The 17th edition of the Panama Jazz Festival will pay homage to Reginald “Reggie” Johnson, an important Panamanian saxophonist, very worthy of the honor.
The eldest of three children, Reggie Johnson was born on 17 November 1939. From a family that loved music and performance, Johnson’s mother played the Hawaiian guitar and his sister, Marva, was quite an accomplished tap dancer—a skill she passed on to her older brother. During his adolescence, Reggie and Marva performed complex tap dance routines in club houses and other music venues in both Panama City and in Colon.
JOHNSON fell in love with the melodies of American musician Louis Jordan and his ensemble “Tympany Five. These melodies inspired Reggie to switch his focus from tap dancing to the alto saxophone. His supportive mother managed to find him a second-hand saxophone which allowed him to embark on his new musical adventure!
Reggie’s first performances with his alto sax were as a high school student when the school’s singing teachers asked him to play. Inspired by this opportunity, Johnson began recruiting other young musicians for his first group. He was soon joined by Raul Jarvis (of The Beachers fame) and soon thereafter by Raul’s brother and uncle and soon pianist Harold Beacker also became part of the newly formed “Tropical Rhythm.” At this time, Reggie was just 17 years old; because he did not have an adult I.D. card (“cedula”), he was not authorized to sign contracts. It was then that Chachi Macias stepped in to help and contracts were signed under the name “New Joy Orchestra.”
Years later, musician Captain Victor M. Paz, asked Reggie Johnson to play with the then famous “Paz (Peace) Brothers Orchestra.” For five years, Reggie played with this group, performing famous repertoires of “the olden days,” sharing the stage with such luminaries as well-known Cuban musicians, Celeste Mendoza and Rolando Laserie.
When in his twenties, Johnson shared the stage with Victor Boa with whom he traveled to Costa Rica where Johnson joined the orchestra of Clarence Martin, composer and bassist. This group then performed for 20 years at the Hotel El Panamá in the Bella Vista Room! The orchestra also made television appearances on “The Show of the One (El Show de la Una).” In 1964, Reggie had the chance to travel to Curaçao as part of a 6-month Caribbean group exchange.
Johnson also played with the ensemble of trumpeter Ezequiel “Pipo” Navarro. In 1979, “Pipo’s” group attended the Carifiesta Festival in Cuba where they shared the stage with Victor Boa, Clarence Martin, Jim White, “Bad” Gordon and other well-known musicians of the time.
From 1968 to 1993, Reggie was a saxophonist for Panama’s Defense Force and National Police Band. On one important night in the early 1980’s, Johnson was asked to stand-in for another musician in Edgardo Quintero’s ensemble. The “one night stand” turned into 18 years!
Other notable accomplishments in Johnson’s artistic career include recordings with British musician William Holland and performances for stage plays and commercial advertisements with Tony Fergo. In his career, Reggie has also performed along with stars such as Julio Iglesias, Armando Manzanero, Toby Muñoz, Monna Bell, “Lord Panama,” Coco Valderrama, “Rafael,” José José and Celia Cruz.
Johnson with his alto sax has taken the stage in many major cities including Hamburg, Frankfurt, Liverpool, Manchester, Paris, London and New York City.
The Panama Jazz Festival celebrates the artistic journey and legacy of Reggie Johnson who, at 79 years of age, continues to be an active musician.