JJ 05/64: In My Opinion – Gus Johnson

Sixty years ago the Kansas City big-band drummer reflected on Jay McShann, Hines, Ellington, Basie and more. First published in Jazz Journal May 1964


This is one of a series of taped interviews with musicians who are asked to give a snap opinion on a set of records played to them. Although no previous information is given as to what they are going to hear, they are, during the actual playing, handed the appropriate record sleeve. Thus in no way is their judgment influenced by being unaware of what they are hearing. As far as possible the records played to them are currently available items procurable from any record shop.

A Texan by birth, drummer Gus Johnson was brought up and trained musically in the Kansas City big band school. And although he is currently playing with the small group backing Ella Fitzgerald, it is big band music that he loves best. Never ostentatious in his work, Gus believes that a drummer’s sole aim should be to provide a strong, contagious beat that will swing the horns. Because Gus seldom, if ever, plays solos, I have heard it said that he lacks technique – a stupid supposition, for he is one of the most effective drummers, for any kind of work, playing anywhere today. – Sinclair Traill


The Jumpin’ Blues. Jay McShann & His Orc. Brunswick LA 8735
Why, before I look, that was Jay McShann! I joined the band in 1937, and was with them until 1942, when I joined the Army. They were a very good band, Scotty (William Scott) wrote some good, swinging numbers and the band really sounded alive. McShann was a wonderful pianist. He’s still playing in Kansas City – got a smart little trio. I saw him when I was home last year. Parker, who played a fine solo on that record, he joined the band after I did. The band started out as a seven piece, and was added to later. Originally we had Gene Ramey, bass, McShann, piano, a little alto player called Earl Jackson, William Scott, tenor, Bernard Addison, trumpet and myself. Charlie has always played that way, but I think he had even more feeling in those days. But I remember when McShann wouldn’t even let him play. He would bring his horn by, and they wouldn’t let him sit in. And he’d tell them to watch out, for the next time he’d come by he’d play – and he did! And of course he surprised everyone later on.

Gamblers Blues. Lil’ Son Jackson. Arhoolie R 2006
Well, I never heard of that man, tho’ there was a great number of such musi­cians in Texas playing music of that kind. Strangely enough I see that he was born in the same little one-horse town that I was born in, Tyler, Texas. When I went to Houston, the first band I played with was the McDavid Brothers. They had a big band called the Blue Rhythm Boys. Matter of fact I was the youngest thing in that band. I used to work with them, off and on, when their drummer couldn’t make it. I was about eleven years old at the time and had some difficulty in seeing over the 28-inch bass drum. We played a lot of jazz, but funnily enough I was not too keen on the blues in those days. I mention that because in those days I couldn’t have stood a guitar like that on that record – don’t know why, but. . . Now I am older I have learned to like more types of music, but I have always liked some­thing that really swings. I liked what they called in those days the jazz bands.

2nd Balcony Jump. Earl Hines & his Orc – Treasury of Jazz. RCA 130.271

I don’t think Earl has ever had the true recognition that is due to him. He was very popular at one time, especially in Chicago, when at the Grand Terrace he had a very good band – really very good. I joined him in 1949 and stayed with the band until it broke up – we were playing the Savoy in New York. He always was a remarkable pianist. I made some re­cords with him not so long ago, with a big band and strings, in Hollywood – but they never did come out, for some reason. He still played wonderful piano. He has also written some pretty tunes – I wish he could have had a really big hit, tho’ I suppose Rosetta didn’t do badly for him.

I remember one time, Earl Hines came to Kansas City. I was playing with McShann and the late Alvin Burroughs, Hines’ drummer, he got off that bus at 18th and Vine and he stepped on the sidewalk and said, ‘Now, Where’s all the drummers? I want to do a little head-cutting tonight!’ The Hines band played out at Swope Park that night, and I happened to have a night off, so I decided to go along to see that head-cutting – all those drummers. And it just so happened that there was no one around except myself that night. And Alvin he sat down and he just started in playing – and he played for about half an hour. Then Bob Mabane, he told me to go ahead and play. But I said, ooh no, not me! I was only with McShann, you understand, whilst Alvin Burroughs was with the great Earl Hines band. But eventually I played, and I ran him off the stand that night. I sure did, and he was as angry as he could be. I think I caught him at the time he was a little juiced, you know.

But we used to have a lot of fun like that. The tenor players, Chu Berry, Dick Wilson, Herschel Evans, they used to play against each other all night long – this was at the Subway in Kansas City. And I was at the drums and had to continue for about four hours without stopping before someone else came in – brother, was I tired! But I enjoyed it, for they would toss a chorus from one to the other, and it was really beautiful, I can tell you. The young musicians today, they don’t play like that anymore. They lack that ear – always want to see what is written down for them. Don’t seem to catch on to what the other fellow is playing. Don’t get it by ear, as they used to do.

Kansas City was full of good bands in those days, there was Harlan Leonard, who had a spectacular drummer called Jesse Price. He did all kinds of tricks and things, but he was a great drummer as well. Then there were the bands led by Andy Kirk, Bennie Moten, George E. Lee, Thamon Hayes, Chauncey McDown and the Blue Rhythm Boys. Every week there was a big dance at which one or two of these bands would play – everybody was dancing in those days. They played better for dancing than for concerts or anything and I just loved playing with those big bands.

Summertime. Duke Ellington – Piano in the Foreground. Columbia CS 8829
Well, I have played with Duke too, you know. When Sam was ill I took his place and I enjoyed it very much. The fellows in that band are all tops and a joy to play with. Wonderful bass player in that record, Aaron Bell, one of the best. Duke was kind of reminiscing wasn’t he. But much of his piano playing is like that, and you take the trouble to listen to some of his older stuff and you’ll see just how modern he was then – as modern as it is today. Sam Woodyard was great – using his hands. He does that better than anyone else. But he has become the great Ellington drummer. Really playing for the band now.

Cuttin’ Out. Willie The Lion Smith. Vogue LD 045
Well, I don’t think I ever heard that fellow, but I would sure love to get a copy of that record. That stride left hand was really something. Modern players can’t play like that, they play with one finger now – the one finger bass. Lot of Fats Waller there of course. Did you ever play that to Basie? I’d love him to hear that. Listening to the whole record, there is quite a bit of Duke in there, as well as Fats – musically speaking, I mean.

Kansas City Wrinkles. Count Basie – Lil’ Ol’ Groovemaker. Verve SVLP 9051
That was The Snake – I always call Basie The Snake and he calls me The Snake – it’s just between us two. He’s my man, and the whole band too. Henry Coker, who played that trombone solo, was at school with me. We were known as the bean poles – for he was tall and straight and thin, and so was I. We played in the school band together, and we were both like 6 o’clock, straight up and down.

I’m glad that Sonny Payne has cooled down these days – he’s now playing for the band and sounds beauti­ful and the band has benefited accord­ingly. You know, Quincy Jones, who wrote those tunes, he came to Basie when he first arrived in New York. And he had written something for the band, and Basie looked it over and told him to do it again with fewer notes. ‘You use fewer notes’, he said ‘and it will swing much better.’ So that was really Quincy’s start. Just as a last word, I see that Henry ‘Red’ Allen is coming over soon. To me he is a wonderful trumpet player. You know he has written a very beauti­ful number called I Found A Dream. It is very beautiful and every time I see him I ask him to record it, but I don’t think he ever has. Now you get him to play that number for you.