Final Note: David Johnson

Former Life Member. Percussion
10/1/1948 – 6/7/2020

David Johnson, award-winning musician, 71, died of natural causes on June 7, 2020, two years after retiring to his childhood home in Port Angeles, Washington, to enjoy the beauty and peace of the Pacific Northwest. David enjoyed an accomplished musical career, including winning a Grammy Award for Best Classical Compendium in 2015 as a member of the PARTCH Ensemble. He also performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, toured with the late pianist Roger Williams, and taught at the California Institute of the Arts for 26 years. His music both brought great joy both to David and to his audiences, and he inspired generations of young musicians as a beloved and respected professor of percussive arts.

David’s musical upbringing began at age 4, focusing on piano and organ under his mother’s tutelage, and his talent quickly stood out. At 15, he started to learn the drums and eventually focused on percussion. After one year at Olympic College in Bremerton, Washington, David transferred to the University of Washington to earn his Bachelor of Music degree, specializing in orchestral percussion. While his skill set was commensurate with that of a classical percussionist, his passion lay in jazz and the improvised music of his time, the late ’60s and early ’70s. Offered a scholarship to California Institute of the Arts, he completed his undergraduate studies there and was soon recruited to join the Blackearth Percussion Group, one of the nation’s premier percussion ensembles. After touring and recording for several years with Blackearth Percussion Group, David settled back in Los Angeles in 1977.

There, he met Janet Davis, musician, teacher, and activist, and together they raised two sons, Ivan and Michael, both of whom inherited their parents’ musical abilities, social justice interests, and David’s passion for percussion. Eventually, David took over for his teacher and mentor, John Bergamo, as CalArts’ Head of Percussion Studies, working with hundreds of students in the percussive arts over his 26 years as a professor. His work as a freelance percussionist in Los Angeles was impressive — he worked with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and he performed on over 40 major motion pictures. A noted composer in his own right, he won the Percussive Arts Society Composition Competition in 1995 and his published percussion-based works are performed worldwide. In 2001, David was the first musician recruited for the PARTCH Ensemble, and he remained a central figure in the band until 2016; he then retired from CalArts in 2017, but stayed musically active, continuing to perform solo piano renditions of traditional jazz standards, his first musical love.

In addition to his musical accomplishments, Johnson was a loving father, a caring friend, an avid hiker, a passionate Lakers fan, and a doting grandfather. As a teacher, he was known for supporting students as they worked towards their goals, rather than forcing his vision onto them. He appreciated eccentric personalities, kept lifelong friends from one end of Hwy. 101 to the other, was generous to a fault, and read extensively. He loved to engage in political discussions and to relate stories — often with an edgy sense of humor — from his many times on the road as a touring musician. He will be sorely missed, but thankfully, the beauty he brought to the world through his musicianship lives on.

David Johnson is predeceased by his parents, Clarence and Elisabeth Johnson, and his son, Michael Johnson. He is survived by his son, Ivan Johnson — also a musician — and his daughter-in-law, Cat Johnson, and three grandchildren in Longmont, Colorado; his brother, Edwin Johnson, in Port Angeles, Washington; former wives Leslie Hall, Janet Davis, and Patricia Gonzales. A private memorial will be held at Lake Crescent, Washington, to be followed by a celebration of his life in Los Angeles at a later date. To support the continuation of live music and the development of original musical compositions, donations in David Johnson’s memory can be made to