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Trombonist keeps Legacy alive

January 27, 2012|By Kirk Silsbee
  • Carl Randall, playing sax, and Steve Johnson on trombone, practice with Steve Johnson's Jazz Legacy band in Johnson's garage in Sunland on Wednesday, January 25, 2012. (Tim Berger/Staff Photographer)
Carl Randall, playing sax, and Steve Johnson on trombone,…

Step into Jax Bar & Grill on Brand Boulevard any night that Steve Johnson’s Jazz Legacy band is on the stand and you’ll quickly notice the quintet’s full sound. Johnson’s trombone and Carl Randle’s tenor saxophone coalesce into thick sonorities, regardless of the tempo. Another feature is the easy camaraderie of the players. Ages may vary, but the singularity of purpose unifies it in overt and recessed ways.

The band has tremendous propulsion and visceral force. Randle, long known for his work with Gerald Wilson and the late trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, is one of the great local saxophonists. He’s a dynamic player who builds his solos with intuitive architecture. Pianist Serge Kasimoff says, “When Carl solos, the rhythm section can get a little aggressive.” Drummer Mel Lee, another veteran, seems to hit a little harder — without moving the time — behind Randle.

The convivial setting — Jax is a restaurant and bar, after all — doesn’t crimp the music at all. Their music is a living monument to the music of pianist and composer Frank Strazzeri, who also plays frequently at Jax.

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For Johnson, the band is a culmination of his life in music. A degreed musician, Johnson found job security in the L.A. Unified School District — first as a teacher, then as a counselor. In his retirement, leading a band is a long-held ambition that all of his years playing in big bands, Latin outfits and rehearsal units never quite satisfied.

A Syracuse native, Johnson’s family moved to Glendale when he was 6. He picked up the trombone in grade school, discovered jazz on KBCA-FM and played his first job at 13. “It was at the Three Oaks in Montrose on New Year’s Eve, ’64-’65,” he chuckles. “Twenty dollars for four hours’ work and I was hooked.”

Johnson graduated from UCLA and played in the bands of Don Ellis, Tommy Vig, even Ray Charles. Though he supported his family with public school work, Johnson always kept his hand in music.

He had a weekly gig at the Hilton Hotel on the Universal City Walk for a year. When he needed a substitute to sit in with the band, Strazzeri was suggested. Johnson used to hear the pianist in the company of one of his trombone idols, the late Frank Rosolino, in the 1970s, so he was doubly awed at the idea of working with Strazzeri.

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