To Johnson, nearly everything sounded 'mighty good, kiddo'
I play rhythm guitar with a 20-piece big band. I'd never have gotten the chance but for a guy named Juell Johnson.
It's been a marvelous experience with the Over Forte Orchestra, playing some great old standards with a bunch of really decent people whose day jobs range from heavy equipment operator to medical doctor.
Juell was the inspiration for what has become a late-winter or early-spring fixture in Pierre, the Juell Johnson Jazz Festival. He started playing music when he was just a kid and taught himself pretty much everything there is to know about a keyboard. He told me once that he learned most of his early songs in sharps and flats, because he noticed when he first sat down to a piano that there were fewer black keys than white keys.
"I figured it would be easier if I just concentrated on the part of the piano with the fewest keys," he said.
Eventually, of course, he learned to use them all, and he used them night after night for dances, senior citizens' birthday parties, Christmas programs at the Capitol rotunda and sing-alongs anywhere a group of people would gather with voices and suggestions for tunes.
Juell's son Larry has been about as good a friend as I've known for the last 30 years, and when the jazz festival idea was being kicked around, Juell got Larry to thinking he could call on some former musicians in the Pierre area to play for the event. Well, the call went out for people who could still play trumpets and trombones and saxophones. State workers, local merchants, accountants, a music teacher or two, even a newspaper reporter, agreed to practice now and then to make some music for folks to enjoy. I'm maybe the only one in the group who can't actually read music, but the real musicians pretend not to notice, and Juell himself always -- I mean, always -- would say after a show, "Sounds mighty good up there, kiddo."
That's what he'd say during breaks when Larry and I played together in a four-piece dance band, too, and I always appreciated his praise. Even when we'd walk off the stage after laying down some of the biggest musical clinkers in recorded history, Juell would give us a big grin and a pat on the shoulder and tell us how good it was sounding up there.
He did it to encourage us as musicians, but he also did it because the guy simply loved to listen to music. Now, I know from a couple of conversations with him that he wasn't impressed with rap music. OK, let's be straight. He didn't know why people called it music.
Other than that, though, if it had a melody and a beat, he tended to enjoy it. If it had some harmonies, a few nifty keyboard runs and maybe a little syncopation, he really liked it. If it was music being made by his kids and friends of his kids, he loved it.
I actually knew Juell before I met his son. Back in the early 1970s, an institution in Pierre called the Falcon hosted an institution called the sing-along. During legislative sessions, folks would gather there on Thursday evenings and sing songs. The first time I attended one of those boisterous affairs, Juell was on keyboard. The management had some printed songbooks, and patrons could go through and find the words to songs. When I walked in, the first thing I noticed was that the veterans in the group didn't suggest titles. They simply shouted numbers, the page numbers of the songs they wanted. Juell nodded at each number and played the intro. I never saw him falter. It was simply amazing.
Juell was a World War II veteran from Lodgepole who turned a job as a snowplow operator in Perkins County into a career in highways. He married a woman named Helen who shared his love for music, and they raised a big family in a home full of song.
Just about now, I figure Juell is walking up to a choir of angels to say, "Sounds mighty good up here."
Terry Woster's column appears Saturdays and Wednesdays in The Daily Republic.