Craig Johnson in Paris, 1955 photo courtesy of Joe Mcphee
In 1972 a pharmaceutical salesman from Basel, Switzerland, had some business that took him to New York. While he was in the city, he looked up the producer of a little jazz label, CjR Records. He’d seen an ad in a magazine in Europe for a record called Underground Railroad, featuring a musician who played both saxophone and trumpet. Fascinated because that combination was unusual, he bought a copy of the LP. Now in New York he located the record producer who was also a painter. Together the two went upstate to hear this multi-instrumentalist jazz performer, and while they imbibed a few less than legal substances, the pharmaceutical salesman from Basel had a vision that he too should start a record label of his own. So he got the rights to some of the unreleased recordings from the producer/painter and issued his first LP, Black Magic Man.
Nice story, and it might have ended there. But in fact, the pharmaceutical salesman was Werner X. Uehlinger and the Swiss record label born that night was Hat Hut, and Underground Railroad was by Joe McPhee. This was the beginning of thirty-plus years of some of the most important music recorded in the 20th century. After McPhee, Hat Hut recorded Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Vienna Art Orchestra, Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton, John Zorn, Dave Douglas, and many, many more. All of it began that night Joe McPhee played for Werner and his new friend, the painter/producer Craig Johnson.
Craig Johnson was born and raised right here in Seattle, and attended the University of Washington. He travelled to Paris to study painting and ran for a time with a Left Bank crowd of artists and musicians. From those days came his abiding love of all things French, most especially French food and, of course, French wine. When he returned to the States he began his career as a record producer, and his artwork graced many of the covers of those early recordings. For a time he was the North American distributor, business manager, mail order clerk, accountant, and sometimes producer for Hat Hut. He returned to Seattle in the ‘90s and soon became the center of a band of friends who loved adventurous music, good food, and sparkling conversation. CjR Records continued too, as Johnson co-produced and released (among many titles): Remembrance (a tribute to Don Cherry by McPhee and Mike Bisio), Angels, Devils & Haints (McPhee with four bassists), and First Date (the original recording of Trio X). In 2013, the Chicago label Corbett vs. Dempsey issued Nation Time: The Complete Recordings, a four-CD box set that collects many of the early CjR Records that have become so valuable and important over time.
Craig Johnson passed away suddenly here in Seattle on May 20, 2017, at the age of 88. He is remembered fondly by his many friends, musicians, and lovers of free jazz everywhere. And so a too-little-noted piece of Seattle jazz history has slipped quietly away as well. But whenever anywhere anyone asks, “What time is it?” and the reply is “It’s Nation Time,” somewhere Craig Johnson will be smiling.