During the 1970s Bruce Johnstone’s name frequently appeared in Downbeat’s annual poll for the best performer on baritone saxophone. In 1974 he achieved his highest ranking when he came third behind Gerry Mulligan and Pepper Adams. Those were the years when he had a high-profile role anchoring the saxophone sections of Maynard Ferguson’s Orchestra and Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd. Along the way he also played with Mike Westbrook and Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath.
Born 1 September 1943 in Wellington, New Zealand he began on the clarinet in 1951 and by the time he was 13 he was getting paid for jazz bookings. His parents had entertained thoughts of a classical career for him but two weeks before he was born they attended a concert featuring Artie Shaw with the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet Band. He felt that this might have been a subliminal influence because Shaw along with Benny Goodman, Woody Herman and Buddy DeFranco were performers he listened to rather than classical players. He did though play second clarinet in the Wellington Junior Symphony for about a year or so. Flute was his second instrument and he took lessons with the internationally recognised James Hopkinson, who was principal flautist with the New Zealand National Orchestra. Because of the popularity of Dave Brubeck’s quartet in the 50s he also took up the alto to increase his marketability.
Johnstone, who is from the hard-swinging Ronnie Cuber-Nick Brignola by way of Leo Parker school, is centre stage on a passionate performance that roars from the bottom of his horn to some expertly controlled altissimo. His technique here is just breath-taking
He quite soon gravitated to the baritone. He had only ever heard Harry Carney and Gerry Mulligan but the difference in their sounds intrigued him. As he told Herb Nolan in a 1975 interview, “The instrument is physically demanding. The first time I played it on a gig I was bedridden for two days. To get the right projection I was using muscles in my shoulders and stomach I’d never used before.” Anyone who has ever spent an evening with a baritone hanging from their neck for two or three hours will sympathise. Not for nothing has it sometimes been called a bottom-heavy monster. Serge Chaloff and Cecil Payne became his primary influences together with Lester Young, Dexter Gordon, Ben Webster, Charlie Parker and Stan Getz. To further his jazz education he ordered albums from mail-order companies in the States by artists like Freddie Hubbard (Open Sesame), Oliver Nelson (Screamin’ The Blues) and Benny Golson (Meet The Jazztet). He also listened attentively to recordings by Horace Silver and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.
He left for Australia in 1964 and joined the house-band at Sydney’s famous Chequers night-club where Jackie Dougan (ex Ted Heath and Tubby Hayes) was the drummer. The band backed headliners such as Lou Rawls, Billy Preston, Liza Minnelli, Dionne Warwick, Shirley Bassey, The Four Tops, Cilla Black, Georgie Fame and many more. He was a staff musician on TV shows and averaged three recording sessions a week but he decided to leave Australia in 1969 and move to Denmark. A lot of American musicians had settled there and that is where he got to play with Dexter Gordon, Kenny Drew and Ben Webster. It was thanks to Gordon that he joined the booking rotation at Copenhagen’s Montmartre club where he regularly performed with pianist Thomas Clausen, bassist Bo Stief and drummer Alex Riel. He also played at La Fontaine with Al Grey (“nice guy and a terrific player”), Horace Parlan, Don Cherry and some of John Mayall’s band. He spent some time in England with Mike Westbrook and he subbed for John Surman in the Brotherhood of Breath at Ronnie Scott’s.
Early in 1972 he was contacted by Maynard Ferguson who was living in the UK at the time. He had established a high-profile reputation locally, leading the house-band on the popular Simon Dee TV show. Bruce sent him a tape with his Danish rhythm section and the first title was My Funny Valentine which was a good choice as it was a favourite of Maynard’s wife, Floralou. The trumpeter sent him a telegram offering him the job which began at a concert in Scotland. The band was then booked for the Verona Jazz Festival which also featured Ella Fitzgerald, the Charles Mingus sextet and groups led by of Phil Woods, Roy Eldridge and Max Roach.
Johnstone’s first album with Ferguson’s powerhouse band – M.F. Horn 3 – was recorded both in London and New York in 1973 (Vocalion 2CDSML 8429). The leader said at the time, “I’m not interested in nostalgia – you have to move along with the times” which he certainly did. He enthusiastically embraced the rock rhythms of the day but combined them with a satisfyingly straight-ahead jazz approach. Although new to the band Johnstone is heavily featured on the well-named Nice ‘N’ Juicy, Pocahontas, Love Theme From The Valachi Papers and S.O.M.F. It was performances like these that must have convinced Downbeat that a major new baritone performer had arrived on the scene. His first live performance with the band was in Boston where Weather Report opened for them.
In March 1973 they appeared at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall where two albums were recorded with sleeve-notes by the eminent Alun Morgan. The concert’s highlight is Jim Webb’s magnum opus MacArthur Park which had been an unlikely hit for Richard Harris in 1968. It became a staple in Ferguson’s repertoire and over the years it also found favour with other big band leaders, such as Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Joel Kaye, Mike Vax and Dan McMillion. Johnstone, who is from the hard-swinging Ronnie Cuber-Nick Brignola by way of Leo Parker school, is centre stage on a passionate performance that roars from the bottom of his horn to some expertly controlled altissimo. His technique here is just breath-taking. (Status CDDSTS 1004/1007).
Ernie Wilkins’ Stay Loose With Bruce is pretty much all baritone and his seven choruses become a veritable tour-de-force
Two months later the band was recorded at Jimmy’s Jazz Club in New York and once again Bruce has MacArthur Park all to himself. It’s another inventive performance which finds him settling into an extended vamp, ultimately incorporating a Sonny Rollins-like calypso groove. He stands toe-to-toe with tenor-man Ferdinand Povel on an exciting series of exchanges on the uptempo Two For Otis – a contrafact of There Will Never Be Another You. Ernie Wilkins’ Stay Loose With Bruce is pretty much all baritone and his seven choruses become a veritable tour-de-force. During his final 12 bars Randy Jones begins a delicate press-roll gradually increasing the volume until it assumes Art Blakey-like proportions propelling the band into an exhilarating shout-chorus. The leader had first recorded it in 1956 as a feature for Herb Geller’s immaculate alto when it was called Geller’s Cellar. They revisit Nice ‘N’ Juicy which has a suitably soulful outing from Johnstone and Got The Spirit opens with an emotional statement from him creating a down-home Ray Charles “Goin’-to-the Meetin’” feeling (Vocalion 2CDSML 8429). On the band’s 1974 Chameleon album he is featured on the title number and on Superbone Meets The Bad Man. The leader plays his superbone (a combination valve-slide trombone) here in a duet with Bruce “Bad Man” Johnstone (Columbia 512256 2). Talking about the band at the time he said, “The whole evening starts out at a high intensity level and builds.” Chameleon features on the Beat Goes On compilation Chameleon/Conquistador/Hot.
I asked Bruce where they usually performed and he replied “Everywhere! Festivals, clubs, universities, European dates and a tour of Japan.” In July 1974 they played a concert at Carnegie Hall but although the 13 titles they performed, including the inevitable MacArthur Park, were recorded, they have never been released. About his time with the band he told me “I liked Maynard. Any reputation I have is due to his giving me lots of solo space in concerts and on recordings.” Apart from the leader he was probably the most heavily featured soloist in the band at the time.