An Unusual Partnership: Harry Aoki, Jim Johnson & Moods of Man
By Gary Cristall
In my research for a book on folk music in Canada that I am writing I am an inveterate rummager in used record stores. One of the better ones in these parts is Fascinating Rhythm in Nanaimo. A good ten years ago I was going through the bins when I came across something unusual, a recording called Moods of Man, Jim Johnson and Harry Aoki, Live At Qualicum Beach. The cover features two well dressed men in mid song: one, a Black man, playing guitar and singing; the other an Asian man playing a string bass. At the bottom right corner is a Canadian flag and “Canadian Production.” Turning it over I was delighted to see that this was in fact a record of folk music of diverse styles and that there were notes by the well-known Vancouver bassoonist and music entrepreneur George Zukerman. Now this is just the kind of thing a researcher into the obscure corners of folk music loves to find. Unfortunately there was not much information about who the artists were or how this recording came to be made in Qualicum Breach, a small town on Vancouver Island.
I knew vaguely that Harry Aoki was a local jazz player but I had never heard of Jim Johnson. Happily I mentioned the recording and played a tune on a radio show and there were a couple of calls. A few months later I was sitting in Jim Johnson’s living room on Vancouver Island.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to chat with Harry at Nikkei Centre about his work with Jim.
Jim Johnson was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1922 and died last fall in Chemainus. His parents had been share croppers in Mississipi and had escaped in the middle of the night from a plantation where they were held by fraudulent debts. Jim formed his first vocal group in Grade Four and never stopped singing. In the early fifties he was teaching in Denver, Colorado, having earned a Masters’ degree—a pretty uncommon thing for an Afro-American in the forties. One day he was called in to the principal’s office and asked about attending a movie—Salt of the Earth—made by blacklisted film makers. He was also asked about his attendance at a concert by Afro-American superstar Paul Robeson, under attack by the government for his left wing politics. This was the height of McCarthyism and just as his parents had fled Mississippi looking for something better, Jim decided to head north. He told me he put a map of Canada on the wall and, with eyes closed, stuck a pin in it, then said to his wife, “We’re moving to Prince George!” So in 1954 Jim Johnson and his wife effectively doubled the Black population of Prince George, British Columbia. Jim got a job teaching and played a little music on the side.
One day the owner of a local cleaner’s asked him if he wanted to do a show on local radio the cleaners would sponsor. Jim was delighted and this led to making more musical contacts. One of them was with a BC Hydro planner who was passing through Prince George on the way south from Kitimat. Jim Johnson and Harry Aoki hit it off and played together whenever they could. In 1960 Jim moved to Vancouver Island and those occasions when Jim and Harry could meet increased. In the mid-sixties Harry had a brilliant idea. They would take over the village hall in Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island—a fairly large summer destination—and run a regular series of concerts all summer. That was between 1965 and 1967. Here they fashioned a repertoire of folk songs, blues, a few jazz tunes, what today would be called ‘world music’ and some creations of their own. They were also regulars on CBC radio.
A CBC producer, Don Ecclestone, used to be a regular at the club while vacationing in Qualicum Beach. He asked Harry and Jim if they were interested in doing a television show. They were, and for 18 weeks between March 3 and June 30 of 1968, a half hour show, Moods of Man was seen on Sunday afternoons on CBC TV. The show featured Harry and Jim and special guests. Ann Mortifee made her television debut there and Eleanor Collins, a Vancouver jazz legend, was another guest. Each show had a theme or mood, as it were—songs of trouble and hope, songs of the loved and the loveless, etc.
George Zukerman, who was organizing tours through his company Overture Concerts, asked Jim and Harry if they wanted to take their show on the road. For the next three years the duo would tour for three or four months of the year. They played from Hawaii to Alaska, up and down the west coast and just about everywhere in Canada. The Overture concert network took them to the most distinct Canadian towns: Uranium City, Saskatchewan; Churchill, Manitoba and more. Jim remembered one place where it was so cold in their hotel that Harry used the rug as an extra blanket.
A Black man and a Japanese was not the most common sight on the road in those days and there was more than one instance of racism. Harry recalled “Once you got 100 miles inland from the coast, you were in Ku Klux Klan territory.” By and large, though, they were welcomed and the music they played was well received. There wasn’t that much interesting music getting out of the main population centres in those days and Overture helped bring diverse culture to many small communities. After three years Jim and Harry decided to stop touring. They both had good jobs and the rigours of the road quickly lost their magic. They stayed friends and would perform occasionally, but Moods of Man was over by the early seventies.
Listening to the recordings they made is an interesting experience. Jim was well versed in both American and Canadian folk music as well as having a deep classical background. Harry was equally adept at folk and jazz. In a time when many artists playing folk music were young and barely musically literate, these men were highly educated and mature artists at the peak of their powers. They were able to come up with a repertoire that had great breadth and on a couple of occasions, stunning originality.
In addition to Moods of Man, I had found a CBC recording of Harry and Jim in another record store in Ottawa that neither had recalled making when I spoke with them. The CBC recording is mainly Afro-American folk and blues with a few Canadian folk songs thrown in and one ‘standard,’ Moscow Nights, which gave Jim a chance to sing in Russian. It is good but nowhere as good as the record Harry and Jim made themselves.
Moods of Man was recorded live at Qualicum Beach during one or more concerts. The repertoire is much more diverse than the CBC record. When I asked Harry what kind of music he and Jim performed he said it was “international music.” This is on display on Moods of Man. There is a sea chantey from Australia, an Afro-American logging song, a song by Quebecois chansonier Gilles Vigneault, a calypso, and a pop/country song—By The Time I get To Phoenix. But the two most compelling and unusual pieces are the ones that Harry and Jim created. The first is a combination of two lullabies that Harry remembers his mother singing to him—the first one Edo Komori Uta and the second an Israeli song Raisins and Almonds. It is a lovely and delicate effort. However, the tour de force of the recording is an original composition based in a cross-cultural pairing of Jim’s bluesy melodeon and Harry’s harmonica which improvises on a five note Zen chant he learned as a child in Japan. Bluesea is an extended epic piece of improvisation that is a good decade ahead of its time.
Moods of Man is exceptional in the fact that it was an artist-produced recording before these were common. It is unusual in the breadth of its repertoire and the level of both vocal and instrumental performance. It is a tribute to the collaboration between two exceptional artists. Both Jim Johnson and Harry Aoki had long and productive lives that made an enormous contribution to music in British Columbia in varied fields. A short but important part of their lives was their collaboration in Moods of Man. It stands up both as art and as a harbinger of musical collaborations and approaches that would come.
Moods of Man, MM1012
Jim Johnson and Harry Aoki, Radio Canada International RCI270
Gary Cristall is a Vancouver university instructor, artist manager and cultural worker. He is writing a history of folk music in English-speaking Canada. An outline is at www.folkmusichistory.com.