was usually the soul of the gathering and his stories were always funny and unassuming. One of those stories from his days in the Orchestra goes back to one rehearsal where Ormandy told the Philadelphia Orchestra that the Chinese Olympic Ping Pong team had tickets to see the Phillies (Major League Baseball Team) at a professional game, but in stead, they were going to attend the Orchestra concert that evening. “Gil" stood up and asked: “Maestro, can we have the tickets for the game?"
I could write countless stories about “Gil", but probably he would have not approved, if you really knew him he did not like to brag or be praised. He was very unassuming, humble but with a huge will and very straight forward. A true gentleman and devoted father. We really miss you my dear friend!!!
Sitting here and looking at this document is hard for me, very hard. I don’t really like it. You must be wondering why? I don’t like the word “was" that is used all throughout. As much as I would like to replace it for the word “is", it would not change anything. He is gone, and six years later we talk about him as if he is still around.
People that hear us, or hear the stories; wonder why this man is praised and missed so much by his close friends and relatives. The answer is very simple; he was one of a kind!!!!!
When I was approached by Phil Biggs to write an article about my mentor, the late Gilbert Johnson; I did not hesitate for one second. The aspect I did not take into consideration was that Mr. Johnson besides being my teacher was one of my dearest friends, an example, an idol and the most influential person in my career as well as in my personal life; and a lot of other people’s lives.
We really miss you my dear friend!!!
Gilbert Johnson, one of a kind!!!!