Interview: What Did We Learn? AFAR Music Offers Free Recording

Founder Richard Johnson Discusses How The Pandemic Inspired Him to Build A Recording Studio For Jazz Musicians

Photo by Stacy Wescott

What Did We Learn? is a series of interviews featuring musicians and industry professionals, discussing their journey of transformation as a result of the pandemic.

This segment’s interview features AFAR Music Founder Richard Johnson, an accomplished composer, arranger, jazz musician, professor, and founding member of Johnson Works LLC. For Johnson, the pandemic and lockdown created a unique opportunity to give back to the jazz community. In this interview, he discusses how he came up with the idea to build a professional recording studio in his home in Chicago, and why he decided to offer the space for free.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

TH: How would you describe your experience of the pandemic personally and professionally?

RJ: For me, it wasn’t as drastic as a lot of people. I am social by nature of the job, but I have no problem being inside practicing my instrument all day. I’m a piano player, and I looked at it as an opportunity to do a lot of things that I just haven’t been able to do because I’m flying around doing concerts, teaching at universities, workshops, clinics. I’m spending predominantly 32 hours a week just traveling, planes, trains, cars, which is a lot of time. So as soon as it happened, I was like okay I have to make the best of this.

TH: Could you give us a little background on the record label?

RJ: AFAR Music actually started in 2003. I was the director of the National Basketball Association for The Atlantic Spirit. I had a hip hop group, and we played all the music for all the basketball games so I got to meet all the famous players, eat meals with them because I had access to all that. It started with that, and then the idea was to bring different people together through jazz and hip hop — to get the music out to kids in schools — education, high schools, middle schools because there wasn’t a lot of live instrument playing. A lot of stuff is produced nowadays, meaning sounds that are produced from a computer, not a live instrument.

My goal was to create a company that was actually a band (with instruments) of people going into schools, presenting this music of jazz via hip hop. We would play a hip-hop song the kids knew, and then we will quickly transition to jazz, and they would be like “oh wow!” We did that for several years. Once I moved to Chicago I decided to reignite it again and had more time to spend with. So that was kind of the beginning of it, and then it kind of grew into this recording of doing different jazz projects.

Then during the pandemic, I decided I was just going to build my own jazz studio. I thought, why keep paying to go to these studios when I can just build it myself? So I asked my dad to help me. He said, “Yeah we got nothing else to do!” Then I decided I would open it up to friends, and people of high-quality music — and make it free so they can put out all their music that they’ve been writing during the pandemic.

TH: Can you talk a little bit about your decision to offer free recording?

RJ: During the pandemic, everyone was home. Musicians didn’t have any gigs. My thinking was that a lot of my friends are writing a ton of music, and when this pandemic ends, they’re going to need to record it. The question is, how are they going to record it if they didn’t make any money?

So I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just build a studio. That solves that problem!’ There’s still a lot of other steps you got to deal with — distribution, publicists, and all this other stuff. But the first step of writing…guys are doing that. The second step is recording…you now have access to recording. It’s one of the things in the process to help get it done.

TH: After you built the studio with your dad, how did you decide who you would invite to record, or how did you get the word out? What were the beginning phases of that process?

RJ: First I asked a few guys that I knew who were vaccinated, etc. to play a session at my home. I wanted to try out some of the music I’d written so I asked them to bring some of their tunes. Then while we were playing I was figuring out how things would actually work in the studio without being in the studio sound-wise. Since I built it with my dad with schematics from friends who were engineers from all over the planet, that was more my concern — taking the information they gave me and being able to put this thing together since I had never done it before.

TH: How long did it take you to come up with the idea of building it to putting it into action?

RJ: I’m the kind of person that if I think of something and have decided to do it then it’s action. I’m not a person that’s like I thought about this I didn’t do it. For me it’s either you gonna do it or you’re not gonna do one or the other, don’t. Let’s not mess around because I could be doing something else. So when I said, ‘You know what I can do this,’ that was it. Then it was just a matter of figuring it out. It was just like a big math equation putting it together.

TH: When did the first group come in to play?

RJ: The first guys came over at the beginning of November 2020, and I didn’t have that much built and set up. They were kind of like, “Oh okay, we’ll play.” They came back 10 days later, and I had more things — I had more mics, more stands. Every time I kept realizing what I didn’t have and what I needed to get. They would come back and be like, “Oh yeah, you’ll get it eventually. Take your time. There’s no rush.” And they came back about two weeks later and they like, “Wow, there is a lot more stuff!”

Then, I didn’t see those guys, for about four months, but I had other people starting to come in — trickling in like two guys here, three guys there. When the first group came back four months later they walked in and were like, “WHOA! What has happened here! We thought this would take a couple of years!” I had a new piano and all these mic stands, and all kinds of stuff. So they were more surprised and realized this is for real now. They could hear it when we listen to the playback, everything was there.

Photo by Stacy Wescott

TH: What was the biggest challenge for you in designing the studio?

RJ: It was a challenge trying to figure out the best way to make use of this space that I had. One of the issues with studios is a lot of times the space isn’t well used, or it’s over-used. The space I have is good enough to fit eight, nine people in there depending on what the situation is and instruments.

I realized that the best recordings are from places where people feel comfortable. If they don’t feel comfortable because there’s a lot of stuff and clutter around, then that affects the music. It was a matter of how can I get the most out of this space, have people feel comfortable, and still get a good sound. That was something I spent a lot of time thinking about and thinking about other studios, what worked and what didn’t work. So to me, that was the biggest challenge.

TH: How about for you on a personal or even artistic level — what were some of the challenges that you were going through during that time just as like a human, artistic level.

RJ: Personally, for me, I welcomed the break of having to run around and travel and play all the time. You also have to realize too being a piano player is different than like a saxophone player or trumpet player. As piano players or guitar players harmonically it’s kind of built into us, as far as practicing, we’re called to do concerts and gigs, all the time with just us. You rarely ever see just a trumpet player just walking around playing.

So when people asked me how did the pandemic affect me musically, it actually helped because I was able to sit in one place and just focus on what I needed to fix. Not that I didn’t miss playing with people. But I mean, the skill level of most piano players is okay I have to be able to sit down and play this tune so people recognize it. It’s a little bit different than a horn player where they just got the melody, they’re not playing everything else.

TH: What has the experience been like for the studio and for the label?

RJ: It’s been good — things are reverting back to some kind of normalcy. Things are progressing, it’s now just a matter of figuring out how to deal with the outside elements and still keep the label interest, and all these things going, and how to maneuver — that’s the trickiest part. The interest isn’t a problem. The music, writing isn’t an issue. Talent is not an issue. It’s people’s health concerns and everyone being safe as much as they can and being honest about it.

As far as recordings, I’ve been putting in work and time, and people are seeing it. They are hearing about it. The clubs and all around the country — people are emailing and calling, and they’re loving it. They’re saying, “Hey, I wish I could do and I wish I had the drive and the means,” but, you know, everybody’s different and I enjoy doing it.

Photo by Stacy Wescott

TH: What have you learned most over this process during the last year and a half?

RJ: I’ve always been very proactive, but I’ve learned I can even be more proactive if I can get more people on board to get things done. It’s one thing to say, ‘I’m going to go practice today.’ That simply involves me. If I’m going to say, ‘I want to record 30 records with at least 15 different groups, it takes some outside effort and belief and other people who have to say, okay, I believe this can happen and I want to be invested in this.

I’ve learned you have to have patience and be willing to work with different people.

It’s one thing when you’re working for somebody else — ‘you’re part of the team’ is a different thing when you’re in front of the team. It’s still a group effort. I need the musicians. I need the engineers, I need my friends who understand how to work logic and Pro Tools. I need my publicist. I need the writers. I need the interviewers. I need everybody. It’s not just me, and takes it literally takes a team of people to make something happen, whether people realize that or not.

TH: What does the future hold for you, and the studio and the label where, where are you headed, or where would you like to be?

RJ: The goal is to put out one project a month. I think I can handle it pretty confidently with my touring schedule and teaching. We’re on track for that right now. We’re probably going to be ahead of that.

Doing the recordings is not the problem. Scheduling with musicians…that’s a problem. You have high-talent musicians, getting them all in one place at one time — that is always the hardest thing. Once we get them here…most of the groups if you talk to any of them, they’ll be like, “It went really easy. I was surprised!” I just let them do their thing, and every now and then I may say something just to make sure that people will listen to themselves. As long as everything is organized with the emails, tunes, and all of that, it runs itself.

Mainly it’s just getting the word out that people can record for free — as long as it’s at a high level and they know what they’re doing, they get a certain amount of time. It’s for everybody who’s serious about the music, and just promoting good quality jazz music and letting it grow from there.

Is there anything else about what you’ve learned from this process that you’d like people to know?

RJ: I’d just like people to know it’s even though people are seeing my face on it, it’s a collective effort with everybody who comes in. Suggestions are welcome. Constructive criticism is welcome. It’s not a perfect studio. But I’m willing to take help from anybody who’s serious about helping whether it’s financial or information. Whatever it is to make it better because if the studio makes great music, and people put out great music and a great product, it will evolve into other great things. And it will build this momentum, that will kind of push itself.

I’d just like people to get involved. If you sit back and look, you can’t be one of those people who are haters. Some people say I don’t play. It’s no problem. For my concerts — players need listeners. If you don’t play, you listen.

Some people say I don’t do this or that, and I say hey, well maybe you can contribute financially, or maybe you can donate clothes or food for the gigs. There are so many things people can do. You just kind of have to think out of the norm that I don’t do that. You might not do that, but there are probably 20 other things you can do.

So let’s think about saying what can happen instead of what can’t happen.

To learn more about AFAR Music and Richard Johnson, visit www.afarmusic.com and www.rjjazz.com.

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