Pianist Ray Johnson has entertained diners at Jack Fry’s in the Highlands for more than 30 years. He leads a jazz trio at the restaurant on Tuesday and Wednesday nights and performs solo on Thursday nights.
Johnson plays mostly standards and older pop tunes when he’s at Jack Fry’s, but the 86-year-old tells Insider that repertoire doesn’t actually reflect his own musical interests.
“The people at Jack Fry’s like me and I like them, so I play what they want to hear,” he says. “But I’m a modern jazz guy. I like Art Blakely or what Miles Davis was doing before he went into fusion. That’s the stuff that go me into music.”
The Louisville native spent nearly two decades working as a jazz musician in New York City before returning to his hometown in 1980. Johnson will return to those roots for Jazz at the Filson, a concert happening at the Filson Historical Society on Sunday, June 9, at 5 p.m.
Johnson will perform with longtime friend and vibraphonist Dick Sisto, bassist Tyrone Wheeler and drummer Robert Griffin. The pianist promises longtime fans who only know him from Jack Fry’s will be in for a treat.
“We’re going to play the tunes I grew up with, maybe do some swing and a few ballads, too,” says Johnson. “I think everyone is going to have a little fun.”
Jazz at the Filson is a partnership between the Filson, music promoter Legacies Unlimited Inc., and the Lionel Hampton Jazz Project, with support from philanthropist Owsley Brown III.
The Lionel Hampton Jazz Project is a program Legacies Unlimited founder Ken Clay and Sisto started three years ago to preserve Louisville’s jazz legacy and help educate contemporary musicians on the genre.
Until now, the organization has put on mainly fundraisers for the Lincoln Foundation.
Clay, a Filson board member, says Sunday’s concert is a precursor to a jazz series he wants to hold at the historical society next year. The planned concert series will be modeled on the Jazz Cabaret program Clay used to host at the Kentucky Center for the Arts.
“The Jazz Cabaret was a four-concert series that happened twice a year,” Clay explains. “When I proposed doing something like that at the Filson, they jumped at the opportunity, because this is about preserving Louisville’s jazz history.”
Due to the riverboats traveling from the Louisville Wharf to New Orleans, the River City was an early hotbed for jazz music. This produced a number of influential musicians, including vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, trumpeter Jonah Jones, singers Helen Humes and Edith Wilson, and trombonist Dicky Wells, who played with Count Basie.
Today, Clay says, jazz fans have few options for enjoying the music in Louisville. The city has one jazz club, Jimmy Can’t Dance, and a few place like Lola above Butchertown Social and the whiskey bar Hell and Highwater that feature jazz groups on a regular basis. Otherwise, Clay says, jazz combos are employed as background music at restaurants or public events.
Sisto, a longtime jazz educator, says Louisville never had a large jazz infrastructure. The genre, he believes, survived here for decades because older musicians passed their skills down to younger musicians.
“Jazz is a very complex music that is meant to sound simple, but it’s not simple,” Sisto explains. “There are a lot of subtle things that you have to learn by listening and having a teacher like any other art form.”
Sisto first met Johnson in the late ’60s before he moved to California and Johnson moved to New York. In the ’90s, Sisto and Johnson played together in duo and quartet settings.
Johnson says he believes the reason jazz is not more popular today is that contemporary listeners aren’t exposed to the authentic sound of it.
“The thing about jazz is that it has to be understood to be enjoyed,” he says. “There is a beat, but it’s not consistent enough to dance to. There are no lyrics. People talk about soft jazz and fusion (jazz and rock) that’s just watering it down with stuff they like. I don’t even like people who call themselves jazz singers. Jazz is jazz. It’s an instrumental music.”
Johnson fell in love with jazz at Madison Junior High School, where he began playing in the band in the mid-1940s. At 15, he started studying with a trumpeter named Ted Joans, who is better known for being a beatnik poet than a musician.
Johnson played in Joans’ band, the Be-Boppers, as well as for other local acts like Boogie Morton and George Burney and his Blue Flames.
Johnson says even in New York, it was hard to make a living as a jazz musician. He had success, like a stint spent in the band of multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, but most of his income came from side gigs.
He led the house band at the Improv Comedy Club and worked in musical theater and television. But his main occupation was working as an ASCAP “music analyst,” transcribing music broadcasts onto file cards so the composers could be paid royalties.
He returned to Louisville after his marriage broke up and led a five-piece band at Joe’s Palm Room, a longtime jazz and R&B venue, before beginning his long stint at Jack Fry’s.
Johnson says he is happy to support the work of the Lionel Hampton Jazz Project because he wants to see jazz continue in Louisville for a long time to come.
“I appreciate people like Ken and Dick who are providing opportunities for people to play jazz,” says Johnson. “It won’t make you rich, but it keeps you feeling young.”
Jazz at the Filson takes place Sunday, June 9, from 5-7 p.m. Food and drinks will be provided. Tickets are $25 for Filson members and $30 for non-members. To register, go online.