The jazz series at the Opera House in Tel Aviv has hosted a glittering array of talent over the years and some of the biggest names in the business, but it is safe to say that not many of them have been as multi-talented as Molly Johnson.
Now an established senior member of the global jazz fraternity, the 56-year-Canadian vocalist, who will grace the Opera House stage next Friday (10 p.m.), wasn’t always set on a career in the improvised side of the music tracks or, for that matter, in performing music at all.
The board treading she initially looked for was of a more disciplined and peripatetic nature.
As a grade schooler, she and her brother showed promise as dancers and were scouted by legendary Toronto producer Ed Mirvish and recruited to appear in a production of Porgy and Bess at the city’s Royal Alexandra Theatre. The budding child star was soon enrolled in the National Ballet School, and she soon set her sights on a career in choreography.
That sounds like an entirely different kettle of fish from singing works by the likes of Billie Holiday.
“Not really,” counters Johnson.
“What I really like to do is write songs, and the singing stuff is sort of the afterthought. Choreography is about creating work, so they are not so different. I come from a dance and theater background, and I was at the ballet school but I wasn’t really interested in tutus and all of that,” she laughs. “I loved the ballet, but I really liked the notion of creating new stuff.”
It still took a while before jazz veered into Johnson’s view, not that she didn’t keep herself gainfully employed in the interim.
When she was 17 she fronted a disco band called A Chocolate Affair. She was also lead vocalist for a couple of rock bands when she was in her 20s – a 1980s outfit called Alta Moda, followed by Infidels in the 1990s. Both chalked up a successful single in the Canadian rock market, but for one reason or another both groups split up after recording just one album each. There were guest slots with other bands and some music-related film work. In the mid-1990s she became involved with some worthy endeavor, founding and running the Kumbaya Festival music and arts fund-raiser, which helped to raise more than $1 million for people living with AIDS/HIV.
“I came to jazz very late in life,” she states. “I sort of played around with it, in between other things, for years. People kept asking me to do jazz for years, but I always said I can do jazz later.”
Bringing up two children also helped to keep Johnson away from the art form for a while.
She felt she wanted to not only be able to give jazz as much time as it required when her familial and other circumstances eventually allowed, but she also wanted to bring as much to her chosen musical table as she could.
“I think you need a certain amount of life experience to tackle that [jazz] material as well. You need to have a bit of gravitas in your voice and in your life to be able to really tell those stories,” she says.
Johnson also fed off a rich musical and sociopolitically aware home background and was cognizant of some of life’s tougher challenges from a young age. As the daughter of an African American father and a white mother, the singer was well informed about inequality and the fight for civil rights from the word go.
“Jazz was around the house. My parents were lovers of jazz. They met in Europe and returned to the US, where it was illegal for them to be married in certain states. I think it was difficult for them. They worked in the civil rights movement. They marched and they knew Dr. [Martin Luther] King and all kinds of people and characters. It was mostly my white mother who was involved in the civil rights world and feminist groups. My black dad was trying to get an education,” she recounts.
Johnson says that her mother’s sterling work and all the artistic and other ventures she herself has been involved with over the years come in to play in who she is today, on and off the stage.
“I’m an ensemble girl,” she chuckles. “I’m like the band. I’m not the girl who sings with the band in the back, in the dark. I insist that every player bring luggage to the show.”
That, continues Johnson, is not just because she’s a great believer in equality.
“I am kind of lazy and also like to listen to great music, so I put a stool on stage so I can sit and watch and listen to the really great musicians I have with me,” she says.
While Johnson may dig the instrumentalists she takes along for her ride, she says she is not a great fan of her role counterparts.
“I don’t listen to singers and, to be honest, I don’t even like many singers,” she declares. “I don’t want to sound like anyone but me, and I don’t even listen to me. I listen to my bass player [Mike Downes]. I had him pick all the songs for last my record.”
The disc in question, called Because of Billie, features songs made famous by Billie Holiday, one of the few jazz vocalists whom Johnson admires. It will form the bedrock of Johnson’s show in Tel Aviv next week.
She also trusts Downes implicitly.
“Mike has been standing behind me, playing bass, for 20 years. He knows me way better than I know me,” she says. “He picked the tunes, and we recorded the album in four days. I am a big believer in first takes.”
Downes will be right behind Johnson next Friday, along with pianist Adrean Farrugia and drummer Larnell Lewis.
Johnson is an unabashed fan of Holiday, both as a person and as a jazz singer.
“She was into civil rights long before it had a name, and she got herself into a whole lot of trouble for just speaking the truth. I have been wanting to make a Billie Holiday record for years. People kept saying I’m just like Billie. No, I’m not. I’m because of Billie.”Molly Johnson will perform at the Opera House in Tel Aviv on November 20 at 10 p.m. For tickets and more information: (03) 692- 7777; www.israel-opera.co.il