Johnny B. captures ‘Rhythm of the North’ in his Pier One show

Confucius once said that if you do what you love then you never have to work a day in your life. Clearly Confucius didn’t have an adorable grandson moving from Alaska to Wyoming. He probably didn’t have a mortgage, either.

Such is the life of Homer’s Johnny B. — a professional piano player, teacher, father of two and grandfather of a little boy who’s about to move from Fairbanks to the Lower 48.

“If you’re going to be a full-time musician and live in Alaska, playing shows locally and around the state is not going to do it,” says John Bushell, otherwise known as Johnny B. “So, I created a five-year plan to establish myself in the Lower 48 to earn enough to live here. Right now, I’m in year four of my plan.”

For the past few years, Bushell has been performing at festivals and arts council events throughout Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon and Washington. He’s best known for playing Boogie Woogie, an energetic, up-tempo, piano style that originated from the blues and became popular in the late 1920s. 

Boogie Woogie requires physical stamina, strength and remarkable dexterity. Watching Johnny B. at the keys, you’ll notice that his left and right hand operate so independently that it sounds as if he’s playing with an extra set of arms.

But there’s more to Bushell than wild piano tunes.

“I’m so much more than a Boogie Woogie piano player,” says Bushell. “My music comes from my heart and reflects my emotions, experiences and all that’s around me.”

His latest work, “The Rhythm of the North,” is a celebration of Alaska and the place he’s called home since 1981. 

“The Rhythm of the North” is in its second year at Pier One Theatre on the Homer Spit. It blends original piano scores composed and performed by Bushell with stunning aerial video segments by Daniel Zatz and photography by Brad Lewis. 

“For those who are new here, the show is a great introduction to Alaska,” says Bushell.

Stories about life in the last frontier are woven throughout the show with the odd jab at naïve newcomers. 

“It’s the first time I’ve seen Johnny B. play in a full-length performance,” says Jim Lavrakas, Executive Director of the Homer Chamber of Commerce. “It was a really well thought out and fun show with a good variety of music style. He’s got such a winning manner and he’s so enthusiastic. His use of new media in the show was really neat.”

There’s no moss growing under this rolling stone. Between gigs you’ll often find Bushell behind the wheel of his Prius, making the long drive from Homer to Fairbanks to spend time with his 1-year-old grandson. 

His grandson is moving to Wyoming later this year and Bushell’s making the most of their time in Alaska.

“It’s going to be hard to be farther away from him, which makes my five-year plan all the more important,” says Bushell.

On one of his trips to Fairbanks, Bushell snapped a photo of the Alaska Range. He toyed with the photo when he got home and as he did, he became inspired to compose a musical piece around it. 

His yet unnamed composition follows the peaks and valleys of the range with an eventual crescendo at Denali’s peak. 

Last spring, Bushell applied for and was awarded a two-week residency at the Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts in Wyoming. He spent two weeks at the foundation’s ranch outside Laramie composing his piece and practicing his music.

“The foundation offers these residencies to support artists and give them uninterrupted time to work on a project,” says Bushell. “I got to work in a renovated pioneer school building with a gorgeous Steinway piano at my service 24/7.” 

“John was a pleasure to meet and enjoy while he was here at Brush Creek Ranch,” says Sharon Hawkins, director of the Brush Creek Ranch Foundation. “He played portions of the piece for me personally while he was working and composing in the studio here at BCFA, and it was amazing.

“He shared his inspiration and the process of creating his piece as it traveled along above the peaks of the majestic Alaskan mountain range,” Hawkins says. “It was breathtaking to listen to the music, and I was imagining myself scanning 360 degrees from on top of an Alaskan peak as he played.”

The piece is a ways from being completed, but Bushell’s time in residency propelled it forward. His residency also allowed him to make important business connections in the state of Wyoming leading to future bookings and of course, time with his grandson.

“Rhythm of the North” plays at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays until Aug. 5.

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