Karen Johnson, (jazz) educator

As promised a few weeks ago, here is another profile of a prominent, highly skilled and respected Wisconsin jazz educator.  This is another of the profiles, like that of Steve Sveum, and others who are to follow, that had to be cut from my book Wisconsin Riffs in order to make it short enough to be published.

There is one connection between Karen Johnson and Beverly Dahlke, who I posted about most recently.  Baritone saxophone was their primary instrument.  Karen noted this (which I had known for years) when I ran the draft of this profile by her.  Karen did not have a prominent career in a major cultural center such as Bev did.  She just did admirable work here in our state for many years.

By the way, a footnote to the post about Bev.  Bev’s California friends and fans were great about posting comments in response to the article about her.  To all of you readers, please feel free to respond in that public way.

Thanks for continuing to read.  And if any of you wishes to get a copy of Wisconsin Riffs, besides the usual outlets, I would be happy to sell you one directly.

Best wishes and stay healthy and safe.



Karen Johnson

Karen Johnson (maiden name Sands) grew up on a farm outside of Eleva, Wisconsin, whose school district and music program will be discussed further in an upcoming post about Dave Kiepert.  Growing up in the ‘60s, Karen jokes about how when walking to and from school she did walk “uphill both ways,” as the family home was in the bottom of a valley.

Karen started piano lessons at the age of five, studying with a local church organist.  She continued piano study through high school, later studying with Nancy Rice at UW-Eau Claire.  She started in the band program at school in 1966 while in fifth grade, under the direction of Dave Kiepert.  Her first instrument was clarinet, and specifically an instrument that had been purchased from the Montgomery Ward catalog for an older brother.  She claims that she “wasn’t the most diligent student as far as practicing.  But I’ve got this gift of sight-reading that was very good” (probably due in part to her previous piano study).  In seventh grade, she found her “true” instrument.  “I’m sure it was because I had a sloppy clarinet embouchure, during my lesson [Dave Kiepert] goes, ‘Karen, have you ever thought about playing saxophone?’  And I played dumb, I said, ‘Ah, no; no, no, no.’  I got in the car and I [said] to my mother, ‘He said I could play saxophone!  I always wanted to play the saxophone!’  So, she walked back in and he laughed, oh, my God, he laughed.  But, so I started on the saxophone.”

Karen had Kiepert as band director for six years, as he left after her sophomore year in high school.  Karen believes that Eleva-Strum High School was on a nine-period day at that time, and she took three music classes at once:  band, chorus, and a class, also with Kiepert, that alternated days of music theory and jazz band or show (or swing) choir.  Monday was theory day, and Dave worked with students on improvisation.  That sophomore year was big for Karen and for the Eleva-Strum band.  The band did “win” the competition at the 1972 Eau Claire Jazz Festival, and this was the last year when there were no divisions at the festival, so the band from this tiny school (there were 54 in Karen’s graduating class) won while competing with schools that were much, much larger.

Kiepert talked about that occasion like this:  “I was spending my fourth or fifth year [at Eleva-Strum].  We went to the Eau Claire Jazz Festival, and won it.  And the editor of Down Beat magazine [actually publisher Charles Suber] was in the audience.  So he wrote us up in the Down Beat magazine.”  Many knew Dave’s Eleva-Strum band (possibly dubbed by Suber) as “the girl band,” although in fact there were more boys in the band than girls.  Having almost as many girls as boys in a jazz band was unusual at that time.

According to Karen, the star of the band was senior lead alto saxophonist Cathy Otterson, who went on to UW-Eau Claire the next year and was immediately in the top jazz band there.  Otterson, now known by her married name, Herndon (she married Dave Herndon, another UW-EC music graduate), is still active in the New York City area as a vocalist.  People already knew about the band prior to the Eau Claire fest.  Dominic Spera, the director at UW-EC, had used the Eleva-Strum group as a demonstration band for a clinic he presented at the state music convention earlier in the year.

Things were not quite the same once Dave Kiepert left Eleva-Strum (until revived a short while later by Dave Mueller), but Karen finished out high school there, attending the Shell Lake Music Camps in the summer, where she started writing music; she eventually wrote a couple of jazz charts that her band played.  At those camps she worked with Spera, as well as two other legendary UW jazz professors, John Radd (River Falls at that time) and Lovell Ives (Green Bay).  She also continued her saxophone studies during high school with Randy Wanless.

She really didn’t know what she wanted to do in college, but thought of music as a possibility.  She took the audition and was admitted to Eau Claire in ’74.  Some of Spera’s “star” students had just finished and/or left the program (Allen Johnson, Tom Newburg, Lyle Mays, Steve Zenz), but there were still excellent players at the school.  Among those who were around during Karen’s time there were trumpeter Bill Buchholtz, saxophonist Greg Keel, drummer Mark Pulice and pianist Noreen Gray, who later taught jazz star Geoffrey Keezer.  Important future teachers at EC at the same time included Tom Brown, Randy Schneeberger, John Georgeson and Bruce Hering.  Linda Peterson, later a tremendous contributor to Wisconsin school music when she worked at the WSMA office was also a student at that time.

Having been “deserted” by Dave Kiepert at the end of her sophomore year in high school, Karen went through the same sort of process at the end of her sophomore year in college when Dominic Spera left Eau Claire for a position at Indiana University.  (She considers Kiepert, Spera and UWEC’s Ron Keezer to be her primary mentors in jazz education.)  “And then I made the foolish decision not to play in the jazz ensemble.”  The jazz program was not in its most distinguished period, to be sure.  James Olcott ran the program briefly before Henry “Hank” Mautner came in to restore some of the “sheen,” after Karen left.  Karen played in three concert bands, continued her saxophone studies with Ruben Haugen, and finished her degree.

After graduation, in 1978, Karen “struggled to get a [teaching] gig,” because she heard such comments as “You seriously think we’re going to hire a female for this position?”  And she was also asked such questions as “And so, how are you going to get the equipment moved?” and “So why do you wear that scarf?”  However, in October (long after school had started), she got the call to take the band director position at Denmark, Wisconsin, in Brown County, about 20 miles from downtown Green Bay.  Called on a Tuesday, she was asked to start on Thursday, two days later – and Friday the band was to perform at the homecoming football game.  Surviving this trial by fire, she then had to keep the band going with the football team – all the way to the state championship football game.  At that game, the little Denmark band had to take the field opposite the Westby band, which numbered 110.  “I was so thankful – we went first.”

She decided that there should be a jazz band at Denmark, and started one her first year.  But it was not an easy road.  Trying to do Class B the first couple of years, Karen eventually realized that the band needed to move down a grade, to Class C.  Once she was able to start a second jazz group, she had a feeder group for the first band, which was “huge.”  The band was able to, step by step, move up to Class A.  And Karen Johnson was able to establish a program that had remarkable success. It was around 1982 when the band started attending the Eau Claire festival, and at about the same time it began to earn “star firsts,” at district solo and ensemble contest, allowing it go on to the state level.  (And in 1983 she married Neil Johnson, her biggest fan and the person who would end up supporting/tolerating “my countless hours at rehearsals/clinics/etc.”)   She was also able to establish a combo program at the school.  In 1989 or ’90, the band first won its division at Eau Claire, which it was to do several more times.  The group also won at the UW-Green Bay festival four or five times, and at the UW-La Crosse festival a similar number of times.  A Denmark combo also won awards, as did many soloists from the school.

It wasn’t just the jazz program that prospered at Denmark.  When Karen took over the program, teaching all of band, grades 6-12, there were about 120 students in the program.  By the time she retired, under her direction and that of middle school director Bill Dennee (another very skilled and dedicated teacher), there were about 430 students in music (about 180 in the high school) in a school system that had fewer than 600 students in the high school.

Johnson also was active in the state chapter of the International Association of Jazz Educators, serving a term as president.  For many years, she wrote a very popular column for the state newsletter, “Charts That Work.”  It essentially consisted of short reviews of school jazz band literature, leading state jazz educators toward compositions and arrangements that could be realistically used by school groups.  She took part in the State Honors Project, coaching the saxophone section for the State Honors Jazz Ensemble, also serving as jazz coordinator and chair for the project.  Karen made some valuable recommendations that led to improvements in the audition system for the Honors group.  While she never sought the attention for herself, wanting to keep the focus on her students, Karen’s outstanding work led to her receiving a number of individual awards, including a Wisconsin Music Education Association Award for Excellence in Teaching Music.  Upon her retirement in 2012, she was awarded the IAJE-Wisconsin Distinguished Service Award.


3 thoughts on “Karen Johnson, (jazz) educator

  1. Thanks for the great article about Karen. We did not know each other but i know some of the same people she played with because it is a really small world in the music business when you think about it. What a great educator and something that scares me to this day! Having mainly taught in the last ten years (privately) I can’t imagine having all those bands etc. I think playing for a living is easier in some ways! Congratulations on all of your accomplishments Karen. You came up against the same issues i did as a woman. Kudos-you go girl! Bev Dahlke-Smith


    1. Thank you for great “shout-out” Bev, it is greatly appreciated. After reading Kurt’s post on you, I do remember you playing with the Wausau Newman Jazz Ensemble. You’ve had an amazing career performing, leading the way for more women to pursue a playing career. Obstacles/issues…we could probably write a book! Congratulations to you, wishing you continued success and thank you. Karen Johnson


  2. Kurt,
    Really enjoyed your excellent profile of Karen Sands Johnson. How wonderful that you gave her this well-deserved salute.

    Totally agree with your wonderful words about Karen…she may have been humble in her presentations as an educator, but she was a renowned titan of a teacher, and her students were consistently among the finest in the state. When her students came in to the Shell Lake camp auditions every summer, we knew they were going to be our best and most focused players at the Arts Center that week.

    On the personal side, Karen is one of the dearest people you will ever meet. I think what made her so effective as a teacher was that she is so very kind. We had a bunch of fun playing together at UWEC back in those days, and she probably gave me a thousand “roll of the eyes” with all of the goofy stuff I did while sitting next to her in rehearsals.

    Again, another outstanding and fitting tribute to a brilliant music educator and wonderful person. Kudos, Kurt!

    Regards, Greg Keel


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