The 20th piece added to The Man Who Signed the City is a profile of drummer Jonathan Haas, known in some circles as Johnny H., known to himself as the world's foremost jazz timpanist. Here's a taste.
Jonathan Haas sits in a room back stage at Carnegie Hall, and with his hands bangs out the drum solo to “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” on a tabletop. Those who were teenagers in the 1960s know what that means. For those who were not, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” was the band Iron Butterfly’s one hit song, a 17-minute benchmark for all the young rockers who played high school dances in the late ’60s. Only the bands with the best chops could play it. Haas was in that sort of band.
Now, in Carnegie Hall, he slaps the tom-tom rhythm on the table and sings the bass drum part. When he was a kid, he drove his parents nuts doing this. His sister once threatened to kill him if he didn’t stop beating time on the furniture. Mom and Dad Haas finally gave up and bought him a drum set, no doubt to preserve the living room, and he has been drumming ever since. Drumming with the New York Pops. Frank Zappa. The American Symphony Orchestra. The Paul Taylor Dance Company. The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. His own jazz band, Johnny H. & The Prisoners of Swing. Haas has unearthed and recorded classical percussion concertos and jazz music for timpani by Duke Ellington. He has toured with Emerson Lake & Palmer. Recorded jingles for Budweiser and VISA. Drummed on a tribute album to Black Sabbath. Won a Grammy for a Frank Zappa record, Zappa’s Universe.
And that’s just some of what keeps him busy. Jonathan Haas is two parts musician, one part teacher, one part entrepreneur. He now estimates that he plays with 24 ensembles. As director of the Peabody Conservatory percussion program, he takes the train down from New York to spend two days a week teaching in Baltimore. Summers he teaches at the Aspen Music School & Festival in Colorado. From the house he shares with his wife and three kids in Westchester County, he runs a record company, an instrument rental business, and a musicians’ contracting company. He seems ever in motion. A friend once said to him, “Man, you’ve always got two wheels off the track.” Haas grins as he recalls this. It is an image he likes.
A few people around New York have begun to call him “Johnny H.”, his jazz moniker, and he likes that, too. The nickname’s overtones of brashness and street hustle fit him. Haas has never been shy about promoting his career and never concerned about who might dislike him for that. Fresh out of the Juilliard School, he got so much press during a stint with the Charlotte Symphony that he alienated the conductor and other members of the orchestra. He will tell you that in 1980, after leaving North Carolina, “I hit New York like a load of bricks.” He will also tell you he considers himself “the foremost solo timpanist,” presumably in the world. You could argue that such a claim makes him a big fish in a very small pond, but what of it? It’s his spot, his pond, and how many little Grammy trophies do you have, smart guy?
The New York Times once wrote of him in a concert review, “Jonathan Haas is a ubiquitous presence in the New York musical world; wherever one finds a percussion instrument waiting to be rubbed, shook, struck or strummed, he is probably nearby, ready to fulfill his duties with consummate expertise.” That same review called him a “masterful young percussionist.” It also noted, “There was a hint of P.T. Barnum to this entire undertaking.”
A Barnum with timpani mallets in his hands. “Hit drum, get check,” Johnny H. says, grinning again.
Target publication date remains July 15. Further bulletins as events warrant.