An article with Phillip Johnston

For me professionally, living in Australia has its pros and cons. On one hand, it’s certainly not a good career move from a US perspective. The way I describe it to people is that if a New York musician moves to Europe it’s like they died; if they move to Australia it’s like they were never born in the first place. But when we moved, my wife supported me in making the commitment to remain connected to my musical life in New York, and I’ve continued to travel to New York or Europe several times a year to play with the people I’ve been playing with for decades, and continue at different times with The Microscopic Septet, The Spokes, Guy Klucevsek, Joel Forrester, The Silent Six and others.

I’ve also had a very rich musical life in Australia, playing with some of the most amazing musicians I’ve ever met anywhere. I’ve started new groups here ranging from The Greasy Chicken Orchestra, (which plays my arrangements of 20s and 30s jazz), The Coolerators/Phillip Johnston Quartet playing my newest compositions, Tight Corners, with Melbourne pianist Jex Saarelaht (playing the music of Monk, Lacy and Herbie Nichols), the saxophone quartet SNAP, and others. I’ve also created my most recent score for silent film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) here, and premiered the newest version of Page of Madness: Suite for Improvisers, that I first performed at The Stone in New York in 2015, and completed a PhD in Music Composition.

But I moved to Sydney for personal reasons: my wife is Australian playwright Hilary Bell, whom I met in New York. We fell in love, got married, had two children, Moss and Ivy, and went on living in New York. But at a certain point she wanted to move back to Sydney to be closer to her family and I’m always ready for an adventure, so here we are, and it’s 12 years later. Australia is a good place to live, and the US, of course, is unfortunately not having one of its best moments.

I’ve lived in a few places. I lived in San Francisco on and off throughout the 70s, which was wonderful–I still love it there. I grew up in New York, but never thought of myself as a New Yorker, or as an American for that matter, until I first went to Europe in the early 80s. You define yourself in contrast to other people, and often turn into a parody of yourself. I never realised that my conversation was composed almost entirely of slang and colloquialisms until I tried to speak English with people who had studied it. Now I live in Australia and people also see me as a ‘real New Yorker’. Australians are very polite and New Yorkers are more aggressive–they argue about everything just for the sport of it; some Australians find this impolite.

I chose the saxophone for my instrument because a lot of the music I listened to when I was young featured saxophone. I had a girlfriend in high school who was much more sophisticated than I was–she introduced me to the music of Thelonious Monk (Charlie Rouse), Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp. I discovered Captain Beefheart and Anthony Braxton. They all (except Braxton) played tenor, so I started on tenor. But I also loved the jazz of the 20s and 30s. I was drawn to the soprano early on by Sidney Bechet and Steve Lacy–I didn’t listen much to Coltrane or Wayne Shorter. But over time I came to appreciate many kinds of music form 60s pop music to tango to electronica…

Being a musician is an odd job. When you meet people at a party, and they ask what you do and you say, “I’m a musician”, they say, “but what do you do for a living?”. They don’t think of it as a real job. On the other hand, musicians are idealized by some, sometimes to their detriment. All jobs have their good side and bad side and they’re not that different. But no one ever meets some one at a party and when told “I’m a plumber”, respond, “But what do you do for a living?”

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