James Johnson

Dr. James Johnson (Photo: Germaine Watkins)

Dr. James Johnson (Photo: Germaine Watkins)

Music, though transcendent of background, can also serve as a culture’s backbone. It has been an essential part of the African-American community for as long as the community has existed. Traditional instruments and sounds are ingrained in the “Black experience,” creating genres such as blues, jazz, soul, and gospel. Dr. James Johnson, co-founder of the Afro-American Music Institute (AAMI) in Homewood, recognizes the importance of training students of all ages in this art, in hopes of heightening community consciousness, self-awareness, and music appreciation. Born in Tennessee and raised in Louisiana, Johnson was surrounded by music in many forms. He grew up in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, and was influenced by gospel and jazz.

His mother, a classically trained pianist, was one of President Truman’s favorite performers. Not surprisingly, Johnson trained in the classical tradition, and studied violin in college. Though he received acclaim for his talents and even played in orchestras, he found his real love in jazz piano, partly due to his college experience at Grambling State University, a historically Black college in Louisiana. While in Louisiana, Johnson helped train Vietnam veterans in African-American music at the Lakeside School of Music. His passions for teaching and music motivated him to begin a program that inspired others to discover their own artistry.

In 1977, Dr. Nathan Davis, an internationally renowned saxophonist and colleague of Johnson’s, encouraged him to move to Pittsburgh, considering its reputation as a center of jazz. Johnson, along with his wife, Pamela Johnson, founded AAMI together as a non-profit. In 1982, the Johnsons secured their first location at St. James AME Church in East Liberty. After six years, they moved the facility to Tioga Street on Homewood, where the program expanded to include all members of the community.

The AAMI currently trains about 300 students a year over three semesters. Students learn about the African-American musical tradition through singing and instrumentation. The location of the Institute moved to Hamilton Avenue more than a decade ago, with bigger facilities. Now, they host special events such as recitals and concerts, to showcase the talent of the students. With the success of the AAMI, Johnson has been able to enjoy his other interests and endeavors.

He is a part of the Jacquet Bazemore Hall of Fame for Martial Arts, and has encountered many prominent African-American sports figures including Tony Dungy and Mike Tomlin; in fact, Tomlin’s children received lessons from AAMI. He teaches a class on African-American music at the University of Pittsburgh, and has also taught at Carlow University and CCAC. From 1990-1994, he was on staff at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, conducting music instruction while making a weekly commute from Pittsburgh. As a musician, he has gotten the opportunity to play and engage with jazz legends, while also building relationships with several internationally recognized artists who have visited and taught at AAMI. Johnson’s mission and musical instruction in Homewood has affected musicians all over Pittsburgh. He and his wife created a safe space for budding, novice, and experienced musicians, to all participate in strengthening the African-American tradition. With a combined love for his community and his music, it is safe to say that Johnson’s legacy will last for a very long time.