EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

August 16, 2012

A passion for Jasssz

Jai Johnny Johnson and his Jaimoe's Jasssz Band play Salem (Mass.) Jazz and Soul Festival this weekend

By Will Broaddus
Staff Writer

---- — Long before he helped found the legendary Allman Brothers, Jai Johnny Johanson had developed a passion for jazz.

“If it wasn’t jazz, I didn’t want to know nothing about it,” said Johanson, who also goes by the name Jaimoe and will appear with his own group — Jaimoe’s Jasssz Band — Saturday at the Salem Jazz and Soul Festival.

Johanson’s first exposure to jazz, in 1959, was watching a Hallmark Hall of Fame jazz festival on television. But there were also plenty of performers to hear in his native Biloxi, Miss., and in towns nearby.

“Jazz was then basically really progressive blues. I tried to do it. I didn’t know how to do it. Now I’m closer to it,” he said.

Johanson got his first experience as a performer in the 11th grade, when his cousin invited him to play in a band at the local Air Force base.

Not too many years later he was playing drums for some of the biggest names in popular music, but wasn’t too happy about how he was getting paid.

Johanson decided he was “going to New York and play what I really wanted to play,” but around that time he also met Duane Allman, and developed a partnership that would change his life.

Allman was working in the studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., playing electric sitar for saxophone great King Curtis, who was recording a song called “The Games People Play.”

“I walk in this place and this guy — skinny little white guy, hippie-looking guy — we shook hands, and the rest is history,” Johanson said.

In one sense that history was brief, as Duane Allman would be killed in a motorcycle crash just two years later, in 1971, at the age of 24.

But it is a measure of the band’s powerful impact that, after recording just four albums with their original line-up, the Allman Brothers have rarely stopped touring or recording since Allman’s death. With a few exceptions, Johanson has been a part of every version of the group that has made an appearance.

He originally started his own, small “be-bop band” to play parties and events in a tight radius around his home in Connecticut.

“It allows me to control everything,” Johanson said. Or so he thought.

As the band’s audience has grown, so has its repertoire and personnel, and Johanson finds himself simply following the music.

“The music controls it,” he said. “I’m just the executive behind it.”

Since 2006 Jaimoe’s Jasssz Band has recorded two live albums and recently released its first studio album, “Renaissance Man,” which features seven original songs and three cover tunes.

“Anybody that’s got a tune, we’ll have to make these tunes our tunes, regardless of who wrote them,” Johanson said. “We’ll have to make them Jaimoe’s Jasssz Band tunes, just like T-Bone Walker wrote slow blues.”

As Jaimoe’s Jasssz Band has evolved, so has Johanson’s definition of jazz.

“Everything you play in America is jazz,” he said. “We play Gregg’s ‘Melissa’ as a bossa nova. ‘Rainy Night in Georgia’ was just a tune (lead singer Junior Mack) liked. We play what we want to play. Music has so many personalities.”

In addition to Johanson, there will be a variety of musical personalities on display during the two days of the Salem Jazz and Soul festival, now in its sixth year.

On Saturday, Brooklyn’s Pimps of Joytime will open the show with their “really fun, party dance groove,” said Andy Goldman, the festival’s artistic director.

Jaimoe’s Jasssz Band will be followed by Dub Apocalypse, and Argentinian vocalist and Berklee grad Silvina Moreno.

The Salem Jazz and Soul Festival promotes music education, and its first day will close with the Salem High School Jazz Band. Its second will conclude with an appearance by North Shore Jazz Project All Stars, which gives young musicians a chance to play with professionals.

The second day begins with The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, which has been playing for 35 years and, according to Goldman, “sets the model for New Orleans brass bands.”

They will be followed by HDRnB, initials that stand for Henley Douglas Rhythm and Blues, a saxophone player familiar to local audiences from The Boston Horns.

They will be followed by Soule Monde, “a drum and organ jazz funk duo,” Goldman said, that includes Russ Lawton, a former citizen of Salem who has also performed with Trey Anastasio of Phish.

If you go What : Salem Jazz and Soul Festival Where : Salem Willows, 167 Fort Ave. When : Saturday, Aug. 18, and Sunday, Aug. 19, 11:15 a.m. to 7 p.m. Information : Free admission. Includes over-21 beer garden, artisan fair and kids' tent, free music workshops and classes. www.salemjazzsoul.org.