Brooklyn experimental soloist Jonah Parzen-Johnson on Madison, gentrification and art collectives

Jonah Parzen-Johnson

Jonah Parzen-Johnson, the experimental instrumentalist who favors baritone sax and analog synthesizer, is visiting Madison for a second time this year. Johnson is touring behind a paperback Travelogue “Three Reasons To Live Here” that chronicles his road travels this past summer through the U.S. and Canada in support of his album Remember When Things Were Better Tomorrow. We caught up with him, via phone, somewhere in the vicinity of Cleveland, Ohio.

“I could live where you live,” explains Johnson as the impetus for the Travelogue. “I wanted something to do on the road that would mark the time, and immediately connect me to people I ran into as I hit different cities.”

Madison made the paperback based on Johnson’s performance at Bright Red Studios in June. “I think the coolest thing about Madison it has simultaneously a very urban feeling to it while still being close to rural experiences,” said Johnson.

A Chicago native, Johnson was heavily influenced by the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). “It’s a really great arts collective that was founded on the South Side of Chicago in the 1960’s,” interjects Johnson excitingly. “It was a group of musicians that came from families who were active in the community with a strong background in arts and a renaissance-style knowledge. You know, a little bit of everything. They built this support group of musicians who were all making experimental music together. It was an alternative to all the experimental music coming out of New York at the time. A different approach, a little more soft spoken, a little bit more focused around a difference in cultural reference points. The community still exists today and is celebrating their 50th anniversary this year.”

While the arts collective was a driving force for Johnson’s pursuit of experimental music, it also prodded him to innovate in the performance space from an audience interaction perspective.

“I do everything by myself all in real-time without any recordings or loops,” said Johnson proudly. “I put together something unique. It’s different from what other people are doing. I always try to make sure my performances include the audience. It’s really more like a story telling experience. I feel like it’s really important when you’re playing instrumental music to really talk about what you were doing and talk about what you were thinking when you wrote the song, so everybody is on the same beat.

Jonah moved to New York City in 2006 to attend NYU, eventually ending up in Brooklyn where he’s resided for 8 years. He’s seen firsthand the so-called gentrification of Brooklyn neighborhoods. I mentioned to him that downtown Madison is in the beginning stages of a demographic and cultural shift with the 800 pound gentrification gorilla lurking in the shadows.

“What’s really sad to me about what’s happening in New York is you see a lot of neighborhoods transforming very quickly. An entire group of people move in bringing this energy that homogenizes the area. People want to be around familiar things and the neighborhood starts to change. Suddenly, you get a Starbucks, even though there are lots of other coffee shops around, because people want to have the familiar. What really worries me is when I see people co-opting the culture of a neighborhood while simultaneously excluding all the people that made that neighborhood what it is."

“Some people don’t just move there, there also from the area," continues Johnson. "It’s their home and they’ve worked hard to build it into a neighborhood that they care about. After working very hard to create that environment someone moves in when they feel like the place is cool and force people to be pushed out. It’s interesting to see how different areas of the country deal with the same issues we all face.”

Jonah Parzen-Johnson performs Tuesday night (11/24) at Mickey’s Tavern in Madison with Andy Fitzpatrick/Rob Lundberg duo and Asumaya.

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