Q&A with trombonist Birch "Crimson Slide" Johnson - Emmy nominated composer, producer and songwriter based in NYC

"As far as the future of music, no fears at al­­l--I’m excited to hear it. I’ve always loved new music, and frankly, it’s usually what I listen to when given the choice."

Birch Johnson: Crimson Slide

Birch "Crimson Slide" Johnson is a first call studio trombonist, Emmy nominated composer, producer and songwriter based in New York City. His ten-year association with the "Blues Brothers Band" included his appearance, as an actor, in the movie "Blues Brothers 2000". Born in Dublin, Georgia, Birch "Crimson Slide" Johnson spent his early childhood years in North Carolina and the Philippine Islands. His family finally settled in Tuscaloosa, Alabama when he was in the fifth grade. After graduating from the University of Alabama (home of the Alabama Crimson Tide), he did a ten-month stint with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra before enrolling at the prestigious Eastman School of Music. About a year and a half later, now armed with a master's degree from Eastman, he joined Woody Herman's Young Thundering Herd and for nearly three years toured the United States and Europe almost non-stop. Woody, happily, was still alive and was a wonderful source of wry wisdom on the music business. After a month and a half respite in Tuscaloosa, he screwed up his nerve and moved to New York City. He joined the "Blues Brothers Band" in the early nineties and was quickly given the moniker "Crimson Slide" by Alan "Mr. Fabulous" Rubin.

Birch "Crimson Slide" Johnson / Photo by Magdalena Grzona

Since moving to New York, Birch has been a first call studio trombonist and has recorded and played with many, if not most, of the major musical artists of our time. His session work has included many feature film soundtracks and television shows. He has been a featured soloist from such diverse projects as Donald Fagen's "Kamakiriad" to HBO's feature movie "Third Degree Burn". More recently, he has been an active composer and has amassed an impressive array of writing credits for his work in television. In 2000, he was nominated for an Emmy Award for his compositions for CBS's "Guiding Light".

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues and Jazz music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

These are fascinating and difficult questions. So, I better start with number 1. My views of the world and my own journeys were influenced by jazz and the blues pretty early on.

When I was five years old, my parents packed up my sister and three brothers and loaded up our turquoise Buick sedan with suitcases. And a large orange tent. We camped our way across the entire breadth of the United States. When we reached the far edge, San Francisco, we boarded a converted World War II troop transport ship and sailed across the Pacific, stopping in Hawaii, Japan, and Hong Kong along the way. My father was a gifted Dixieland cornet player and he loved to play. He would sit in with the ship’s band and he always made the audience smile. We lived in Manila for three years, and the first Christmas, a Filipino marching Christmas band came parading down our neighborhood street. My father heard them from our house and came out with his cornet and joined in, improvising over the songs they were playing. The next two Christmases, the band made a special point of stopping by our house to hijack our dad so he could play with them for the rest of their neighborhood tour. And each year, he had learned a good bit more of their language, Tagalog. He had a ball, and so did they. Jazz was his introduction to the local band, and he was an eager student of both them and their culture. They happily helped him with his quest to understand.

When I tour as a professional musician now, whether abroad or in the USA, I try to remember the lessons my father taught me so long ago. Jazz, the blues, or any music is a natural introduction to people. They’re coming to hear you, after all. I can’t speak for other musicians of course, but I love speaking to folks from the audience, local crews or anyone from the area. You get to hear their opinions, what they love—what they don’t, about their culture and about their world. Each concert or tour is a chance to connect with and learn from these individuals.  And if I can tell them anything they want to know, I try to. Hopefully it’s a two-way exchange.  I know I’ve discovered so much from these conversations. Sometimes to the point of completely altering something I had previously believed.

Often called "the greatest horn section in the world", for over ten years Birch "Crimson Slide" Johnson (trombone), Lou "Blue Lou" Marini (tenor saxophone), and Alan "Mr. Fabulous" Rubin (trumpet) have propelled the Blues Brothers Band with their brilliant and fiery horncraft.

How do you describe your progress and sound? What is the story behind your nickname 'Crimson Slide'?

I was a promising trombone player in high school, but when my dad tried get me to improvise, I gave it up as too difficult. A couple of years later, I heard an unbelievable record by the god of the trombone, Urbie Green, and said to myself, “I want to do that.” So, I practiced, listened to a lot of jazz, sat in with local bands, had jam sessions whenever I could, and basically depended on the kindness of musicians to not strangle me as I went from bad to better. After college, I went on the road with the Tommy Dorsey Band, led by an older and wonderful trombonist, Murray McEachern (incidentally, a hero of Urbie Green’s, as I found out later). Murray taught me a lot about ballad playing, smooth slide technique, and how to ask for a raise. After a stint in graduate school, I went out with Woody Herman’s Young Thundering Herd. Pretty much everyone was a better jazz player than me, which was a powerful motivation to get better fast. By the time I left the band three years later to move to New York, I had a lot more confidence in my playing.

Once I got over the shock of living in such a big city, I started listening to a lot more rock and blues, and it changed the way I played. I went from a softer, mellower approach when I improvised, to an edgier, more dynamic approach. I like to think that I still kept the ability to be mellow whenever the need arose.

I soon formed a post punk power trio, “Wired.” We played all original songs except a cover version of “Magic Carpet Ride.” Our instruments were Fender bass, (the bass player, Frank Gravis, simultaneously played an Roland electric bass synthesizer set up on a stand), Simmons electronic drums (Tom Blackwell), a small Casio synth slung over my shoulder and my trombone run through a Roland pitch to voltage synthesizer and various effects.  We also sang.  Loud, raucous, incredibly hard work, and probably the most fun I’ve ever had as a musician.  Wired was where I believe I found my own voice. We had fantastic audiences, which on occasion included Jaco Pastorious, Will Lee, Randy Brecker and Lew Soloff.

In the early 1990’s, Tom “Bones” Malone left the Original Blues Brothers Band to join the house band on “Late Show with David Letterman.” I was an established studio musician by then and was playing in a R&B horn band with “Blue” Lou Marini and Alan “Mr. Fabulous” Rubin. Alan knew I had studied at the University of Alabama. The legendary football team there is called the “Crimson Tide,” so at the first rehearsal, Alan immediately dubbed me the “Crimson Slide.”

"I don’t think I miss much from the music of the past, simply because there are so many great recordings available from bygone eras. It would be ideal if I could have heard the bands live, but then I’d probably be dead now, so I’m fine with the recordings." (Photo: The Blues Brothers Band)

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

My early jazz and trombone teachers at Alabama, Steve Sample and Dan Drill. Certainly, Woody Herman and Murray McEachern early in my professional career.  In New York, I’d say Tom “Bones” Malone, who sent me in several times to the Saturday Night Live TV show, Late Show with David Letterman, and various recording sessions and jingles. I still sub for him from time to time. Lou Marini and Alan Rubin were big boosters. Gary Anderson, a marvelous composer and saxophonist who introduced me to writing for television. The great Jim Pugh. I get to play with him once a year with the Tony Awards Orchestra. Keith O’Quinn. Larry Farrell, who joined Woody Herman as a trombonist a few months after I did. Wayne Andre, the consummate studio musician. I played in his jazz trombone quartet with Conrad Herwig and Matt Finders. The list is endless.

Best advice? In a roundabout way, it came from the wonderful guitarist Gene Bertoncini. He was a guest clinician at the Alabama Jazz department, and I had the opportunity to sit in with him at a night club. It didn’t go that well. I didn’t know many of the tunes he played, and I fumbled my way through the evening.  By the end, it felt like I had a fist sized knot in my stomach. Steve Sample, my teacher, said that Gene later told him, “Birch has got a lot to learn, but as long as he keeps the horn in his face and stays fearless, he’ll definitely make it in New York.”

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

My first recording session with Woody Herman was a classic case of stage fright. We were recording a nineteen-minute suite composed by Chick Corea. The record was being recorded direct-to-disk, which means you had to play an entire side of the LP before stopping; otherwise you had to start all over.  I had a solo that began near the end of the suite. When my moment arrived, I froze up, I couldn’t think of anything to play. At all! Woody stopped the band and said, “Back to the top.” Then he glared at me and growled, “This time, play!”  I did.

In the early 1990’s I was called to do a double long recording session for a Donald Fagen solo album. Walter Becker, his Steely Dan partner, was the producer. Before the session began, I did a recording for a jingle that turned out to be a marching band extravaganza. We must have done twenty takes. I was pretty tired by then, but it was nothing compared to the six-hour session I then had with Donald Fagen. The last five minutes or so of the session, he asked me to stay to do an improvised solo. Donald and Walter had me do maybe fifteen takes of the solo and then began piecing together the parts of the various takes that they liked into the final version of the solo. Standard practice for them, I’d always heard. When they played the finished solo back to me, I pointed out there was a big missed note in one of the measures, and that I wanted to fix it. Walter Becker chuckled and said, “Whoever heard of a trombone solo without a clam in it.”  It’s still on the CD.

"So, let’s take a trip to Athens, 5th century BCE, preferably on a day they’re not at war with Persia, and see a show! Euripides supposedly made music more prominent in his tragedies, so we’ll visit him for a day, on the morning of a premier performance of one of his plays. We’ll trail him around the open-air theater and see him work with the Chorus, musicians and actors before finally getting to watch and hear the complete work."

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I don’t think I miss much from the music of the past, simply because there are so many great recordings available from bygone eras. It would be ideal if I could have heard the bands live, but then I’d probably be dead now, so I’m fine with the recordings. Also, I get the opportunity to play with some wonderful musicians who are modern day masters of traditional jazz, bebop and other older idioms. As far as the future of music, no fears at al­­l--I’m excited to hear it. I’ve always loved new music, and frankly, it’s usually what I listen to when given the choice.

What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from the late great Woody Herman?

Woody had a dark sense of humor. The road brings that out in most of us.  A new trumpet player had been on the band for about a week. Woody didn’t seem too thrilled with him, but seemed like he was still making up his mind.  One night, the trumpet player tried to step off the stage using a chair as a step to the floor. The chair collapsed and the trumpet player went flying.  Woody looked at us and said, “He wouldn’t have liked it anyway.”

I was pretty close to Woody, and I think my favorite times with him off the bandstand were in bars or restaurants on our nights off. He was a living Jazz history book and shared his many stories with me. I think my favorite was when Igor Stravinsky was writing “Ebony Concerto” for Woody and his band. Maestro Stravinsky was collaborating closely with Woody, oftentimes in a bar in Hollywood. One evening, after witnessing a long rehearsal, Stravinsky started referring to the band as Woody’s family.  And I do believe that Woody thought of his players as his family.

When Woody came to Alabama for a concert, my parents would always attend. Not only would he introduce them to the audience, but he would generally ride with them (sometimes long rides) to the performances. I know this meant a great deal to all of us.

"In the early 1990’s, Tom “Bones” Malone left the Original Blues Brothers Band to join the house band on “Late Show with David Letterman.” I was an established studio musician by then and was playing in a R&B horn band with “Blue” Lou Marini and Alan “Mr. Fabulous” Rubin. Alan knew I had studied at the University of Alabama. The legendary football team there is called the “Crimson Tide,” so at the first rehearsal, Alan immediately dubbed me the “Crimson Slide.”

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your paths in the music circuits?

Be adaptable. You never know what you’re going to run into when you show up for a free-lance gig. For instance, I’m doing a rehearsal this afternoon. I wasn’t told what it’s for, I was just asked me to show up. It could be classical, blues or rap.  (After the fact—It was for the Eurythmics, with Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart—very cool). Which leads to the next lesson. Be prepared. If you know what you’re going to be playing and actually have the music beforehand, practice it before you go. Try to reach out to your audience if you have the chance (see question #1 above). Don’t take things too personally in the course of a rehearsal or performance. Someone might say something that gets on your nerves and you might think she/he is an idiot. And they may very well be, but they may be under pressure themselves and you should try to empathize as well as you can. It keeps your blood pressure down as well. Be kind and be generous with your time and enthusiasm. Be ready to change start times and/or end times if needed—the client will appreciate it. Never miss a chance to keep your mouth shut, if possible. I’ve learned this the hard way. And finally, never ever go to a sound check early, because they never, and I mean never start on time.

What is the impact of Blues and Jazz music and culture to the racial, political, and socio-cultural implications?

I’m certainly no expert on this, and can only offer that I’ve always believed the advent of blues and jazz helped awaken the USA, and really the entire world to the beauty and majesty of African American culture.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

I’d say Manhattan, a hundred years in the future, but I’m worried we’ll materialize slap in the middle of a radioactive dust cloud, so maybe we’ll go to the past instead. More predictable. I’ve always been interested in the Ancient Greeks; what their muse-inspired music actually sounded like, their art, their theater. So, let’s take a trip to Athens, 5th century BCE, preferably on a day they’re not at war with Persia, and see a show! Euripides supposedly made music more prominent in his tragedies, so we’ll visit him for a day, on the morning of a premier performance of one of his plays. We’ll trail him around the open-air theater and see him work with the Chorus, musicians and actors before finally getting to watch and hear the complete work.

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