Mark Johnstone isn’t just one of Maui’s finest professional musicians. If you’ve ever had the chance to hear him play the piano, guitar, harmonica or sing, you already know that he’s a virtuoso. He’s got the soul, depth, tilted Fedora and swagger. He also speaks with a slight East Coast accent, plays in the Grammy-nominated Mick Fleetwood Blues Band, windsurfs on the North Shore and is pretty funny. In fact, Johnstone was my first roommate and one of my first friends when I moved to Maui from Oahu.
Johnstone’s sense of humor is more like a banter that plays on tomfoolery. It’s unique, special and infectious. He always has great stories, especially when it has to do with being a musician.
“Some think being a musician is all about panties thrown on the stage, signing breasts and phone numbers on paper napkins,” he says. “Being a musician on Maui means you often have to drive long distances and unless there’s a piano at your gig, you have to remember things. There’s always that moment several miles from the house when a feeling of paranoia comes over you and have to keep turning around to look in the back of the car to see if you’ve forgotten something… like that one of a kind power cable… I’ve pulled over more than once. It’s not only important to remember to bring your stuff, but also to remember to put it back in the car after. Once, I left my whole show on a cart out in front of a hotel and drove off. I didn’t realize it until halfway through a fish burger in Paia. I’ve heard a tale about a guitarist who left his guitar in its case on the front bumper of his truck and it made it all the way from Lahaina to Upcountry unscathed. I have an amplifier with tire tracks on it.”
Jazz and blues are two genres that you’ll most likely hear Johnstone play and sing. “Jazz is a feeling,” he says. “It’s the music of the moment. It’s a spiritual pursuit, and always has one foot firmly planted in the blues. Any music that takes you away from the mundane is alright with me.”
Born in Massachusetts but raised in Maine and Rhode Island, Johnstone comes from a musical family.
“Both of my parents have shown me great support and guidance,” he says. “My father and I still have long-winded phone conversations about the current state of music. He came out of the ‘50s and ‘60s. I feel like I would have enjoyed living back then. Not that I’m not having fun now! But I feel like I’m somewhat of a bridge between generations; part of a musical lineage which began with my great grandfather, who was known in upstate New York as ‘Jazz Johnstone.’”
Johnstone says his dad’s band used to play Saturday nights at a golf course clubhouse on the other side of a wooded area from his house. On those nights he’d open his window and hear the music drifting through the trees. He was always able to recognize the tunes.
In fact, his great grandma’s kitchen is where his dad, grandfather and uncles jammed harmonica. That’s what first introduced Mark to the Great American Songbook. He fell in love with those tunes, and still plays some today. Which is partly why Johnstone was one of the local musicians appearing at the recent Maui Jazz and Blues Festival in Wailea. Seeing him play the harmonica alongside accordion master Jo-El Sonnier (the undisputed “King of Cajun”) was legendary.
Harry Johnstone Sr. (Mark’s great grandfather that he never met) was a bandleader in upstate New York. He went by the name “Jazz Johnstone.” His daughter was an accomplished vibraphonist and appeared in the 1932 movie The Big Broadcast, starring Bing Crosby. She was one of the singing telephone operators.
“Jazz Johnstone was the reason I brought back the ‘e’ to my name, which was lost by my grandfather while he was in the U.S. Air Force,” Johnstone told me.
Mark Johnstone first started playing music at age four. He says he used to sneak into his older sister’s room to play her electric piano. Back then, the keys were about eye level, and that he quickly learned how to turn the tube amplifier “ON.”
“My parents heard me playing and decided that maybe the wrong kid was taking piano,” Johnstone says. “That was the start. I studied classical pieces and memorized them quickly. However, my favorite thing was making up my own tunes. It was then that I realized there was a direct connection between the music and the way I was feeling. I became immediately hooked on this idea of self-expression. I soon learned that music was also a great way to gain people’s attention.”
This was just the beginning of his musical education, and he continued studying classical piano with various teachers up until he was about 12. That’s when Johnstone discovered the guitar.
“Guitar has been a great companion,” he says. “I always liked the way it felt against my body. Plus, my father was a great guitar teacher, so that came in handy.”
Johnstone’s first musical role model was also his father. While he was growing up, his dad would teach guitar lessons at his home. He’d also hold band rehearsals in their living room.
“The guys in his band were some groovy cats and I wanted to be like them,” Johnstone says.
After high school, Johnstone enrolled in the Berklee College of Music (he also has an English degree from the University of Massachusetts in Boston). Since there were so many guitarists there, he decided to go back to the piano keys.
“Berklee was sink or swim,” Johnstone says. “It was very competitive, which can be overwhelming and inspiring at the same time. I learned what I needed to work on, and met the people I needed to know during my time there.“
During and after college, Johnstone continued on his musical journey. This is when he sought out the tutelage of his second most influential mentor, Mac Chrupcala (whom his father played with in the ‘60s). Mac was the best pianist Johnstone had ever seen, heard or known. He followed him around, and eventually became his roadie in exchange for piano tune-ups.
“I learned so many practical things from Mac; how to do business, how to start and finish tunes, how to accompany singers, how to play a ballad, and most of all, how to be grateful as hell whenever you’re behind your instrument,” Johnstone says. “He was a great educator, and left a profound impression on me and all those that he met along his way. Whenever I have a moment of uncertainty on the bandstand I always think, what would Mac do?’”
Before Johnstone moved to Maui (over 16 years ago), he lived in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. There he enjoyed the seasons by snowboarding and playing music at restaurants, venues and private events. Since he also loved windsurfing, moving to Maui was a natural move.
“While looking for an apartment, I ran into Steve Sargenti, who basically gave me his whole contact list and said ‘here, go meet the cats,’” Johnstone says. “That’s aloha. I did a lot of footwork in the early days here on Maui, and played in lots of bands.” He told me that his solo piano gigs have been invaluable, including some of his long-term mainstays in South Maui. For over 14 years, he’s been creating the vibes every weekend at Hotel Wailea (the former Capische.)
Back in the day, Johnstone would visit Fulton Tashombe when he would play at the Kea Lani Resort in Wailea. Sometimes, Tashombe would let him sit in. Tom Cherry was also a big help when Johnstone first arrived on island. He hired him at Hi-Tech and he’d include him in gigs with his band. After his first few months on Maui, Johnstone landed a five night a week gig at the old Marco’s in Kihei.
“I was living the dream,” he says. “Marco was great and let me hire sidemen. It was a good way to get to know the cats. Then, my phone started ringing and I felt embraced by the Maui music ohana.”
Well, mostly embraced.
“When I first hit the island, I found myself in a live hip-hop band,” Johnstone told me. “They had volunteered to play at Pavil’s (Ho‘okipa) for a beach cleanup one Sunday. I was the only one who showed up. The organizer asked if I would play solo. So I set my keys up and began playing. Shortly into my set, some teenage girls came up to me and said, ‘Me and my friends have been talking and we have decided that you should stop playing because we’re over it.’ Ouch! Worked over at Pavil’s!”
Johnstone says that one of the biggest lessons he’s learned on Maui is the importance of being a diverse musician. “Maui has helped me to be a bit of a chameleon,” he says. “Most of all, the island has shown me how to be a nice person to work with. That goes a long, long way.”
Johnstone is currently one of the very talented members of the four-piece Mick Fleetwood Blues Band. Naturally, I had to ask him how that relationship and musical venture came about.
“My friend Lenny Castellanos, who plays bass with Mick, told me that Mick and the guitarist Rick Vito were starting a project to commemorate 40 years of Fleetwood Mac, specifically the Peter Green years,” he says. “Oddly enough, I was born the year they were founded in 1967.”
Johnstone says he jumped at the opportunity and organized an audition with Mick Fleetwood. He says that when Fleetwood headed into the audition, he heard him play some greasy organ, saw his Fedora, and gave him a nod of approval. How cool is that?
“Mark is a player’s player, and is always in the groove–on the keys and harmonica,” Fleetwood has said of Johnstone.
Johnstone has been part Fleetwood’s band for about eight years now.
“It’s been a great journey,” Johnstone says. “My main goal is to be true to the genre and at the same time be myself. We’ve toured Europe, Australia, New Zealand and just finished a West Coast/Canada tour. A long time ago, I put it out into the universe that I wanted music to show me the world. Cruising with Mick, Rick Vito and Lenny has helped me realize this goal. Hopefully, there’s much more to come.”
In 2009, the Mick Fleetwood Blues Band’s album Blue Again was nominated for a Grammy in the Traditional Blues category. Though they didn’t win, Johnstone told me how cool it was to experience the red carpet at the Grammy Awards, and how surreal it was to sit there in the audience.
In addition to playing in the Mick Fleetwood Blues Band, Johnstone is also involved with many musicians throughout the islands. He told me that playing with Fleetwood has certainly helped to open some doors for him.
“I’m honored to be embraced by the Maui music ohana, and also by people like Henry Kapono,” Johnstone says. “I really enjoyed playing his ‘Back in the Day’ concert at the Waikiki Shell a few years back. It was quite a moment to be up there with all of those legendary Hawaiian entertainers.”
Johnstone also has his own band, called Wavetrain. They’ve actually played over a 150 shows at Charley’s in Paia. Consider them connoisseurs of dirty, modern, electro funk (you can check them out online at Facebook.com/wavetrainmaui).
“I consider myself very lucky that the venues I play at allow me to explore my own musical vision,” Johnstone says. “I don’t play a lot of the usual stuff you hear on the radio. If something contemporary catches my ear, I like to incorporate it into my repertoire. There is a balance, however, between being artistically indulgent and keeping people entertained. Either way, I believe that if you’re coming from a genuine place, then folks will pick up on that and appreciate it. Most of all, play the melody!”
You can see Mark Johnstone play on Maui on a weekly basis. He plays every Friday and Saturday at the Restaurant at Hotel Wailea (6-9pm), every Monday at Café des Amis in Paia (6:30-8:30pm) and every Thursday at Charley’s Restaurant & Saloon (6:30-8:30pm). He can also be seen playing gigs at Fleetwood’s on Front Street. Check the Fleetwood’s website for more details, and you can follow Mark on Facebook at Facebook.com/markjohnstonemusic.
Cover design: Darris Hurst
Cover photo: Sarah Sharaf-Eldien
Photo of Johnstone at piano: Sean M. Hower
Photo of Johnstone windsurfing: Tad Craig