Calarts Campus

David “DJ” Johnson (1948-2020)

Venerated composer, musician, and longtime CalArts music faculty David “DJ” Johnson (Music BFA 72) passed away in Port Angeles, Wash., on June 7. He occupied and taught in classroom A300 for 26 years after taking the reins from John Bergamo, founder of the Percussion Program at CalArts.

“A big-hearted instructor, he enabled generations of students to reach their full potential and build successful careers,” David Rosenboom, dean of The Herb Alpert School of Music at CalArts, wrote in a tribute to Johnson.

After completing his BFA at CalArts, Johnson joined the Blackearth Percussion Group, one of the nation’s premier percussion ensembles of the 1970s. He resettled back in Los Angeles in 1977 after several years of touring with the group.

As a percussionist, Johnson’s talent was in high demand throughout his career. He worked with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and performed on scores for more than 40 major films. A noted composer, Johnson wrote pieces for other musicians including “The Oregon Variations” for Charles Dowd at the University Oregon; “Dark Wing” for cellist Roger Lebow”; “Shape Shifter” for percussionist Nick Terry; and “Nine Sheets to the Wind” for woodwind improviser and fellow CalArts faculty Vinny Golia. Johnson won the Percussive Arts Society composition competition in 1995 with his work “Quartz City.”

In 2001, Johnson was the first musician recruited for the LA-based Partch ensemble, which specializes in performing the music and instruments of late composer Harry Partch. In 2015, the ensemble won a Grammy Award for its album, Plectra & Percussion Dances (Bridge Records), in the Best Classical Compendium category. Johnson remained active with Partch until 2016. His Mt. Washington home continued to serve as unofficial Partch headquarters as well as rehearsal and storage space for Partch instrumentation until he moved back to the Pacific Northwest.

He is survived by his son, Ivan Johnson (Music BFA 03, MFA 13), also a musician and educator; his daughter-in-law, and three grandchildren in Longmont, Colorado; and his brother, Edwin Johnson, in Port Angeles.

“The scope of DJ’s musical life was huge,” Rosenboom continued in his statement. “We are so fortunate that the community of his wonderfully empowered students will continue to widen that landscape even more in the future. We remember David Johnson with respect, not only for his music but also for his humanity. Even more profoundly, we will always remember, acknowledge, and thank him for the good that he brought into the world.”

Read additional tributes to Johnson from Partch and on the Remembering David Johnson Facebook page.

David Johnson. | Photo: Courtesy of Janet Davis.