Byron Johnson-Blanchard is a drummer, composer, and music educator based out of Minneapolis, MN.
Johnson-Blanchard currently leads the Byron Johnson-Blanchard Quartet, a band that performs his original compositions and consists of saxophone, guitar, bass, and drums. Made up of some of the best Minneapolis musicians, the band can smoothly articulate beautiful and simple folkloric melodies, meditate on atmospheric textures, go off in frantic improvisational whirlwinds, or blast through complex rhythmic meters with ease and creativity. There is always a sense of risk and spontaneity in every performance.
When he isn’t performing his music with his quartet, Johnson-Blanchard is also an in-demand collaborator and sideman for a variety of creative bands and projects. Most notably he collaborates with Silverback Quartet, a band that defies genre and performs in-your-face swing, slamming rock and metal inspired grooves, free jazz, and lengthy and demanding compositions. You can also hear him as a sideman in projects such as multireedist Matty Harris’ avant-garde jazz/rock band, Nick’s Cousins, and the swinging Mill City Hot Club led by guitarist Dean Harrington. In addition to the above projects, Johnson-Blanchard can often be seen playing fully improvised sets of music with the best improvisers in town, or playing solo performances on drum set.
Byron Johnson-Blanchard’s musical journey began at a very young age. His dad is a guitarist and avid listener of classic rock and big band music. His earliest memories of music are sitting on the bottom steps to the basement where his dad’s sound system was, bobbing his head to the likes of Deep Purple and the Traveling Wilburys. A moment that forever changed his life was when his dad showed him a video of Gene Krupa playing “Sing, Sing, Sing” with Benny Goodman when Johnson-Blanchard was three years old. After that he played rhythms on a toy plastic drum and on the family home’s stair railings with chopsticks while being captivated by the different pitches and metallic timbres.
Throughout elementary school, he spent hours flipping through the local radio stations, listening to anything from classic and current rock, pop, rap, and jazz. The Dances With Wolves soundtrack composed by John Barry and the Star Trek Theme songs were also big influences during this time and would later shape his compositional approach and musical tastes.
After his parents realized that his interest and curiosity in music was growing, they enrolled him in the school band at the age of nine. There he learned basic reading while playing snare drum, bass drum, and bell kit. A highlight from these early formative years was his snare drum performance of “Let’s Go Band” in the fourth grade talent show with a friend who played trumpet.
After several years of learning orchestral and marching snare drumming and percussion, his mom purchased him his first drum kit. He taught himself to play the rhythms that he heard in the hard rock and punk styles that he listened to throughout middle school, and performed in the school talent show with his first band The Venturas. The band was influenced by punk bands like Rancid, NOFX, The Ramones, and The Misfits. Band practices consisted of roughly 50% music and 50% skateboarding.
In middle school and high school, he studied with drummer Pete Hennig (Atlantis Quartet). Hennig introduced him to music that was different, new, and exciting, showing him recordings of artists such as Bill Frisell, John Scofield, Tim Berne, John Zorn, The Bad Plus, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, and Milford Graves. They worked on styles as diverse as rock, hip hop, funk, jazz, and Afro-Cuban rhythms. Hennig also introduced him to polyrhythmic concepts.
During high school, his parent’s would take him to musical performances at the Walker Art Center and various jazz venues around town where he had a chance to watch local and internationally renowned musicians perform. Feeling the need to perform and not just be a bystander, he put together bands with his high school friends and performed shows at a local coffee shop.
At Hennig’s urging, Johnson-Blanchard attended McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul, Minnesota where he studied with local percussion legend and long-time Minnesota Orchestra Principal Percussionist Marv Dahlgren and Gordy Knudtson, the drummer of the Steve Miller Band. He also performed in several ensembles and studied music theory. While in school, he taught private drum lessons in the evenings at local music shops, and played in classic rock bands, jazz standards trios, and backed singer-songwriters and hip hop artists on the weekends. He found musical inspiration from watching the most original and experimental local jazz bands at venues like the now defunct Artists’ Quarter and The Clown Lounge.
After graduating Cum Laude from McNally Smith College of Music in 2008 with a degree in Percussion Performance, he furthered his education by taking private lessons with and attending clinics by some of his favorite local drummers. Johnson-Blanchard has been an in-demand drummer in a gamut of different genres ranging from traditional jazz, jazz/rock fusion, and avant-garde improvisation to country, classic rock, and blues. For seven years, he was the drummer of the ten-piece powerhouse funk/R&B horn band High & Mighty, where he worked with recording and touring veterans who performed with artists such as Prince, Fleetwood Mac, and Sounds of Blackness. He has also performed in the renowned private event bands Blue Water Kings and The Dap Squad, both of which are known to hire the best musicians in the Midwest. He continued to lead several jazz standards groups when his busy performance schedule permitted.
In recent years, he has drawn inspiration from artists such as Bill Frisell, Jim Black, Joey Baron, Paul Motian, Walt Dickerson, Andrew Cyrille, and Harold Budd among others, as well as the works of various 20th century classical composers, experimental rock bands, and electronic artists. Each has had a profound impact on his unique and personal approach to composition, musicianship, and drumming.
Currently, Johnson-Blanchard is focused on creativity and expressing himself through lyrical and melodic original compositions, and the cathartic spontaneity of improvisation. He leads and composes for the Byron Johnson-Blanchard Quartet, collaborates and works as a sideman in various creative projects, most notably Silverback Quartet and Nick’s Cousins, and does solo drum set performances. Johnson-Blanchard is the founder and host of Forge: A Creative Music Series, a showcase of some of the most talented and creative genre defying musicians in the Minneapolis, Minnesota area.
Applying his vast array of skills and knowledge learned from his experience as a consummate professional drummer, Johnson-Blanchard’s drumming style is marked by his ability to play heartfelt grooves, and play with punk rock and free jazz energy. These abilities are contrasted with his use of space, texture, and dynamics, often employing brushes or playing the drums with his hands. His genuine, unique, sensitive, and energetic performances defy genre and are not to be overlooked. Each performance is full of joy and surprises.