Longtime Atlanta radio personality H. Johnson’s Saturday night jazz radio show is as smooth as newly churned butter and as comfortable as an old pair of slippers.
For five hours every Saturday, the Neptune, New Jersey, native keeps jazz music coming on his show, “Jazz Classics with H. Johnson,” on WABE.
He plays recordings of performers such as Count Basie, Dinah Washington, Erroll Garner, The Modern Jazz Quartet, and many others. Johnson intersperses the music with a smooth patter that drops knowledge about the artists he’s showcasing—several of whom he’s interviewed himself—while including occasional humorous asides.
His passion for music comes through loud and clear. That makes sense, given that he grew up immersed in music of all forms. Brought to Atlanta by his stepfather and mother, who later divorced, Johnson got into radio while he was in high school. He emceed as well, at one point sharing the stage with Billie Holliday.
After stints with an alphabet soup of other local broadcasters, he landed at WABE in 1978 and has been there ever since, playing jazz and adding a Friday night blues show called “Blues Classics with H. Johnson” in 2013.
Atlanta Senior Life caught up with Johnson at his home in Mableton as he was prepping his latest on-air foray.
Q. How did you get interested in music?
A. It began in elementary school. We had a music class for kids. We didn’t learn how to read music, but we learned how to experience it. That, plus listening to radio as a kid. Also, my mother and grandmother were into music. My grandmother was into gospel and my mother was into jazz and classical. She was a dancer. There was a lot of music in the house constantly.
Q. Can you talk about your move into radio?
A. It was through WAOK. They were playing music, and, on the weekend, they’d have two kids from each high school come in and do a show-a girl and a boy. There was a kid for the high school I went to. His family was moving to Ohio and they asked him to find a replacement. He suggested me. I wasn’t that interested at first, but he talked me into it.
(Later) they asked me to come over to WABE on a temporary basis because they had to replace a guy who was doing jazz at night. I’ve been stuck there ever since (laughs). Over 40 years now and I’m still looking for that replacement.
Q. You were exposed to a great many different kinds of music. Why did you gravitate to jazz?
A. It’s the feeling I get out of it. I was exposed to it in such a way that I could not only hear the music, I could feel it. Jazz is a language just like any other. It has nuances. If you understand the nuances, you understand the language. When you listen to jazz, you have to think and a lot of people who don’t want to think don’t listen to jazz.
Q. How do you rate the popularity of jazz, given that older people who are fans are passing away and younger folks don’t seem to be catching on?
A. It’s a little bit of both. Not only are younger people not catching on, they’re not being exposed to it. You go to Europe and the kids are exposed to classical music so they know it when they hear it and appreciate it. You do have exposure here but it’s not like on the European continent. Consequently, you don’t have as many people enjoying jazz or blues here as you do in Europe.
Q. What do you regard as your role in the jazz universe? Popularizing the music, entertaining with it, preserving it?
A. All of the above. If I was on the radio right now and they offered me a job, if it wasn’t playing jazz or blues, you couldn’t talk me into doing anything else. I don’t care what you offered in salary. I love the art form.
Q. How do you pick out the music for your shows?
A. I do it like a jazz musician, at least I used to. With the COVID thing I’m having to record from home. It’s hard to explain how I do it because I don’t do it the same way every time. I’m being hypothetical here: let’s say I’m on the air and everything is cool, and the show is running smoothly, and the news comes in that someone very famous has passed away. I’m going to go to the library and get some of [an artist’s music] out and integrate him with what I am doing. I try to make it comfortable and logical, that’s how I do the program.
Q. Why do you go by the moniker H. Johnson?
A. Because it’s shorter and I don’t like the sound of my own name, Herman. I’m not going to change my name out of respect for my mother but there are too many Hermans in history. When I read my history books, I didn’t like Herman Goering. (A prominent leader in Nazi-era Germany).
Q. You are in your early 80s and a lot of folks are retired by your stage of life? Do you intend to keep going?
A. If I can. I am developing some of the normal health issues that people my age have. If I get to the point where I can’t handle it, I’ll politely bow out. Or if I get to the point where what I’m doing is not in vogue anymore, I’ll leave then. I’ll hang in there as long as they let me.