Tales Episode 21: Vashon Johnson

Tales with bassist/composer Vashon Johnson

I must admit that it has been a long time since I last aired the show. I recorded this podcast over five years ago and never got around to launching it. But we are back now and ready to hit the road and get some great interviews from some incredibly talented musicians and artisans. I am happy that my first show for this “come back” is with my “little brother”, Vashon Johnson.

I’m excited to have as my guest on this episode of tales not only a friend from way back in the day, but someone I feel is like a younger brother. I met Vashon Johnson through my husband Travis Shook when they both were playing with Betty Carter. Since then his career has blossomed and his musical journey has taken him into territory that is definitely not considered jazz. As always and for all of the guests on this show, I have the utmost respect and admiration for this young man’s talent and determination. When an artist explores their love and passion for their craft, so much so that they begin to explore all the possibilities the creative course has to offer and then some, that’s when I know that the exploration itself is the evolution of the performance.

So much has transpired in his career over the years and our interview was a wonderful way for me to catch up to the happenings in his life. I am very proud and thankful that he took time out to do the show. I have only one regret and that is I should have used the power cord when recording the show because the battery ran down and we lost a bit of the show, only a tiny bit though. What does that mean? It means that I will have him again on the show and we can get his parting words of wisdom.

About Vashon Johnson

Crediting significant influences in his life, his list is topped by his parents and Mr. Weber, his grade school band director. Regarding his artistry, it’s bassists like Byron Miller, Darryl Jones, Angus Thomas and Tom Barney among his motivators and mentors.

The Beginning
At a very early age, Vashon Johnson discovered his profound love of music. By seven years old he began taking formal training in classical piano and continued over a span of eight years. His musical prowess developed quickly and steadily. At 10 years old, Vashon was a trombone player by position in his grade school band, but he was a bass player at heart. He literally pleaded with the band director for a spot as a bassist. After some rapid-fire progress, shortly after entering Gwendolyn Brooks Junior High School in Chicago, he was selected as a member of its award-winning jazz ensemble. Vashon continued to hone his craft throughout high school, excelling in music performance and theory. He was the recipient of many “Outstanding Performer” awards and played in numerous all-state music ensembles.

Vashon and Betty
Shortly after graduating from high school Vashon connected with one of his friends who had a gig with the legendary Jazz Singer Betty Carter. Betty had a reputation for graciously affording young artists an opportunity to prove they had the chops for live performance. With a spirit reminiscent of his plea to the band director a few years prior, Vashon vigorously petitioned Betty for his chance on stage with her. Evidently, this impressed Betty, as she called him up from the audience to play in her showcase, saying “Honey you gotta speak up if you want to be a star!” Afterward, she extended him an invitation to join her band (the youngest of them all) on a European tour. All in all, it turned into a fascinating two-year excursion, for which Vashon credits a significant amount of his musical maturity. “It was a life-changing experience in many ways. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was evolving into what I call a “complete musician”. He came to realize that even a complete musician is always evolving—there’s always a new horizon to ascend.

College Life
He sought another level of challenge and it came in the form of college study at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. This opened up a whole new musical (as well as academic) curriculum to Vashon. On a music scholarship, he enrolled in a variety of genres: Zydeco, New Orleans-style blues and grass-roots music. With all of these influences in the mix, Vashon was prompted to explore another musical realm. Back to his roots, he returned to Chicago for a brief stint; regrouped; then found himself packing for New York City. With an “if I can make it there I can make it anywhere” mission on his mind, Vashon viewed New York as the “embodiment of everything I wanted to do or could do—jazz, hip-hop, R&B—anything and everything was possible within this cultural icon.”

Onward….from Chicago to New York
Upon arriving in Manhattan where he quickly began to turn industry ears with his solid command of his instruments, his versatility and creativity. Just a few weeks after he arrived in the city, like a bit of Broadway magic, he was asked to sub for the Legendary Tom Barney on Broadway’s number-one musical: The Lion King. He gradually became first call for that production, and subsequently for the hit musical: The Boy From Oz, starring Hugh Jackman. In a meteoric burst, Vashon was soon sharing the stage with such artists as Dianne Reeves, Mary J. Blige, Whitney Houston, Donald Fagen, Carly Simon, Greg Osby, Shawn Pelton, Patti LaBelle, Carla Cook, Shania Twain, Stephanie Mills, Deborah Cox, CL Smooth, B.B. King, Philippe Saisse and Marc Antoine, Jessica Simpson and Boyz II Men, Madonna, Sheryl Crow, Billy Ray Cyrus, Noah Cyrus, various television appearances including Little Big Shots (Steve Harvey), Wayne Coyne, The Flaming Lips, Joan Jett. He is also the current substitute bassist on Saturday Night Live.

When asked to describe his playing style he says…

I like to disappear into the music…or maybe it’s that I’m a chameleon. I find it a great compliment when I’m playing (one) and someone tells me – I didn’t know you played (the other). They’re all different instruments and when I play them, I feel like different personalities. I approach each one differently.

Vashon Johnson

Either way, he’s an accomplished artist whether playing on upright, electric or synth basses. Rather soft-spoken and cerebral by nature, Vashon uses his instruments to express alternative personae.

“Tactile” Vashon’s new solo CD debuts on February 10, 2023, – released on the Dead Horse Records label.

You can read more about Vashon Johnson here and check out some of his performances too.

Tales from the Jazzside