In Memory of Dax Johnson...
Chances are, you, my reader, have no idea who Dax Johnson was. Well, I want to tell you about him. It's the least I can do, and probably the best thing I can do to honor him. So please, read on. If not for Dax, for me. Let me share a bit of him with you.
I first saw Dax around nine or ten years ago. He was playing an old out-of-tune upright piano at a street market in Portland, Oregon. I remember thinking to myself, "Who is this guy? He's amazing..."
And he truly was. He had an irresistible charisma. If you just stood there watching him play, you were drawn into him. His music was hypnotic, as was the way he moved at the piano. His body was constantly fluid, always moving, weaving, never stopping - riding the emotional wave of his very unique compositions. He was ONE with the instrument, like no one else I had seen before. And his "look" was also unusual for a piano player - he had long, straight black hair, an unshaven face, black street clothes and tattoos. You'd never guess he was a composer for solo piano. He looked far more "heavy metal" than "classical."
On that particular day in Portland, I watched him for awhile and then moved on. I didn't meet Dax that day. I never spoke to him. I was just one of the many people in the crowd, admiring him from a distance. As far as I knew, I'd never see him again.
Well, life is a funny thing...
About two years later, I received an email from Dax. At this point, I had no recollection of who he was and nothing in his email clued me in. He told me he was a fellow pianist based out of Spokane, WA, and that he was a HUGE fan of my music. He thought my CD, The Vigil (which was my newest at the time) was incredible. I thanked him, and told him I really appreciated receiving such a compliment from another piano player. Then he asked if he could send me his own CD to listen to. I said "Sure, go ahead," and a week or so later I received Merciful Dwelling in the mail.
Dax's CD grabbed me immediately. The things Dax did on that album were brave, bold and interesting. He took musical risks I never would never dream of taking on a solo piano album. One of the things that really struck me was that the album was imperfect. It wasn't studio polished - and it didn't matter. The music was RAW energy, pure EMOTION, VIBRANT and alive. Dax's piano music just wrenched at my heart. It was so sad - such painful music - and yet so extraordinarily beautiful. I was completely in love with the album.
I emailed Dax to tell him how much I enjoyed his music, and then he sent me back a link to an article the local paper did on him. The article included a picture of him playing on an old upright in the street (see the clipping at right). That was the moment I realized who I had been chatting with over email - it was that "heavy metal" piano player I saw in Portland a couple years before! I was completely startled by this. THIS guy loves MY piano music? I was taken aback because, by this time, I had an immense respect for him, not just as a pianist, but as an artist.
Dax's album, Merciful Dwelling, went on to become one of the single most important influences on my own piano music. No other pianist, aside from George Winston (who I credit with turning me on to the idea of composing for piano in the first place), has had more influence on my musical direction.
After that initial email exchange, Dax and I kept in touch somewhat irregularly by telephone. One day, Dax called me out of the blue to tell me he was coming through my home town and wanted to meet. And so, I invited him into my home. Dax and I hit it off immediately. It was like we had known each other for years, when in fact we had never actually met face to face. I played a new song for him on my piano (I remember playing Ludwig's Dream for him while he laid on the floor with his eyes closed just taking it in) and he played a song for me, one he said was influenced by my music. What an honor that was.
Dax then told me he wanted to introduce me to his brother, Maka, who was also his booking agent and manager at that time. Dax wanted to hook me up with him so we could perform together at some point. I thought it was a great idea, and I was quite taken with the idea of playing a concert with Dax. After more conversation, we said our good-byes, and Dax hit the road, heading for Hercules, California to play a house concert.
It was a couple of years after that before I saw Dax again, though we did speak on the phone several times. Eventually, our schedules worked out in such a way that we were able to perform together. All told, Dax and I played three concerts together, two in Portland and one in Vancouver, Washington. The Vancouver show, at "The Slocum House Theatre," was one of the most delightful times I ever had with Dax. The venue was quite small - about 60 seats or so - which is the style of venue I prefer. I remember the piano being really low to the ground - I had a hard time getting my knees under the keyboard! But what a night that was sharing the stage with Dax. And afterward, he and I had a very nice discussion about life, the universe, and everything.
Just prior to that concert, Dax and I shared time playing a "mall gig" to promote the show. Dax was simply amazing in a mall gig situation. You should have seen it. He would sit down at the piano (or two - sometimes he'd play TWO pianos at the same time - one with each hand), and start playing and within five minutes he'd have a huge crowd buying his CDs. He'd play for ten minutes, sell 20 or 30 CDs, and then take a 30 minute break. It was quite the spectacle, and I was constantly amazed at the natural CHARISMA he had. Something about him appealed to almost everyone. When you combined that with his look, the music, his emotive performance and the unusual things he would do at the piano (playing two of them at a time, muting the piano strings with mallets, and even playing the strings with guitar picks), he just seemed unstoppable. He definitely had the "it" factor. I have never met another pianist who could, simply by sitting down and playing, sell as many CDs as Dax did in such a short period of time.
Over the years, Dax and I became very good friends. I would encourage him, pray for him and with him, and just listen to whatever was going in his head. Dax shared with me many of his thoughts and inner struggles. He seemed to dwell very much on his imperfections, which he was all too painfully aware of. As much as those shortcomings bothered him, he also felt, very strongly, that they were what made him who he was as an artist. We talked about that once, in great detail - how the pain in his life shaped his music and how that pain led him to the piano in the first place. He commented to me that his music was a reflection of his state of mind, that his music was, essentially, "The Mind of Dax." Dax was always at battle with himself, and while those battles kept him on the edge of an emotional precipice, they also inspired great art.
The last time I saw Dax was the fall of 2004. We played a concert together in Portland and he was stunning, as usual. After that, he disappeared - his phone number disconnected. I received an email from him a few months later letting me know that he was in LA recording a new album. That was back in in April of 2005. I responded to him, but never heard back. That was, sadly, the last time I ever heard from him.
Two weeks ago I met up with his brother, Maka, and found out that Dax wasn't doing well at all. He had been living in the streets of LA. I felt an urgency to pray for him, and did so. But less than two weeks later - just three days ago now - Dax had died. He was only thirty years old.
It is such a tragedy. Dax was unique. Truly, one of a kind. He was a man with a big heart, deep thoughts and amazing music. He was always in turmoil, emotionally and spiritually, but those things never really fazed me. I cared for Dax deeply. I felt more connected to Dax than I do most people. I can't explain why, only that I loved him like a brother. Our souls understood each other, somehow. I think that is part of the reason that time and again he kept coming back to our friendship. It was something solid and sure in his drifting, uncertain world.
Dax had such a monumental impact on my music and career. He introduced Kathy Parsons (who writes for Wind and Wire magazine as well as Solo Piano Publications) to my music, who has since become one of the central figures in my career as a pianist. His album, Merciful Dwelling, got me excited about being a pianist and composer again, and inspired new music in me - much of my latest CD Overcome has traces of his influence. The song When the Hard Rains Come on that album is very specifically dedicated to him. Dax, through his example, taught me how play for an audience and entertain them. Dax introduced me to his brother, who got me many of the gigs I still play today. In fact, I'm playing one of those this weekend. Dax's influence can be seen all over my life as a pianist.
Dax, I will miss you. On this "Happy Thanksgiving" weekend, I am so, incredibly grateful for having known you. I only wish, oh HOW I WISH, that I would have been able to somehow speak to you during these last couple of weeks. I cannot help but to feel that I could have made a difference. That today would just be another day and you'd still be playing your incredible music and amazing audiences.
Oh, Dax, my dear friend. My brother. Rest in Peace. You left us all much too soon.
Dax Johnson, March 29th, 1975 - November 23rd, 2005.
For more information on Dax Johnson, visit his web site, www.daxjohnson.com . You can hear his music there, as well.
The follow up to this post, "In Memory of Dax Johnson, Part 2" is now available.