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Local music advocate named Citizen of Year

Norm Johnson was instrumental in the development of live music on the island. Currently, he helps organize shows on Friday
Norm Johnson was instrumental in the development of live music on the island. Currently, he helps organize shows on Friday's and Saturday's at the Pegasus Coffee House.
— image credit: Staff Photo/ Brad Camp

For most of Norm Johnson’s life, music was not his forte.

A chemist for the U.S. Navy for 32 years, Johnson tended to look at things from an analytical standpoint, as opposed to the intuitive mindset most musicians employ.

But after retirement, while observing his daughter’s music lessons at the Island Music Guild, the allure of music spoke to him through the analytical part of the brain.

“It’s all very mathematical, it’s actually quite scientific,” he said. “Different notes go together because of the frequency. You can kind of predict what is going to sound good without actually hearing it.”

Johnson became more invested in music on the island over the next seven years, and now after helping organize numerous local festivals and promoting local acts, Johnson, 61, has been selected the Citizen of the Year by the Bainbridge Island Kiwanis Club.

Jane Sutherland, chair of the Citizen of the Year Committee, said Johnson was one of seven nominees for the award. He was selected, she said, because his work influenced the entire island. He played a major role in the evolution of the Island Music Guild, the Bluegrass Festival and the Hank Williams and Patsy Cline Tribute Concert.

Johnson’s first step toward the award came in 2002 when he noticed small organizational issues at IMG.

Johnson created a phone list of teachers and put to use his office management skills. Soon after, Johnson was selected be a member of the Guild’s board of directors and at his first meeting picked to be the board’s president.

During his time as board president, Johnson changed the focal point of the guild by making it more about the artists.

“I felt the Island Music Guild could be more than just a place to teach, I saw it as a place for musicians, involving the whole music community,” he said.

After two and a half years, the Guild grew and Johnson shifted his focus. He left the board presidency to spend more time putting together and promoting concerts.

“I really liked helping people to be heard, in particular emerging artists,” he said. “People who maybe haven’t ever played on stage could actually do real shows in a real venue.”

Johnson also began organizing concerts at Pegasus Coffee House. He liked to set the room up so the musicians are the center of attention, unlike some places where the entertainment is put in a corner and no one is expected to pay attention to them. But, Johnson said, the nice thing about a coffee house performance is people can come and go as they please.

“The audience is a real audience,” he said. “If they’re staying it’s because they like the music.”

Johnson said Pegasus has seen some big artists, but it remains a small venue with low pay. Musicians are paid by donations from the crowd.

Along with his responsibilities at Pegasus, Johnson handles booking at Cafe Allegro in the University District in Seattle. Working on both those venues is a thrill for Johnson because he gets to see local musicians progress.

“I’ll see kids here through high school, maybe doing their very first show in public, and then they go off to college and I see them again over at Cafe Allegro,” he said.

In addition to his work with Pegasus and Cafe Allegro, Johnson also serves as president of the nonprofit Music Community Resources, which sports a slogan of “preserving the heritage of live performance.”

The group pays for concert liability insurance and licensing fees so performers can cover songs from other artists.

Johnson, who counts Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Judy Collins and the Beatles as some of his favorite musicians, understates his own musical ability. He plays the alto recorder and for the past two years he’s been involved with the Bainbridge Community Singers.

“As long as someone standing next to me can carry the note, then I can at least find the note,” he said.

Awards Banquet

Norm Johnson will be honored at 5 p.m. Sept. 20 at IslandWood. Tickets are $35, and reservations must be made by Sept. 10. For more infomation, contact Jane Sutherland at 842-3253 or Dean Newcomb at (360) 649-4404.

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