Former Marine recruits Wynton Marsalis to record tribute song
Their United Marine will air on satellite radio on Memorial Day. The veteran also can be heard on his trumpet at military funerals.
Published April 14, 2006

Marines, this is Wynton Marsalis.

Happy Birthday Jarheads.

As a loyal American my prayers are with each and every one of you.

Many of you are about to enter harm's way. And many have already.

Your battle knowledge is crucial as any in our country's history.

And for you personally it's as crucial as any battle in human history.

And the winning of battles is the way of warriors.

Every Marine is considered a warrior.

May you concentrate, execute with precision and remain calm under extreme pressure.

Get your job done and come on home safely to the many who love you and the safety of the USA.

Thank y'all very much for sticking your leather necks out for freedom and honor. Godspeed.


All good things.

Me, Wynton Marsalis.

Thank you forever.

WESTCHASE - "It'll probably take two minutes to tell my entire life story," Greg Johnson tells a newspaper reporter. "You've been misled down the wrong path."

A Marine Corps veteran, flight attendant, trumpet player, bugler, military band member, jazz musician and composer, Johnson surely jests.

Johnson has recently been substituting for a friend at Tampa Bay Downs, playing the "datdatdatdat CHARGE!" reveille on his trumpet before each horse race. An average of 13 times each Saturday.

But Johnson also does service to military dead, bugling at soldiers' funerals throughout Central Florida.

Johnson has played for war dead since Vietnam and also served two tours of duty in the Marines, playing in the marching band and training soldiers in knife self-defense and martial arts.

He was honorably discharged. But when Operation Iraqi Freedom started and troops started dying, Marine service came calling again.

"They asked me to play for them and sent new dress blues down from Camp Lejeune, N.C., in February 2003," Johnson said.

He wouldn't dare touch them, though.

Not until he could do it admirably.

"I told them, 'In order to put on dress blues and play for war dead, I need to meet the standards of an active Marine,' " Johnson said.

At 55, Johnson said he's "not exactly a spring chicken," but asked to train with local Marines in order to "represent them in a serious way."

"I've got to quit smoking," was one of the first thoughts to run through his mind.

"They had no problem with busting my hump."

While Johnson says he lives in "south Westchase, north Town 'N Country," he was born in Lake Charles, La., and grew up in New Orleans.

The Big Easy swiftly made him a music fan.

"There were bands playing all over and music filled the air. I met Al Hirt (a great trumpet virtuoso) and Pete Fountain (a legendary New Orleans clarinetist) on the street," Johnson said.

"Louis Armstrong still graced the city from time to time. There were musicians playing on inverted potato chip cans as drums and music all around."

For seven years, Johnson played in Fountain's "Half-Assed Marching Band" during Mardi Gras parades.

"They later sterilized (the name) for the public and called it 'The Half Fast Marching Club,' " he said.

Johnson went from the Big Easy to the friendly skies as a flight attendant for United Airlines in between stints with the Marines.

On a flight from Los Angeles to Chicago, at an altitude of thousands of feet, he had a one-in-a-million chance to jam with the cast from Chico and the Man, a 1970s sitcom hit:

It was Freddie Prinze Sr., the father of teen dream Freddie Prinze Jr, who starred as "Chico"; comedian, dancer and musician Jack Albertson, who played Ed Brown "the Man"; and Scatman Crothers, who may be most famous for his role as the telepathic cook killed with an ax by Jack Nicholson's character in the movie The Shining.
With Johnson on his trumpet and the others doing vocals, they performed Bill Bailey and When the Saints Go Marching In while "a flight attendant held the PA microphone between Scatman and me," Johnson said. "Jack and Freddie Prinze flanked each side and away we went."

Johnson's latest adventure pairs him with jazz great Wynton Marsalis, whom he met care of Harry Connick Jr.

The story of how they met is as classic and smooth as a rhythmic Satchmo scat and yet another fortuitous happenstance for Johnson.

"The story with Harry Connick Jr. is," said Johnson, "when he came down to the Cafe Creole in Ybor City - 1990 or 1991 - to eat, mine and Wayne Pearson's band was playing there.

"Upon talking to Harry, he found out that I played with Pete Fountain and he and Pete were friends.

"I think Pete gave Harry a trumpet when he was a little boy. Anyway, I asked Harry if he knew Wynton Marsalis. He did, and gave me Wynton's contact info."

And that was that.

Johnson called Marsalis and about a year later ended up getting a two-hour lesson and an invitation to sit in on a couple of songs during a 1992 concert at the Tampa Theatre.

"We're not kissin' cousins, but I have his home number," Johnson said of Marsalis.

Fast forward to 2004.

Inspired by Marine sacrifices in the war against terror and in honor of the upcoming Marine Corps Birthday Ball, Johnson wrote United Marine, a short, simple tribute to the corps.

A somber trumpet solo accompanied by spoken words, United Marine features the voice of Marsalis and the trumpeting talents of Johnson.

"The strange part is doing a recording with Wynton Marsalis and me playing the trumpet and not him," Johnson said.

"I played it just one time in the studio and totally ad-libbed it," said Johnson of the trumpet solo. "My mood and frame of mind was somewhere between taps and the Marine Corps Hymn."

Marsalis, a constant improviser by nature, changed a few words in the dedication, Johnson said.

"He actually added a few things on his own, which he often does. Still, the message is 80 percent mine."

Just more than a minute long, United Marine is set to air on the satellite radio station XM 70 Real Jazz, all day Memorial Day, according to program director Maxx Myrick, who is also a retired Marine.

Johnson said he's not trying to make any money off United Marine and didn't grease any palms to get it on XM.

He simply wants it heard.

And you've got to admit, the man's got connections.

"Good karma," Johnson said, "is what it is."

Amber Mobley can be reached at (813) 269-5311 or