The 72-year-old Eddie Johnson is no museum piece, but his music does belong to a previous time–the Swing Era, when such legends as Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young made the tenor saxophone the most exciting instrument in jazz. The swing tenor style treats the horn less as an external instrument than as a natural extension of the human voice, and it expresses the sweet elegance– punctuated by episodes of guttural joy–to which the era aspired. No one exemplified that range better than the late Ben Webster, who energized Duke Ellington’s band in the 40s; no one today exemplifies the style better than Johnson, who in fact was asked to replace Webster in the Ellington band in 1946. Johnson turned the job down to play with Louis Jordan and then to settle in Chicago, to our benefit. Without restricting himself to the old tunes, Johnson still evokes the old virtues–a powerful rhythmic impulse, clear crisp phrasing, a strong-toned, urgent melodicism–with every note. Younger players have occasionally attempted to resurrect this style by aping its conventions, and they always sound like children playing dressup. But for Johnson it’s not a fashion; it’s the story of his life, and in his legato narrative it remains fresh and vital. His performances this weekend at Pops for Champagne kick off the bar’s monthlong “Legends of Jazz” series. Friday and Saturday, 9 PM, 2934 N. Sheffield; 472-1000. Wednesdays, 5 PM, Hana Lounge, Hotel Nikko Chicago, 320 N. Dearborn; 744-1900. Thursdays, 6:30-10 PM, Alexander’s Steak House, 3010 E. 79th; 768-6555.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.