Early Member of the UCR Faculty, Donald Johns, Has Died

He remained active at UCR, continuing his interest in jazz on radio station KUCR

composer and professor Donald Johns has died

Professor Emeritus Donald Johns at the piano, in an image from the UCR archives.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (www.ucr.edu) — Donald C. Johns, Professor Emeritus of Music at UC Riverside, died Sunday, July 14 at his home in Riverside. He was 87.

“Dr. Johns contributed enormously to the development and recognition of the Department of Music, and in fact to UCR as a campus,” said Professor Paulo Chagas, the current chair of the Department of Music. “He embodied the belief that music carries out cultural values that are crucial for society, and that people have to be musically educated in order to understand these values and benefit from music.”

Prof. Johns was a music theorist and composer, and authored numerous articles of music analysis and a large body of original compositions. He was the first director of UCR’s Collegium Musicum in the late 1950s, which included piano trios, quartets, and quintets, recorder consort, and brass ensemble.

Born in Chicago, he came to UCR in 1957 and moved through the ranks as a faculty member. He was a full professor by 1971, a position which he held until his retirement in 1991. He was called back to teach two years beyond that, so achieved a total of 36 years of distinguished teaching.

He also served as chair of the department between 1969 and 1975, and worked closely with other music department founders Williams Reynolds and Edwin J. “Ted” Simon. He liked to think of himself as the “third man” in the music department.

“His death marks the passing of the founding generation of UCR music faculty,” said Professor Emeritus Fred Gable, who worked closely with all of them and is now retired.

Prof. Johns earned graduate degrees from Northwestern University in Illinois.  During his life he studied in Vienna, and was best known for composing melodic and emotionally evocative music.  He liked to say, “Good music does not have to be complicated.”

He composed sacred works for church choirs and for organ, many of which became standard repertoire in churches around the country.  He also composed secular works, mostly music for chamber ensembles, piano, and small orchestra.  All his published compositions are still available commercially.

He also left in manuscript a repertoire of big band arrangements in which he first displayed his compositional skills as a young man in Des Plaines IL.  Many of those arrangements are familiar to fans of the UCR Jazz Ensemble because former director Bill Helms was a student of Prof. Johns.

Post-retirement, and calling himself “Dr. J,” he hosted a regular jazz show on KUCR 88.3fm, revealing an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz musicians, musical styles, compositional and arranging techniques, and the connections between the elements. He recently celebrated 20 years on the air, and after his death, station director Louis Van Den Berg aired a tribute.

“He was obviously in declining health in recent months, and he saw my concern and sadness.  ‘Don’t cry for me, Louis,’ he said.    ‘I’ve had a great life.  I loved being a professor.  I loved UCR.  It’s a great place, a great school.  I loved doing the radio show.  I’m dying with no regrets.’ ”

Don Johns leaves his wife, Jorun, daughter, Alessa, sons, Karl and Andy, son-in-law, Christopher Reynolds and grandson Gabriel.  The family has arranged a private burial and hopes to have a larger memorial in the coming months. In lieu of flowers, the family requests memorial donations to support the Department of Music.

A May 28, 2013 interview with Donald Johns can be heard at the KUCR Archive page

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