Leslie Johnson and her Mississippi Rag cross the finish line together after 35 years
She was also a past president of TCJS
By Dick Parker
The traditional-jazz and ragtime communities lost their long-established principal voice with the passing of Leslie Carole Johnson on Jan. 17 and the apparent end of her Mississippi Rag. Leslie, 66, lost a 3-1/2-year battle with a rare form of cancer that didn't stop her from completing 35 years of editing and publishing monthly issues of the journal, which had readers in all 50 states and 26 foreign countries.
At the start of 2007 the RAG switched to online-only publication, to ease Leslie's workload during her illness and because of the cost pressures of printing and mailing the tabloid, which usually ran to 40 or 50 pages. For a year it was a PDF file available to subscribers; then it became a free Web-based publication (www.mississippirag.com). She suspended publication with the December 2008 issue.
Leslie Johnson, a University of Minnesota journalism graduate, started the RAG at home in 1973 with $200 and the encouragement of her husband, Dennis Johnson. Both were strong traditional-jazz fans. Dennis Johnson helped for years with photography and as a contributing editor, even after the two divorced, but he forcefully insists that she was the soul, brain and muscle of the RAG. Other family members pitched in on RAG production and administration over the years, too, and Leslie's second husband, Will Shapira, was the "Jazz in the Heartland" columnist in recent years.
Every RAG issue was packed with long, definitive articles on famous and obscure musicians of the past and present, photos and reports of jazz festivals, book and CD reviews, listings of festivals, events and venues around the world, classified ads and ads for upcoming jazz festivals and cruises. The RAG website also includes a Bulletin Board forum with news and discussion from readers.
In a 1993 Star Tribune article noting the RAG's 20th anniversary, Jim Fuller reported that the RAG recently had run an exclusive interview with filmmaker Woody Allen, who ís also a New Orleans-style clarinetist. He had refused to do the interview for any other publication.
In January 2007, even after her cancer had been diagnosed and treatment had begun, Leslie led a panel discussion at the International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE) conference in New York and won a national award from the Jazz Journalists Association (JJA). The JJA, based in New York, has about 400 members worldwide who are writers, photographers, broadcasters and new-media (i.e., Web) professionals. Each year it recognizes "activists, altruists, advocates, aiders and abettors of jazz," said JJA President Howard Mandel, by naming them to its "A Team" in connection with its annual Jazz Awards. She was honored for "her advocacy, activism and long-term commitment in support of traditional jazz" and was the first publisher to receive the award.
Pianist-clarinetist Butch Thompson, a RAG contributing editor, was a journalist with Sun Newspapers in 1973, and he was the RAG's first staff member from outside the Johnson family. He wrote the cover story for the first issue, on ragtime pianist Max Morath, and many of the record and book reviews. He also recruited at least two of the publication's key correspondents, William Schafer and Paige Van Vorst, who remained on the staff throughout the life of the RAG.
Thompson recalled recently, "I was in New Orleans when the first issue came out. I was in Preservation Hall; a bunch were delivered and the Jaffes were passing them out. [Owner] Allan Jaffe had a big grin on his face. He knew Leslie and was kind of a champion of the RAG. They were pals."
He said Leslie did a lot of traveling nationwide to jazz festivals in the early days of the RAG. And Pat Collis, TCJS' first membership vice president, said she accompanied Leslie to countless jazz gigs around the Twin Cities.
Leslie also was a founding board member of the Twin Cities Jazz Society and its second president, serving from 1982 to 1984. Although never officially the editor, in the early years she lent her editorial and publishing expertise to the TCJS newsletter Jazz Notes, which from its beginning in 1979 has maintained professional journalistic standards. Jazz Notes is among the top publications of its type -- if not the top -- in the nation.
Max Morath, profiled by Butch Thompson in the RAG's first issue, is an author ("The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Popular Standards," 2002) and composer as well as a performer who gained national fame with his 1960 public TV series on ragtime and has made countless television appearances since. He said of Leslie and her work, a week after her death:
"The Mississippi Rag will be a sought-after reference source for generations of writers and scholars to come. Leslie Johnson was somehow able to combine superb journalistic skills with a passionate knowledge of American music. She and her writers created a body of work about jazz and ragtime that has no equal. Leslie championed not only the stars of that world, but the less-well-known players and singers who made it all happen. Her dedication to black musicians old and young was an essential from the first issue on, when many of these singers and players were overlooked by the major journals.
"Leslie was a joyful person, modest, always open-minded and approachable. Her family members, and a number of writer-contributors also deserve a lot of credit for the long run of the RAG, but it was Leslie's energy and resolve that kept it going. I know of no one who can take her place."
Contributing Editor Paige Van Vorst, a bank executive in Chicago, is also a jazz historian, writer, photographer and the editor of the quarterly JazzBeat magazine, published by New Orleans -based Jazzology Records (www.jazzology.com). He shared his memories of the RAG's early days:
"I was roped into writing for the RAG by Butch. When Leslie started the RAG she invited him on board, then asked him if he knew anyone else who would be interested in writing and he suggested me. At that point I'd never really written anything on jazz and had no particular training in that field (I'm a CPA), but I called her on the phone and agreed to give it a try. I was quite skeptical at that point, as it seemed odd to put out a jazz magazine from Minnesota and, of course, I'd never laid eyes on Leslie; she just sounded like a housewife with an impossible dream.
"We finally met in August 1973, when Dennis' Jazz Train project hit New Orleans while I was down there on vacation. She seemed earnest and had a good idea of what the magazine would look like. I wrote an amateurish article on Father Al Lewis for Vol. 1, #1, and the rest is history.
"During the first years of the RAG I was one of the few writers they had, and I'd write an article almost every month. Of course I was young and single and could devote all my spare time to my writing. In those days the RAG was fairly slim -- usually twelve pages -- as it had not yet become the best place to advertise your jazz festival or cruise, and, for that matter, there weren't all that many such things out there in the 1970s.
"I'm proud to have been with the RAG for its entire run. I'll never forget the shock when she called to tell me about her illness; I think I was one of the first people she told, as she had some business matters to discuss which wound up in the transfer of some of her subscribers to JazzBeat when the print edition was discontinued.
"No other magazine devoted to traditional jazz has come close to the RAG's term. I'm completely amazed that it lasted like it did, though Leslie was one tough lady and put in unbelievable hours on the magazine. One thing that we lost by all that was the chance to see much of her own writing. Other than editorials, she seldom put much in the paper, and I'd love to have seen more of her own stuff, though I guess she preferred putting the magazine together to writing for it. As an editor, she was easy to work with — she changed very little of what I wrote, and I could almost always tell when she did.
"I can't imagine the world of traditional jazz without the RAG — little things like the Festival Guide, which I took for granted, loom larger than ever. There are few places where anyone reviews traditional jazz records, so it will be harder to issue and market CDs in our field.
Contributing Editor William J. Schafer is a professor emeritus of English and humanities at Berea College in Berea, Ky., and was a longtime writer and reviewer for the RAG. Reached in late January in New Zealand, where he is teaching a summer-school course on jazz, he offered these thoughts about Leslie, whom he called "a big factor in my life and in my writing on jazz, ragtime, etc.":
"Leslie was a remarkable editor and a remarkable human being. Once she began publishing the RAG she was wholly committed to it. It was not a whim or a hobby or a pastime but a solemn duty owed to her subscribers, readers, writers and subjects. She worked impossibly long hours seven days a week, never missed a deadline or failed to publish an issue in 35 years, even when technical problems and the difficulty of mailing and delivering issues was nearly overwhelming. The RAG was an exemplary magazine in many ways — the tabloid format she insisted on allowed her to print many and large-scale illustrations, including rare and sometimes unique photos she got from the best collectors of this material. She was superb in finding reliable writers and collectors with unpublished memoirs, papers, etc., and in finding interviewers who could unearth musicians, composers and observers with important stories to tell.
"The archives of the RAG will be a real treasure trove for future researchers if they have the wit to consult them. Many of the materials she published on the 1970s ragtime revival are unique and not duplicated anywhere else that I know about.
"Personally she was kind and sympathetic to the problems of musicians, extending aid to hundreds, and she listed concerts, jazz festivals and other jobs for the convenience of musicians and fans. For scores of readers, the RAG was a place to get answers for jazz queries, no matter how esoteric, and she spent hours every week talking with readers who had urgent questions. I have worked for a lot of editors and journalists but have never met another one as conscientious as Leslie.
"She will be missed as a person and as a single strong force in the world of early jazz and ragtime, hanging on to her ideals when musical and cultural fads and fashions changed by the hour. It is a rare person who is as steadfast, loyal and dependable as Leslie, and it was great honor for me to know her and to work for her over those 35 years."
Contributing Editor David Reffkin is a violinist, the director of The American Ragtime Ensemble in San Francisco, and producer of a radio show on ragtime.
"I wrote articles for Leslie since nearly the beginning of the RAG, a working relationship that was even longer than my association with KUSF, where I produce The Ragtime Machine. I was always impressed by her ability to intuitively gauge the importance and relevance of a musically newsworthy item and to give it proper weight and prominence. This was a very important feature of the RAG; it was not only well-produced technically and factually, it was a reliable historical measure of the culture of ragtime and traditional jazz.
"Leslie and Will took a rare trip out of town to San Francisco, and I was able to interview them both for The Ragtime Machine. After the segment aired, Leslie agreed to let me transcribe the interview for publication in the RAG. She paid for the manuscript, just as she would for any other work of mine, but she told me it would not likely be published. Being both the modest and considerate editor that she was, she claimed that the space would better be served by writing about others, not herself. The interview was never published, though I believe it still appropriate for publication, as it contained more about her philosophy and personal opinions about a wide range of subjects, more than I've seen elsewhere.
"She was one of the finest people I've ever known, professional and caring, accurate and sensible, impressive and personable. She was one of the best friends our country's musical legacy could have."
On Jan. 3, two weeks before she died, Leslie mailed a letter to the RAG's writers. It ended with these words:
"I can't begin to tell you how much I treasure our history together. I am so proud of the quality of each RAG, and it's all due to your talent, creative spirit and willingness to explore the rich legacy of this music. Many musicians owe you thanks, too, because you have, in many cases, revived and/or enhanced their careers.
"Thank you so much. I love you all and will continue to be in touch for as long as possible."
Besides husbands Dennis Johnson and Will Shapira, she is survived by son Tony Johnson, Minneapolis; daughter Renee Burnett, Chicago; stepdaughter Eve Roycraft, Little Canada; stepson Stephen Shapira, St. Paul; brother Gary Lindstrom, Shakopee, and sisters Jody Hughes and Debra Peterson, Bloomington.
-- From the February 2009 issue of Coda, published by the Twin Cities Jazz Society, reprinted with permission.