The Lucky 13: Greg Johnson, Music director of the Reno Jazz Orchestra

Meet the new music director of the Reno Jazz Orchestra, Greg Johnson. He’s an accomplished performer and composer with seasoned jazz-saxophone skills, and has taught jazz studies at universities like California State University, Sacramento, and the University of Southern California. He has a wide catalog of jazz recordings released under his name. Learn more at 

What was the first concert you attended? 

I remember being around lots of music as a kid going up around Penn State University in Pennsylvania. While I couldn’t tell you much about any of these concerts, I do remember the first professional concert that I attended in middle school. The Bob Mintzer Big Band came through my home town, and my saxophone teacher took me backstage to meet him. I didn’t know that I’d work for Bob and play in that band 10 years later! 

What was the first album you owned? 

I bought two albums with birthday money: The Best of David Sanborn and The Essential Duke Ellington. Two very pivotal albums for me, in retrospect! 

What bands are you listening to right now? 

I listen to a lot of bands from Europe right now … big bands out of Germany and Bob Brookmeyer’s New Art Orchestra. There’s something really compelling about the state of jazz music in Europe right now. I suspect it’s the government funding that allows people to live comfortably and write and perform interesting music.  

What artist, genre or musical trend does everyone love, but you don’t get? 

I support people loving any kind of music. Music is supposed to bring you joy, sadness, rage … any emotion that you crave. With that said, I will never understand the appeal of the song “Mr. Brightside,” especially at weddings. 

What musical act, current or defunct, would you most like to see perform live? 

I wish I could have been around in the 1960s when Miles Davis was starting to revolutionize jazz music. Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and Ron Carter in the same band! The recordings are very raw, and I would really love to see what Miles was like in front of an audience. The closest thing to that was Wayne Shorter’s quartet between 2006-2020. 

What’s your favorite musical guilty pleasure? 

“Mr. Brightside.” Just kidding! I don’t think that there needs to be guilt associated with music. 

What’s your favorite music venue? 

I could never narrow it down to one, but maybe three. I love these places for different reasons, but have attended shows and performed in all three. SFJAZZ Center has the best sound and acoustics of any jazz club in the world. It is so comfortable to play there, and the shows are always creative and pristine. WDR Funkhaus Wallrafplatz in Cologne, Germany, is much the same and one of the best venues for larger ensembles. I have fond memories at the Sound Room in Oakland, Calif. It is owned by an amazing couple and has a really engaged audience of concertgoers. I think I’ve had some of my best performances there. 

What’s the one song lyric you can’t get out of your head? 

Mel Tormé sings a song called “Lulu’s Back In Town” where he talks about all of the things he needs to get done before Lulu comes back. All of the references are extremely dated, and I laugh every time I hear them. “Gotta get my old tuxedo pressed. Gotta sew a button on my vest. … Gotta find half a buck somewhere.” I’d have gone on a lot more dates if they only cost half a buck. 

What band or artist changed your life? How? 

David Sanborn. Hearing him and his sound at a young age set me on a trajectory that was vastly different from my peers who only listened to traditional jazz music. Sanborn was able to fit his sound into any genre, from pop and orchestral to blues and world music. My career has taken a similar trajectory, because I’ve been able to draw from that influence and package it a little differently.  

You have one question to ask one musician. What’s the question, and who are you asking? 

I would ask Kenny Loggins how he maintained his creativity and output for 50 years. 

What song would you like played at your funeral? 

I hope that my song “Sea Shell” from my 2014 album City People is played. When I wrote it, I wanted to capture the feeling of hope and the feeling that everything is going to be OK. 

Figurative gun to your head, what is your favorite album of all time? 

What an impossible question. I can’t narrow it down to one, but I’ll give you 10 in alphabetical order: Count Basie, Plays Benny Carter; Claus Ogerman/Michael Brecker, Cityscape; David Sanborn, Upfront; Ella and Louis; Frank Sinatra, Sinatra at the Sands; John Coltrane, A Love Supreme; Kenny Loggins, Leap of Faith; Michael Jackson, Off the Wall; Vince Mendoza, Nights on Earth; Wayne Shorter, Alegria

What song should everyone listen to right now? 

It’s a beautiful day right now. I’m going to hop in my car and listen to Gerry Mulligan’s “Ain’t it the Truth.”