Got a second? Hop online and wing on over to vuhaus.com (pronounced View House). Click on the videos of 24-year-old Arnetta Johnson. She’s the one out front, playing trumpet with her band, SUNNY, live from WRTI’s performance studio. Watch them. Listen to them.
You know you like what you hear, but you’re feeling a hint of the uncertainty that comes from unfamiliarity. You swipe this feeling aside like an undesirable Tinder match because your head’s nodding and your foot’s keeping time with the kick drum and you might even be biting down on that lower lip a little—this music has taken you to your groove place.
But still, you’re a classic be-bopper, and you’re experiencing this residual feeling of doubt, uneasiness…what exactly IS this music? The clean, melodious hooks and expansive, searching solos pouring forth from Arnetta’s trumpet suggest an amalgamation of bebop influences from Miles and Lee Morgan to Donald Byrd, Sean Jones, and Darren Barrett.
But those syncopated grooves, though!
Accentuated by two backing synthesizers, a drum-kit, and a turntable (gasp!)—it’s these latter elements, more commonly associated with hip-hop and r & b, which Arnetta is using to transcend what she believes to be the arbitrary limitations imposed by genre. This is what Arnetta Johnson and her bandmates call “Disruptive Jazz.”
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Time will tell whether Arnetta and co. achieve their stated goal of “standing jazz on its head.” It’s enough for now that they’re turning heads and getting folks to nod those heads in time to their music. Because, for Arnetta Johnson, none of this was guaranteed. Not attending the prestigious Berklee College of Music on a scholarship underwritten by Jill Scott’s Blues Babe Foundation; not backing Beyoncé at Super Bowl 50; not touring with eventual mentors Terri Lynne Carrington and Tia Fuller; not even her abundance of musical talent was, in itself, much more than a good place to start.
A professional music career? The red carpet at the Grammys? Becoming an NPR Slingshot Artist to Watch? Nah. At least in the beginning, music was just a way to stay occupied and safe before and after school in Camden, a city that for too long has received more attention for what’s wrong—crime, drugs, poverty—than what’s right—perseverance, industriousness, loyalty, and mentorship.
Arnetta’s story is one that fits into this more hopeful latter category, and she’s working to ensure that stories like hers constitute a greater percentage of the stories we’re told about Camden.
As with so many of the musicians to come out of Camden, Arnetta’s story starts with the Dickerson family, who are to music education in Camden what the Marsalis family has been to jazz in New Orleans. It appears nearly impossible to come up through Camden’s performing arts pipeline without studying under multiple Dickersons. Since 1984, when patriarch and matriarch Robert and Wanda Dickerson founded Universal African Dance and Drum, the Dickersons have had Camden wired for sound.
Arnetta began seriously studying the trumpet around age 13 under the direction of Nasir, the Dickersons’ youngest son. Performing with Camden’s prestigious youth ensemble, the Little Jazz Giants, both in the city and throughout the region at events like the Cape May and Chicken Bone Beach (Atlantic City) Jazz Festivals, Arnetta quickly became known as “that trumpet chic,” a moniker that’s stuck. The nickname lives on as her Instagram handle…so you know it’s real.
Enrolling at Camden’s Creative Arts High School, Arnetta studied under Nasir’s older brother, Jamal, who had her involved in virtually every conceivable ensemble, from marching band and multiple jazz bands to regional and national competitions. And recognition was coming; Arnetta was recognized as the Best Overall Soloist at the Monterey Next Generation Jazz Fest while she was still a high school-er at Creative Arts. Arnetta was becoming part of the scene.
But making the scene wasn’t what music was about, at least in those early days. Back then, Arnetta says, “There was more to music than music, especially growing up in that kind of urban area—so not only was it music, but it was a positive way to be occupied and an outlet.”
Music was, at once, both aspirational, something to fuel dreams, and practical, something enriching to do in a safe place. The Dickersons’ and the Camden system simultaneously introduced her to the professional jazz world while keeping her grounded and humble. Qualities, too, that might be attributed to Arnetta’s parents.
Says Arnetta, “I was fortunate to have it in the home, to go to the school where my mom worked, to have a two-parent household…. I’ve had friends [who were] way more talented, [but] some friends just got caught up. They didn’t have a strong background at home.”
And so while Arnetta has started to play larger and higher profile venues—from the Super Bowl with Beyoncé, to Spotify’s Best New Artist event at this year’s Grammys, to a recent headlining performance at the famed Viper Room on LA’s Sunset Strip—her strong sense of home is what keeps her heart—and head—in the gritty and resilient city that made her.
Not just one to be looked at and admired from afar, Arnetta strives to be an influencer, to “make an impact beyond the niche of jazz.” Speaking of the budding musicians of Camden who are now where she was just a few short years ago, Arnetta knows how first hand just how impactful she has the potential to be: “The fact that they can see someone like me who’s been productive…it’s important for me to be visible.”
And visible she is, especially in this moment.
Arnetta Johnson has admittedly lofty ambitions—she talks of bridging chasms and bringing jazz to places it’s not been before. Is a 25 year old who listens to as much Travis Scott as Jill Scott, a girl whose personal listening playlist will transition from Lee Morgan’s “Candy” to Migos’ trap anthems without a trace of irony—is she what the future of jazz looks and sounds like?
While it’s hard at present to answer definitively one way or another, the jazz community—strike that, the music community at large—is taking notice.
So, go ahead. Log onto Vuhaus.com, watch this NPR Slingshot Artist to Watch do her thing in WRTI’s studio. That little tyrannical voice inside your head that tells you what jazz is and what jazz isn’t? Tell him he’s got the night off.
Matt Silver is a writer, radio host, recovering J.D., and jazz fanatic whose own saxophone playing can most aptly be described as somewhere between not altogether hopeless and delightfully adequate. He lives and works in Philadelphia.