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Gifted young musician starts over after Katrina

Saxophonist fights to hit right notes in new Oregon home
/ Source: The Associated Press

Back in the sweet, slow world of New Orleans, the city that he’ll always think of as home, tenor saxophonist Calvin Johnson played his first professional gig at the legendary Tipitina’s at the tender age of 14. That night there were plenty of dreams about the years ahead and gigs to come.

But now, at 19, much has changed for Johnson, just as it has for the thousands of displaced Louisianans who are starting over in unfamiliar cities, from Houston to New York, Los Angeles to Chicago, living lives that will be forever divided into two parts — before and after Hurricane Katrina.

Determined to start over, Johnson bounced from city to city, landing finally in Portland in October, just as the rainy season was setting in, though there’ll be no hurricanes here. There are days when he walks for blocks and doesn’t see another black person, and already he’s had to buy, by his count, four jackets, three blazers and “a couple of hats” just to stay warm.

He’s one of a group of nine musicians who said yes to the Portland Jazz Festival’s post-hurricane offer to move to the city. The Jazz Festival and its corporate sponsors have paid for their lodging, helped them find jobs in the city’s nightclubs and classrooms, thrown a benefit for them and promised each musician a spot in the festival’s February lineup.

For Johnson, the organization has gone a step further, offering him help to continue his education, after his studies at the University of New Orleans were capsized by the hurricane.

Pianist Darrell Grant, one of Portland’s godfathers of jazz, likens Johnson to John Coltrane “in his formative stage,” referring to the legendary saxophonist who played alongside fellow greats Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk in the 1950s and 1960s, before launching his own improvisational flights.

“(Calvin) practices about six hours a day,” a habit that also distinguished Coltrane in his younger years, said Grant, professor of jazz at Portland State University. “We’re trying to get him into the jazz program at PSU.”

Johnson says he’s grateful to be in a safe place, but is feeling aimless, too, being so far from his family and friends and everything familiar.

Deep roots in New OrleansBorn to a family in which his grandfather and four of his uncles were musicians and jazz was always spilling from his father’s record player, Johnson grew up on a tidy block in the now-infamous Ninth Ward. His family had the street’s only swimming pool, every other house had a basketball hoop, and his father made him cut the grass every five days. Hurricanes were routine; but he recalls leaving only once, for Hurricane Ivan in 2004. The rest of the time, the Johnson family “went about our business,” he says.

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Johnson soaked up the opportunities available for a young, eager musician in New Orleans, attending the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts — the Louisiana equivalent of New York City’s “Fame” school. He was mentored by some of the town’s leading lights and played Lincoln Center with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra.

In late summer, Johnson went back to school full of plans after teaching at the Louis Armstrong Jazz Camp. He’d be studying with Brice Winston, who plays saxophone with the legendary Terence Blanchard. He’d be living on his own for the first time and playing more gigs with his own band at clubs like the provocatively named Funky Butt.

Then came the phone call from his sister, early on a Saturday morning. Johnson had been out late the night before, just a few days after classes had begun at the University of New Orleans. He’d already dropped $500 on his books. Are you leaving? she asked, and he told her he had no idea what she was talking about.

After she explained, he left in a hurry, grabbing three or four days worth of clothes and his saxophone, and headed for a friend’s apartment in Baton Rouge. His stay there turned into two weeks, most of it spent glued to the television. Finally, he couldn’t bear it anymore. He was tired of sleeping on the floor and of squeezing into a home that was now holding 21 people — there was no way to say no, not when friends and family needed shelter.

Johnson headed for Texas, enrolling at the University of Houston, until Hurricane Rita cleared out that city too. He detoured to his sister’s home in Atlanta and then returned to Texas when it was safe, only to find a tuition bill from the University of Houston in his mailbox for $3,200 — money that had been covered by scholarships in New Orleans, money Johnson certainly didn’t have.

Scrolling down the Internet, looking for a solution, Johnson found the Portland Jazz Festival’s offer, and jumped at it.

“There’s no place like (Portland) anywhere else I’ve ever been,” he said over hot chocolate at one of the city’s ubiquitous coffee shops. Zydeco music just happened to be playing in the background.

Much of his time in Portland has been spent at the Park Lane Suites, an extended-stay motel perched high above the city. Its manager has had to ask the nine musicians at times to stop their impromptu jam sessions after noise complaints from other guests.

Rooms at the motel come equipped with kitchens, and Johnson’s been teaching himself to cook, experimenting with basics like spaghetti and meat sauce. A hamburger came out half-cooked for reasons he still hasn’t deciphered, and he was missing a favorite Louisiana creole seasoning — Tony Chachere’s, which he’s used to putting on everything from gumbo to popcorn.

“One of the musicians has a big bottle of Tony Chachere’s, and he’s trying to sell it like drugs — you know, $5 for a hit,” he said.

There’s one computer among the nine musicians, and they take turns with it, sometimes waiting patiently, sometimes not. In his suite, which smells like teenager, Johnson keeps a Game Boy, a small pile of CDs and his prized saxophone; he owned more than one, once, but the rest were left behind in New Orleans.

Some days he ventures to a nearby club that’s set aside a practice room for the New Orleans musicians, or over to PSU, where he’s talking to people about whether his New Orleans scholarships might be transferrable.

Sometimes, he says, Portland catches him off guard by reminding him of home in little ways, as small as strangers greeting each other on the streets.

“People are friendly and everyone speaks to everyone,” Johnson says. “It’s a beautiful city, beautiful scenery. The quality of life is good.”

Nothing to saveStill, he recently returned to New Orleans, where he hadn’t been since fleeing ahead of the storm. He had heard the stories — 13 feet of water in his parents’ house, his sister’s baby grand piano thrown onto a neighbor’s lawn, mold taking over the family home.

But seeing it, instead of just hearing about it, made it all, finally, seem real.

“There was trash, gutted homes, debris — that went on for about two miles,” he says of his parents’ old neighborhood. “You saw cabinets, tubs, toilets, Sheetrock, cars, trees. You saw homes that looked like a bulldozer went through them. The grass wasn’t growing, the birds weren’t flying around, the lights were out.”

In his parents’ home, and at his apartment near the University of New Orleans campus, there was nothing to save.

“I am glad I went back. I am glad now I can put a face to a myth,” he says. “But I am not glad I went back, because that was like my comfort zone, that is the city I grew up in. Just the fact that it’s somewhat suspended for right now, it’s a hard pill to swallow.”

Now, Calvin Johnson is adrift again, in Houston to teach a series of jazz workshops to children, then Atlanta for some holiday time with his sister.

And after that?

“Home,” he says, but quickly clarifying: “Back here, to Portland.”