At age 13 Arnetta Johnson discovered the trumpet, and today at almost age 25, NPR has named her one of 20 artists to watch in 2019. “Her singles, ‘Meet Me There,’ ‘Who Are You’ and ‘I’m Just Sayin’ have only heightened excitement about her forthcoming album, If You Hear a Trumpet, It’s Me,” says J. Michael Harrison, WRTI radio host.
She grew up in the city of Camden, New Jersey, but Arnetta was too busy to notice what has been named one of the poorest and most violent cities in the United States. “It was okay. My mom had me in so many after-school programs. Between art camp, basketball and church choir, I didn’t have time to hang outside.”
Nasir Dickerson, Jamal Dickerson and Hassan Sabree, teachers at Creative and Performing Arts High School in Camden were Arnetta’s first mentors. In middle school, she received her first professional gig performing with the Little Jazz Giants, a band of young musicians ranging in age from eight to 18, created and managed by Unity Community Center (UCC) in Camden, New Jersey. UCC was started by Robert and Wanda Dickerson over 40 years ago. The Dickersons opened their hearts and doors to at-risk youth in Camden in order to teach them the principles of African music and dance, along with life-saving skills.
It was as a “Little Jazz Giant,” when Arnetta first fell in love with jazz. She played hard bop at festivals around the Delaware Valley, which included the Cape May Jazz Festival, and Chicken Bone Beach Festival. “She was part of the scene at a young age,” recalls J. Michael Harrison, WRTI radio host. “One of the young folks that grabbed the opportunities, whether performing with young bands out of Camden, or the Philadelphia Clef Club.”
When Arnetta entered Creative Arts High School in Camden, she soon became the “band geek.” Troy Shelton, Arnetta’s manager, says, “They dubbed her the trumpet chic at Creative Arts.”
Road to Berklee
“I almost didn’t make the deadline,” Arnetta says referring to getting into Berklee College of Music in Boston. “Desi Seck, who worked as a theater director for a company in Camden helped me with the application. She just liked to help kids.”
With the cool confidence of a seasoned jazz musician, Arnetta embraced her journey into Berklee. “I auditioned months after the deadline. Jamal Dickerson took me and six musicians on a Greyhound bus because I needed a band to play with.”
“At Berklee I found Darren Barrett, it’s exactly what I wanted to sound like.”
Darren Barrett, a Berklee alum and professor, is a critically-acclaimed jazz trumpeter from Canada who has headlined international stages and performed with some of the greatest musicians, from jazz legend Donald Byrd to pop performers Common and Talib Kweli.
And just like Barrett, Arnetta received a full scholarship to the music college. “It was a big difference, going from being with a bunch of kids who look like you, to being the only black kid in the class,” recalls Arnetta. She was also one of only a few female instrumentalists at the school who stuck to playing a horn, as many of the female students were singers or piano players.
WRIT host Harrison recalls inviting an excited Arnetta to come on his radio show, “She would be appearing in Philly while she was at Berklee and I had been following her and paying attention to the 13, 14, 15 year old Arnetta, fearlessly on her musical journey”
Arnetta adds, “I always listened to his show and WRTI, and it’s where I found out about various musicians like Tia Fuller.” It wouldn’t be long before the saxophonist became another mentor to her.
Arnetta’s first industry gig came with Janelle Monáe and Monáe’s Black Girls Rock. “It definitely opened my eyes to the entertainment world,” laughs Arnetta. “Going into hair, makeup and wardrobe and then rehearsing the music. It’s a whole other industry than jazz.”
Next up for Arnetta… Beyoncé.
“The gig was the audition,” says Arnetta. “It just happened. The music director knew about me.”
Arnetta has performed at Super Bowl XLIX featuring Beyoncé and toured with the chanteuse as a featured trumpeter on both her Formation and On The Run II tours.
While performing with pop legends was exciting, Arnetta considers jazz drummer Terri Lynn Carrington as the first major artist she performed with. “She is a legend in her own right having performed with Herbie Hancock and others.”
Playing with Tia Fuller, Esperanza Spalding, Geri Allen, Buster Williams, Christian McBride and more, “was cool,” but Arnetta is ready to have my own tour. “Arnetta’s goal is to stand jazz on its head,” says Shelton. “We call it disruptive jazz. Disrupt, uplift, inspire and bridge the chasm of where jazz is and take the sound to where jazz ain’t. Instead of sampling jazz for hip hop, Arnetta is creating some hip hop sounds sampled from jazz.”
In five years Arnetta hopes to be in her super prime, working with jazz musicians and hip hop artists.
In her video Arnetta and Sunny, featuring band members Simon Martinez, Henry Trife, Eric Whatley, Lawrence Farmer, and Josh Thomas, Arnetta shows she isn’t afraid of “the jazz police,” in fact, she doesn’t even see them.