Iowa jazz vocalist lends adult spin to music of 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood'
by Daniel Finney, The Des Moines Register
Keri Johnsrud remembers watching "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" on Iowa Public Television when she was a girl growing up in Conrad, a Grundy County city of about 1,100. She remembers the gentleness of host Fred Rogers' voice and demeanor as his little red trolley took her and millions of public television viewers to the Land of Make Believe to talk about childhood feelings or showed films that taught them how crayons were made or how milk got to the store.
"I always wanted to watch the puppets," Johnsrud said. "Mr. Rogers always spoke so calmly and peacefully. I remember eating mac and cheese and tuna sandwiches while I watched. His delivery was so pure and simplistic. He made you feel like he was in your living room."
Johnsrud loved to sing along with the popular songs such as "Won't You Be My Neighbor" and "It's You I Like." Singing was a family business.
Johnsrud's mother and grandmother were both professional vocalists. Her sister and mother sang together in a mother-daughter duo in the 1980s. Johnsrud's family connections to music combined with early memories of Rogers' television neighborhood helped spark a collaboration with Kevin Bales, an Atlanta musician, to record an album of Rogers' music interpreted as jazz.
The album, which features bassist Billy Thornton and drummer Marlon Patton, is called "Beyond the Neighborhood: The Music of Fred Rogers." The album is due for release March 20, which would have been Rogers' 90th birthday.
Johnsrud began singing at age seven. She studied health promotion at the University of Iowa, but she was active in music throughout college, participating in the Newman Singers, Old Gold Singers and the University Choir. Johnsrud loved jazz and after a few years in the health field, made making and signing jazz music her career in 2003 and Chicago her home.
Several years ago, at a Chicago music festival, she met Bales, and the two started writing music together in 2011.
Bales, too, held fond memories of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." He loved the way he played the piano and enjoyed the "warm, openness of his delivery." Bales took a special interest in Rogers as a music composer. Rogers wrote all the music for the PBS series that aired from 1968 to 2001.
When the two decided to collaborate on the project, Bales was astounded by the breadth of Rogers' musical creation. Bales watched hours of episodes from the series, many of which are available for streaming on PBS websites and Amazon Prime.
For example, Rogers composed 13 operettas for the show. The operettas were part of weeklong storylines in the Land of Make Believe, the land of puppets ruled by benevolent King Friday and the timid Daniel the Striped Tiger.
The more Bales learned about Rogers, the more his respect for the beloved children's television icon's musical mastery grew.
"I truly believe Fred Rogers was one of the great American songwriters, in the same cannon as Richard Rodgers and Jerome Kern," Bales said.
Johnsrud and Bales sifted through hundreds of songs from "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and cut their list to 10 songs. They wanted to reach deeper into Rogers' catalog than the most popular and well-known pieces.
"We wanted to balance the what made the music work for children with an adult spin on it," Johnsrud said.
The result is a tribute to the warmth of childhood memories and a testament to the enduring power of love that emanated from Rogers through TV screens for more than three decades.
Johnsrud and Bales have planned a series of appearances in support of their work. They will play a show 7 p.m., March 23 at the River Center, 340 S.W. Third Street in Des Moines. CD copies of the album will be available at the show and the music will also be available online for digital purchase.
A lot of kind things have been written and broadcast about Fred Rogers in the last week. Feb. 20 marked the 50th anniversary of the first appearance of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."
I grew up with the show, though I would have said I preferred the more frenetic pace of "Sesame Street" as a child. It's only as I've gotten older and live in a loud and shrill culture that I find myself turning to Rogers' gentle strength.
"In this climate, I think we need more people like Mr. Rogers," Bales said. "We need more nice people."
Rogers often talked about love, kindness, acceptance and inner-strength and creativity. These days, anger and anxiety are the emotions that get amplified through the rage machine of social media, television and, sadly, the daily news reports.
How wonderful a tribute it is to Rogers and his lifelong work that a woman from a small town in Iowa came together with a man from Atlanta through the earnest serenity of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."
Truly, his was a global neighborhood. And though Rogers died of cancer in 2003, his kindness still reverberates and still inspires.
Keri Johnsrud: Breaking the Jazz Vocal Mold
by Thomas Gerbasi, The Examiner
Keri Johnsrud could have played it safe. With a singing career that has already achieved that rare mix of critical and popular acclaim, she could have done what most of her peers in the world of jazz vocals do: sing the standards and other composers’ material, make records, play shows and leave to a rousing round of applause every night.
Nothing wrong with that, but the Chicago vocalist wanted something a little different for her second album, 2015’s This Side of Morning. So along with pianist Kevin Bales, she took on songwriting duties. The result was a home run worthy of someone hailing from the Windy City that’s home to the Cubs and White Sox.
“It was very important to me, just on a personal level, as a challenge to myself to see if I could even do it,” Johnsrud said. “I hadn’t really even thought about writing my own material until about maybe five years ago. And it’s more or less a personal accomplishment for me, just to be like, hey, I was actually able to write and come up with some stuff that I didn’t hate, and be able to share it with people. I love the standards and the tradition of the genre, of course, but the cool thing when you start writing your own material is that it’s a lot easier to get what I want to say out there, as opposed to using other people’s words or other people’s music.”
And while she hit all the right notes (pardon the pun), she was taking a risk by writing her own material. Not because there would be questions about the quality of the tunes, but because in the jazz world, tradition is often valued more than innovation. To a lot of folks, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Johnsrud knew these risks going into the studio, but that didn’t deter her.
“I understand this better now that I have written, but anybody who decides to write their own stuff or put out their own original material, you’re in an incredibly vulnerable position because this is your stuff, this is coming from you, and if people don’t like it, you have to not take it personally,” she said. “Especially being a female vocalist, sometimes we get pigeon-holed into being a torch singer, so it was important to be able to separate myself and say ‘hey, I can sing those standards fine, but this is something that I’m separating myself from and doing on my own.’ And hopefully people will recognize it. How are people are going to embrace it? It’s all that vulnerability coming to the surface when doing something like this, whatever category you’re in. I love the traditional stuff, and I’m very aware that it’s an important part of jazz and I can listen to it all day, but it’s nice to do something from a different perspective and from my life.”
It’s nice getting recognized and appreciated for it too, so expect to see a nice crowd showing up for Johnsrud Friday night in NYC when she plays the Cornelia Street Café.
“It’s always something a little special to be able to play in that city,” she said of hitting the Big Apple. “Even though Chicago is great for its music scene, it’s always nice to get out and broaden your audience and be in a place with a different kind of energy. New York will always be a special place to me in general, but to perform especially.”
Considering the legendary jazz vocalists and musicians that passed through the city, it is almost holy ground musically, and for someone who has loved the genre for as long as she’s loved music, it’s a big deal to take the stage here.
“When I first started listening to music that I remember, this is what struck a chord with me,” she said. “I can’t really pinpoint it, but I think it was how the music was always presented, and if it was a vocalist, the emotion behind it and how they were singing it. You could just feel what they were singing. I just identified with that more than other types of music. When I set out to do a career with this, that felt like more of a natural step.”
Songwriting has turned into a natural step for Johnsrud as well. So I guess we can assume that she will have pen and paper at the ready for her next album as well?
“I kind of got the bug a little bit,” she laughs. “It’s always inspiring for me to hear other people’s original music and then take that and bring it back to what I’m doing. So it’s very exciting to me to be able to do something and create. I’ll always do the standards, but it’s really exciting to do your own stuff and create something new and hopefully other people will enjoy it for years to come.”