Progressive Underground: Kris Johnson’s return to the DSO is a full circle moment

The award-winning Detroit artist and composer will lead the Paradise Jazz Band on Friday, Nov. 17.

Kris Johnson holds hi trumpet in his home studio space

Kris Johnson

Award-winning trumpeter, educator and bandleader Kris Johnson has enjoyed a musical journey that has taken him around the world sharing stages with numerous jazz icons. His compositions have found their way to such esteemed groups as the Count Basie Orchestra as well as graced the world of film.

He will be leading his own ensemble the Paradise Jazz Big Band as part of the latest installment of the Paradise Jazz Series at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra on Friday, Nov. 17, and will feature world-renowned musicians who have roots in the Motor City. I caught up with him as we chatted about his musical influences, how music saved his life and why he is so committed to the education and mentorship of emerging artists.

Listen: Kris Johnson’s return to the DSO is a full circle moment

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Kris Johnson on the talent he has lined up as the headliner for the latest installment of the DSO’s Paradise Jazz Concert Series:

We have an absolutely dynamite big band put together with some of my favorite musicians. Anybody that attended the April 2022 concert will see a similar big band to that group. We’ve got Caleb Curtis, Kasan Belgrave, Marcus Elliott, Raphael Leafar and Kaylee Wilder on sax. In the trombone section, Corey Wallace, William Wang, Kenneth Gill, as well as Christian Foreman.

On trumpets are Omar Lateef, Anthony Stanko, Alan Dennard, Solomon Parham, and a fantastic rhythm section with Brendan Davis, a young man who is burning on keys, Brandon Rose on bass, Sasha Kashperko on guitar, the one and only Nate Wynn on drums, and Lauren Johnson on percussion. Milton Suggs is coming in as a guest vocalist, as well as musical narrative artist Chanel Harrison.

Attendees will be treated to a big band filled with Detroit musicians. It’s going to be hard swinging, impactful, soulful music, covering a lot of different styles. We have some of the best soloists and ensemble players around.

On his musical influences who helped him along his path of music:

My first experiences playing in a big band were with the Detroit Symphony Civic Jazz Orchestra (around 2000), under the direction of Marcus Belgrave. It was an amazing time. He introduced us to the music of Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. He told stories about being on the road with Ray Charles, and that had a profound impact on us musically.

Marcus knew the history of music and could play every single part in a composition. He could talk about the melody of the saxophone and take his trumpet out and play the saxophone melody. It didn’t matter what chart we were playing; Marcus could play everything and he was always very hands-on in his direction and taught us phrasing and how to put a band together.

When I went on to study at Michigan State under the direction of Rodney Whitaker and Wyclef Gordon, and later on Derek Gardner, big band was such an essential part of my upbringing. I fell in love with the sound and interaction of the horns.

Once I got out of grad school, I was fortunate to join the Count Basie Orchestra. I was pretty ambitious right from the beginning. I knew I wanted to write, so I got my feet wet by writing for the Count Basie Orchestra. That stirred my desire to have my own group, which I always dreamed about. This [Paradise Jazz Series] is really a dream come true and to have it happen on the Detroit Orchestra stage is really special.

Related: Bassist Endea Owens talks about learning from legends like Marcus Belgrave and Rodney Whitaker

On what it’s like to score films:  

I’m gonna blame Terence Blanchard for this one. Everyone knows I’m a huge Terrence Blanchard fan. I was in high school when the movie ‘Primal Fear’ came out. Terrence didn’t score that, but he was a guest soloist on that, and he played the trumpet so passionately that I was like, “What is happening?”

That got me hooked on Spike Lee films. I heard Terrence playing trumpet on ‘Mo’ Better Blues’ and then started watching all the other films and realized Terrence was also scoring those films. Then I heard his album Jazz and Film, and that changed my life.

I started to understand the connection between film and jazz and knew it was something I wanted to do after grad school. I started pursuing different directors and met a couple of great directors and over the years built great relationships. There was a popular web series called the The PuNanny Diaries that I scored, that was my first project.

With Issa Rae Presents, there is a great director and writer, Dui Gerrod, who found me on Instagram and wanted me to score his project. So he and his team flew out to Utah where I was teaching at the time, and we watched the series together. I scored that entire web series in a weekend. That project was nominated for an Emmy, for best web series.

I love scoring for film. Music and storytelling go hand in hand. There’s always a deeper message in any music that I write, and there’s always something that I want to convey. When I’m writing for a film, I [believe] music can really inspire the film. It’s a beautiful marriage.

On his album release, The Unpaved Road, a masterwork that featured vocalist Lulu Falls, a collaboration that eventually evolved into a life partnership:

Yes, we had been dating for a while and actually out loud said, “We are not going to be THAT couple that works together.”

She had her band at the time and they put out an album. I had my band. And then there was a song that I’d done for a feature film called ‘Disaster Piece.’ There was one cue in there that I shared with her. She liked it and wrote to it and the tune ended up becoming a track on the album The Unpaved Road.

Then she had a concept for a song “Fighting Love,” and she sung the hook to me over a voice memo. I took the voice memo and sampled it in Logic and wrote a whole track to it. We performed those two songs live with the band and they were like, “Hey, she’s in.”

I wasn’t trying to be that guy that brings his girlfriend on, but we couldn’t deny the chemistry and partnership. We are kindred spirits even beyond our relationship.

On announcing their engagement on WDET’s The Progressive Underground:

We announced our engagement on the show for sure. I remember that. It’s very special.

On why education and mentoring musicians is important to him as Executive Director of Michigan State’s Community Music School in Detroit:

Music saved my life. [Before music] I didn’t have much of a social circle or an outlet when I was growing up. I was always trying to find my way and I had a hard time finding what I was good at.

My mentor and high school band director Damian Crutcher saw something in me and really challenged me. From that moment on, I realized what music could provide in my life and wanted to be able to reach those students who struggled, or who didn’t have as easy of a start, because I really struggled musically and had to fight for it. I was tone deaf at one point and couldn’t feel rhythm very well. But with mentorship and encouragement, I fought through a lot of things.

I feel the responsibility to be able to share that and play that role in my community. Over the years, I still keep in touch with my students and still give advice. This is all a part of our heritage, what we passed down, the way that [jazz greats] Harold McKinney, Wendell Harrison, Ken Cox and Marcus Belgrave and countless others pass it down to me.

Visit to stay connected to Johnson’s activities, releases and updates.

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