Brennan Johns

Seizing every musical opportunity

Brennan Johns had an overarching goal for his senior recital: to make it unlike any other senior recital at IU.

In a traditional recital, he would stand in front of the audience and play his bass trombone or euphonium, interrupted by applause, for nearly an hour.

He had attended and performed in those recitals. His senior recital, he thought, should be different.

“I wanted it to be something that could adequately cap off my four years here and that people remembered,” he says. “An event.”

Brennan isn’t interested in the typical way of doing things. His time at IU is proof.

A close-up of a horn
Brennan holds a trombone while sitting with his feet up in an auditorium.

Getting the most out of college

Brennan came to IU and the Jacobs School of Music from Fairfax, Virginia. He was considering the nation’s top music schools, but he didn’t want the small, hyperfocused experience of attending a conservatory: “I was like, ‘No, this is college. I need to get the whole experience.’”

So he took advantage of every musical opportunity he could at IU. He studied and played classical music, early music, and jazz, and earned a minor in jazz studies. He performed with several orchestras and ensembles—as many as seven in one semester. And he played freelance gigs in Bloomington and all over the Midwest.

He estimates that during his four years, he played at least 400 IU and freelance shows.

“This is the only place you can get the Big Ten university experience while also getting every conceivable musical experience you could want,” Brennan says. “I didn’t want to waste any opportunity.”

Along the way, he earned impressive accolades, twice winning the IU Brass Concerto Competition (once with bass trombone and once with euphonium) and winning the 2013 Eastern Trombone Workshop national solo competition for bass trombone in his division.

His willingness to try new things is also how he discovered a genre of music that changed his life.

I did everything I possibly could. That caused extremely busy semesters, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

A love for Latin jazz

When Brennan auditioned for a jazz band as a freshman, the band’s assistant instructor asked if he was interested in the Latin Jazz Ensemble. Brennan had never listened to Latin jazz. But on a whim, he said yes.

He remembers that first rehearsal. The first tune they practiced was “Primera Vista,” and the first note he played was an A-natural.

“I was just like, ‘This is what I’ve been missing,’” says Brennan, who loves how the music makes you want to move.

The Latin Jazz Ensemble quickly became his favorite performing group. He played in it through graduation. And his mentors at Jacobs included Grammy-nominated Latin jazz musician Wayne Wallace. Brennan has even played on two of Wallace’s albums.

Brennan’s musical curiosity extends to instruments. He buys horns of all kinds on eBay, including rarities like a mellophonium, a frumpet, and a pre–World War I flugelhorn.

Going out on a high note

Brennan graduated in May 2015. He stayed in Bloomington, playing more gigs and working as the horn coach for the IU Soul Revue. In fall 2016, he’ll enter IU’s master’s degree program in jazz studies. He plans eventually to go to Los Angeles, where he wants to be a studio player for video game and film soundtracks.

But first there was his nontraditional recital.

He composed and arranged one continuous, 40-minute piece of music for it, with references to and arrangements of classical, Latin jazz, and other pieces he loves. He called it Kodachrome after the old Kodak color photo film because “I wanted it to be a portrait of my four years here.”

He worked on it for more than a year. And then on April 27, 2015, Brennan and 42 of his friends—students and faculty members alike—performed it for more than 100 people.

The performance earned a standing ovation. One of Brennan’s mentors, trombone professor M. Dee Stewart, later said, “I’ve been here 35 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it. I was really moved.”

Just like Brennan wanted.

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