Kris Johnson is bringing a multimedia production with a 20-piece orchestra, six actors and vocalists to the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center on March 10 for a performance of his original album "Jim Crow’s Tears."
Johnson is the director of jazz studies at the University of Utah and brings with him an impressive resume, including the ASCAP Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composers Award, a Kresge Artistic Fellowship and his involvement as a trumpeter and arranger with the Count Basie Orchestra, according to krisjohnsonmusic.com.
Gordon Hanks, founder of the Jazz SLC series, is the sponsor of the event and sings praise of Johnson’s work.
“When I heard Kris play, I realized I was listening to somebody very special and wanted to help him in any way I could," Hanks said. "Hiring Kris at the University of Utah is one of the best decisions the university has ever made. 'Jim Crow’s Tears' is a masterpiece in every sense of the word. This is a body of work that needs to be in the community.”
The Jim Crow laws are known as the harsh racial caste system that operated in the Deep South from the end of the Civil War to the mid-1960s (crf-usa.org), and Johnson said his composition uses the idea of masking one’s feelings or playing the fool to hide truth. As an African-American male, Johnson said he has learned ways to govern himself in potentially confrontational situations.
“I grew up realizing, whether I liked it or not, there were certain behaviors I needed to be prepared for under certain conditions," Johnson said in an interview. "If I got pulled over by a police officer while driving, I always made certain that I had my driver’s license and registration in my left hand, visible to the officer as he approached, my car keys out of the ignition and my right hand over the steering wheel.”
It wasn’t until Johnson watched Spike Lee’s film "Bamboozled," a deeply satirical film about black actors who wear blackface makeup and become minstrels for a failing television station, that he said he began to examine the idea of people masking themselves for the benefit of others.
“The idea of masking our identity, and of our true selves in doing so, was really unfamiliar territory to me,” he said.
To be certain, Johnson began to explore his own narrative through music.
“Watching that movie made so much sense as to how minstrel shows related to the media," he said. "Why do people act like buffoons and what makes them entertain other people at the expense of their self-respect?”
Johnson said he is interested in exploring these questions as they relate to him on a very personal level. Recently at an event, he was introduced to a member of the community. When he introduced himself as Professor Kris Johnson, the person said, without any hesitation, “You look more like a Mohammad or Omar to me than a Kris Johnson.”
Johnson said as incomprehensible as this sounds, such situations are something he and other persons of color have to deal with frequently.
“How should I react when I’m insulted?" he said. "Do I become the angry black male or do I pull myself back from such an offensive comment? We all, in some way, are expected to play certain roles. I’m trying to seek out truth and I don’t necessarily have an agenda. I’m simply trying to open up a conversation with my music, and I believe the music speaks for itself.”
He said audiences should expect more than music at this concert. The narrative in the music of "Jim Crow's Tears" is punctuated by visual media and actors performing dialogue that connects to the audience.
P "I want the audience to be affected by every aspect of this collaboration from the acting, to the lighting, to the film projection and the film score.”
"I think (Kris) will be one of the most important composers on the edge of a unique form of jazz and media," Hanks said. "I only hope we’ll be able to keep him in our community.”
If you go
What: Kris Johnson's "Jim Crow’s Tears"
When: Friday, March 10, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City
How much: $25 for general, $10 for students with an ID
Jeff Metcalf is a professor of English at the University of Utah and an avid jazz fan.