Sy Johnson, Arranger Who Worked Closely With Mingus, Dies at 92
Sy Johnson, a Renaissance jazz master — pianist, composer, journalist, photographer — who made his biggest impact as a frequent arranger, orchestrator and all-around right-hand man for the celebrated bassist Charles Mingus, died on July 26 in Manhattan. He was 92.
His wife, Lois Mirviss, said the death, in a hospital, was caused by complications of Covid-19.
The jazz critic Gary Giddins called Mr. Johnson “one of those indispensable people you never heard much about,” and few in the jazz world would disagree. He started out in the late 1950s playing piano, first in Los Angeles and then in New York. He soon branched out to arranging, working not just with Mingus but also with a host of musical luminaries including the saxophonist Lee Konitz and the arranger and bandleader Quincy Jones.
He also wrote words: He conducted a seminal interview with Miles Davis and contributed record reviews to the short-lived quarterly Jazz magazine in the 1970s. He worked on Broadway and even composed his own musical, based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. And all along, he toted a 35-millimeter Leica camera, crafting spontaneous, intimate portraits of the jazz scene of the 1960s and ’70s. Many of his photographs were collected in a 2014 book, “Jazz: Personal Encounters.”
Yet for all that, Mr. Johnson remained just outside the limelight, onstage but in a dark corner.
“Gifted as he was, Sy seemed quite content to function as an invisible man making a slew of celebrated musical figures sound better than they might have without him,” Mr. Giddins said in an email.
Mr. Johnson’s work with Mingus covered the last decade of the bassist’s life, before he died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1979. Mr. Johnson understood how to arrange Mingus’s compositions to fit the big-band formats that he preferred later in his career, without pushing them into a standard big-band sound or losing the lush texture of Mingus’s work.
Just as important, Mr. Johnson knew how to navigate around Mingus’s famously exacting, often explosive personality, where other collaborators often feared to tread. Mingus trusted Mr. Johnson to write melodies and organize his sometimes chaotic flow of musical insights into a workable piece of music.
Mr. Johnson “often accompanied our family in our home and retreats, regularly providing a photographic chronicle to Mingus’s private moments,” Roberto Ungaro, the president of the Charles Mingus Institute and the son of Mingus’s widow, Sue, said in an email. “In a world of struggle and populated with adversaries, Sy was one of the people Mingus truly trusted.”
Their relationship did not end with Mingus’s death. Sue Mingus created a series of bands — the Mingus Big Band, the Mingus Orchestra and Mingus Dynasty — to play his music, and once again Mr. Johnson often provided arrangements.
“He knew how to capture on paper exactly what Mingus wanted,” Mr. Giddins said, “and seemed to have stoked his ambition instead of trying to reduce it.”
Sivert Bertil Johnson Jr. was born on April 15, 1930, in New Haven, Conn. His parents were both immigrants: His father, a homebuilder, came from Sweden, and his mother, Elizabeth (Werning) Johnson, from Lithuania.
Along with his wife, he is survived by his sister, Elizabeth Keppel.
Young Sy admired jazz long before he mastered it. He later recalled the first time he heard Charlie Parker play, on a recording one of his teenage friends brought home.
“At that age I wasn’t capable of analyzing it,” he said in a 2018 interview. “All I knew was that suddenly, the winds had changed.”
After high school he joined the Air Force, where his friends included John Williams, who would go on to achieve fame as a composer of film scores. Following his discharge he settled in Los Angeles and studied at the University of California, Los Angeles, with plans to become a lawyer. He studied English and graduated in 1958, but by then he had fallen in with the city’s jazz scene and set his plans for a legal career aside.
His first encounter with Mingus was promising. Soon after he arrived in New York, in 1960, the bassist invited him to play with his band at the Showplace, a club in Greenwich Village.
Things soured quickly. At one point during a performance, Mingus ordered Mr. Johnson to play “pedal tones, just pedal tones” — sustained low notes — but Mr. Johnson struggled to find the right pattern.
Mingus got angry. He threw down his bass, ran to the piano and put his face up to Mr. Johnson’s.
“I see these maniacal eyes an inch away,” Mr. Johnson recalled. “And he’s just glaring and making these funny breathing noises.”
Mingus hammered four times on the bass end of the piano, then ran back to his instrument and resumed playing, furiously.
At other times, though, Mingus seemed to appreciate Mr. Johnson; he once told the audience, “This white boy can play!”
Then one evening Mr. Johnson arrived to prepare for a show, only to find the piano closed and the renowned saxophonist and flutist Yusef Lateef standing beside it.
“If you were me and had the chance to hire Yusef Lateef or you,” Mingus said by way of apology, “who would you hire?”
Mr. Johnson went on to play with other groups and eventually found a career as an arranger with Emil Charlap, a jazz musician who ran an arranging and copying company.
One day in 1971 Mingus came to the office, looking for someone to arrange music for an upcoming album. He had someone specific in mind, but that person wasn’t there — so he thrust the sheet music into Mr. Johnson’s hands, apparently not remembering their earlier collaboration.
His first arrangements for Mingus were for two pieces on his album “Let My Children Hear Music,” released by Columbia in early 1972: “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jiveass Slippers” and “Don’t Be Afraid, the Clown’s Afraid Too.” In his liner notes, Mingus called it “the best album I have ever made.”
Mr. Johnson also helped pull off a concert at Philharmonic Hall (now David Geffen Hall) in New York, which was recorded and released that same year as “Mingus and Friends Live in Concert.” Taken together, the two recordings showed that, thanks in part to Mr. Johnson’s arrangements, Mingus had mastered the big-band sound he had been seeking for so long.
Mingus would later also record two of Mr. Johnson’s compositions, “Wee” and “For Harry Carney.”
Mr. Johnson’s work went beyond his collaboration with Mingus. Before and after the bassist’s death, he worked with a number of leading musicians as an accompanist, arranger and composer. He did the arrangements for two Broadway musicals, “Blues in the Night” (1982) and “Black and Blue” (1989). He also wrote a little-seen musical, “Hobbit, Hobbit,” based on the work of J.R.R. Tolkien.
“He was just a master,” Tom Stites, who was Mr. Johnson’s editor at Jazz magazine, said in a phone interview. “He was a master jazz writer. The master photographer. He was just a master of everything he touched.”