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Kelley Johnson

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Biography

Not to be confused with British heavy metal/hard rock guitarist Kelly Johnson (who was a member of the all-female headbanger combo Girlschool back in the late-'70s and early-'80s), the Kelley Johnson profiled in this bio is an American jazz vocalist who has been active in Seattle since the late '80s. Kelley Johnson favors a clean, lucid, straightforward vocal style that has inspired a variety of comparisons. There are hints of Carmen McRae in her warm, intimate phrasing, and her effective use of subtlety brings to mind members of jazz' cool school such as Chris Connor, June Christy, Julie London, and Anita O'Day. Johnson has also been compared to the late Irene Kral, and there are times when she reminds the listener of Peggy Lee. But unlike Lee, who was a jazz-influenced pop singer, Johnson is very much a jazz improviser -- spontaneity is a vital part of what she does. The Seattle resident is also a talented arranger and lyricist who has provided lyrics to Joe Henderson's "Recorda Me" and other bop or post-bop songs that started out as instrumentals; Johnson's "Recorda Me" lyrics have been embraced by fellow jazz singer Tierney Sutton. Johnson isn't from the Pacific Northwest originally; the singer was born and raised in the Midwest, lived in Milwaukee, WI, and graduated from the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. While living in Milwaukee, she attracted the attention of hard bop trumpeter Brian Lynch (who was one of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers from 1988-1990) and organist Melvin Rhyne, among others. While visiting Seattle in the late '80s, Johnson had a chance to sing with bassist Buddy Catlett's band and decided to move to the Emerald City. Another person she met in Seattle was singer Mark Murphy, who visited the Pacific Northwest to teach at Bud Shank's Jazz Workshop (a jazz education program that veteran alto saxophonist Shank oversees in Port Townsend, WA). Johnson ended up studying with Murphy, who she considers a mentor. Following Murphy's example, Johnson eventually got into teaching -- and in 1998, she was invited to teach at Shank's workshop. 1998 was also the year in which Johnson's debut album, Make Someone Happy (which pianist Fred Hersch produced), was released by the Los Angeles-based Chartmaker label. By straight-ahead jazz standards, the album did relatively well and sold at least 4500 copies. The early 2000s found Johnson (who married Seattle pianist John Hansen) teaching at the Cornish College of the Arts and continuing to perform frequently around Seattle. In 2003, she recorded her second studio album, Music Is the Magic, and Johnson's first live album, Live at Birdland, was due out on the Jazzconnect label in March 2004. ~ Alex Henderson

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