Albert Johnson Jr. wasn’t Rodgers or Hammerstein. He didn’t write the show tune classic, Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’. But for anyone strolling the streets of Coconut Grove who came upon the genial English teacher and music buff, they might feel that the Miami-born Johnson brought a bit of Oklahoma! to South Florida.
“He had a really positive attitude about things one of our neighbors said after he passed. He used to always remind them how blessed they were to live on our street. So many neighbors knew each other and he just always had a very kind word for everyone,” said his wife, Dr. Yvonne Johnson, medical director of South Miami Hospital’s Emergency Services department.
Johnson, born to parents of Bahamian heritage, died on March 26 at age 61. He had spent a couple of decades teaching English at Miami Sunset Senior High School, founded the Miami Jazz Festival which, lured major names in the jazz community like alto saxophoist David Sanborn, conguero Poncho Sanchez, guitarist Earl Klugh and mambo king Israel “Cachao” López to the inaugural festival at Bayfront Park in 2001.
"This community needs events that bring it together and music can do that … especially jazz music, " said Johnson, then CEO and president of Miami Jazz Festival in a 2001 Miami Herald article.
Johnson didn’t play the sax with the proficiency of a Sanborn but he had little trouble convincing musicians of that stature to bring their muses to a region seemingly more attuned to electronic dance music.
“He thought Miami was a perfect place to attract world-class anything,” his wife said. “He loved jazz and wanted to see jazz flourish here.”
Johnson — you could call him Al because that’s what he liked — was so convinced a jazz festival could work here that he took a brief sabbatical from teaching — which he loved — to organize it.
“This is the place where it should be big because of the different kind of communities,” his wife said. “He grew up at a time when Miami was really starting to accept its diversity. He was the first class to integrate St. Hugh Catholic Church and School in Coconut Grove when it was desegregating in the 1960s. He went on to LaSalle High School where there was a growing population of Cuban immigrants. He had a close friendship with a diverse group of people and loved that about Miami.
“And, musically, it was very diverse,” she added. “Jazz was the music of African-Americans but we had Latin jazz and Brazilian jazz and all of those things that tied us together. When we had that jazz festival, especially that night, Cachao was really impressed to see the diverse group of people out there enjoying.”
Johnson studied city planning at Harvard and earned a law degree at the University of Miami but never practiced law. He fell into teaching, instead, at Coral Gables and Sunset High schools. An “inspired choice,” sister Gloria Johnson Goins said.
“He so loved the power of words. When Al first got HBO about 40 years ago I raced to his apartment to see it for the first time. When I arrived and asked to watch TV, he said, ‘Oh, no. I have a better idea. Let's play English vocabulary flashcards. I just got them. You pick a card and ask me the meaning of a word and then I will ask you one, and we will take turns.’ And so we did — much to my dismay.”
Eight years ago the onset of early dementia struck and though this dimmed his razor-sharp wit, his family said, his positivity soared.
“It was not something that deterred his spirit at all,” his wife said. “I used to joke our house could open a school for people who have self-esteem issues. Everyone was ‘beautiful.’ The food was ‘delicious.’ It was always ‘a wonderful day.’ Our children would be impatient because a 10-minute walk would take over an hour because he’d stop and have conversations with people. It was never going to be a one-stop trip.”
In addition to his wife and sister, Johnson is survived by children Jessica, Albert III and Jasmine; and brother Wilbert. A viewing will be held at 4 p.m. Sunday at Range Funeral Home, 3384 Grand Ave., Coconut Grove with a funeral service at 10 a.m. Monday at Christ Episcopal Church, 3481 Hibiscus St., Coconut Grove. Instead of flowers the family said donations may be made to Our Pride Academy, 10100 SW 107th Ave., Miami, 33176.