Clarence Johnston

Clarence Johnston Playing the Drums

At the age of 86, Clarence Johnston is too busy living in the present to talk much about his past.  As a world-renowned jazz drummer he has played over 50 years, traveling and performing with jazz artists Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Dinah Washington among many others.  As an Army and Air Force veteran of WWII and growing up in an era where jazz was burgeoning, Mr. Johnston has some colorful stories to share.  But because he remains an active professional musician, teacher, storyteller and intergenerational drum circle facilitator, our conversation focused instead on his current enterprises.

Laura Swett: Given all of your current projects, does your age affect you?
Clarence Johnston: I’ll be a bit frank with you.  Age is not in my mind at all.  I’m a professional musician.  All I think of is the next day.  I don’t think of age.  All I do is work to keep up with what’s going on!  I like going from one thing to the next. I still teach, and I still play.  And some weeks are better than others.

LS: What do the drums mean to you?
CJ: What I get out of it is a world of happiness.  How many people can go through life and do exactly what they feel like doing? You [do] have to discipline yourself for that.  Jazz is the hardest music in the world to play; it takes a lot of time and patience.  It takes years before you learn it.  It’s a particular art, a particular sound and feeling.  It took me about 10 or 11 years before I even got that sound right.  I was playing but I knew the sound I wanted, and it took time.  If you want the instrument to sound the way you want it to, you have to practice.  [When you do] it makes you feel good and is a real accomplishment.  When you don’t practice you can still play, but you get real slow.

LS: How did you get into drumming?
CJ: I served in WWII, first in the Army, and then I transferred into the Air Force.  I was 18 when I went in and came out 3 years later.  When I got home, I had a hard time integrating into civilian life.  I would wake up in the middle of the night and get up and be out walking the streets at 2 [or] 3 am trying to get myself together.  This was going on for 3 [or] 4 months when my friend Ray Hanes came by for a visit.  He showed me some drumming rhythms, and I was hooked.  I went to music school for five years, working and playing gigs.

LS: How long do you practice?
CJ: I have a studio where I practice. I go four hours a day. Sometimes I work a particular piece and need more time and feel I should be doing this for 8 hours.


These days, in addition to practicing, playing gigs and teaching individual students, Mr. Johnston is a drum circle facilitator. Certified through REMO Drums, he can be found traveling around


Written by: Laura Swett

Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 06:09PM


Mr. Johnston shows that he has creativity and perserverance at the ripe old age of 86. It must take tremendous strength to practice drumming for 4 hours, yet he does this regularly and still finds pleasure and innovation in his work. I hope he will be leading a drum circle in my area soon. I  am 71 years old and lead a women's drum group called Heartbeat  a few years ago. We played at the Field Mseum and The Hothouse in Chicago. We were named Hearteat, because since a female fetus is born with all her eggs, the first heartbeat a female experiences is that of her grandmother, when her mother was in the womb!.

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