Aaron Johnson

  • Assistant Professor; Interim Director, Jazz Studies Program
  • Cultural Studies Affiliated Faculty
  • Film and Media Studies Affiliated Faculty
  • DEI Committee
  • On leave, Harvard University Hutchins Fellowship, 2019-2020


Jazz Studies, Media Studies, African American Popular Music, Film Music, Music and Technology, Music Information Retrieval


I am interested in social aspects of how music is produced, organized, and presented. In particular, African American music forms frame social interactions in ways that are both consistent and at odds with societal norms. Whenever possible, my research examines relationships of power and the efforts of musicians and music workers to counter more powerful forces. This includes considerations of how musicians attempt to use media and how they have organized their own production of music to create artistic, cultural, and financial benefits for themselves and their community.

My dissertation research, Jazz and Radio in the United States: Mediation, Genre, and Patronage, considers the engagement between jazz and American radio. Both jazz and radio are social constructs that reflect underlying ideological discourses operating within the contexts of larger societal constraints. The term jazz is, and has always been, an unstable signifier that refers to a wide range of music and one that allows this music to be ideologically positioned with respect to aesthetics, politics, race, class, and gender. Radio is also a complex social entity that often uses artistic products to attract audiences, which can be sold to advertisers or directly appealed to for financial support. This topic has not been the subject of comprehensive study, so my research takes a broad approach and examines the current jazz radio environment, two historical periods, and prospects for jazz in the emerging “new media.”

As my project involves the intersection of several academic disciplines, I take a multivalent approach to methods. I employ methods and concepts from musicology, media studies, cultural studies, and sociology to explore the practices and underlying dynamics of American jazz radio and their impact on the music.  As the dissertation concerns both jazz and radio, musicological and media studies approaches are appropriate and necessary. Because jazz radio is the site of artistic, social, commercial, and political activity, sociological and ethnographic approaches are also valuable. My work employs the sociological notion of art worlds to attempt to encompass the broad range of participating actors, and concepts of actor-network theory to decenter the noted musical figures and institutions—most often the focus of musicological study is the musician and the musical object—and identify practices, relationships, and transformations, including patronage, that combine to shape the presentation of jazz on the radio.

My career has taken a few unexpected turns. I have a BSEE degree in Electrical Engineering and Economics from Carnegie Mellon University and a MS in Electrical Engineering from Georgia Tech. For about twenty years I was involved in telecommunications research in the areas of optical fiber measurements, optical communications networks, DSL networks, and video distribution networks, all while maintaining an active career as a jazz musician in the New York, performing with the likes of Charles Tolliver, Jimmy Heath, Frank Lacy, Steve Turre, Wallace Roney, and Aretha Franklin. I have recorded with Jay-Z, among many others. 

My interests turned toward scholarly music studies and in 2014 I completed a PhD in Music at Columbia University.

Recent Courses

  • History of Performance Styles
  • Jazz Arranging
  • Music and Race
  • Jazz Styles and Analysis
  • Black Music and Black Radio
  • Jazz and Film

Selected Publications/Presentations

“The Best Years of Our Lives: Hugo Friedhofer’s American Sound’ in Film Music," Journal of Film Music 10.1 (2017).

Jazz performance collaborator with artist group Postcommodity, 57th Carnegie International, Carnegie Museum of Art, 13-14 October 2018.

“In the Mix: Jazz’s Tenacious Presence on Black Appeal Radio,” presented at Beyond Genre: Jazz as Popular Music Conference, Case Western Reserve University, 20 April 2018.

"The Pittsburgh Courier and Jazz on the Early Radio: Duke Ellington’s First Radio Broadcast," presented at the Society for American Music Conference, Kansas City, 2 March 2018.

“Black Power Radio of the 1970s,” presented at the Rhythm Changes 5 Conference, Amsterdam, 2 September 2017.

“The Role of Radio Formats in Defining Jazz in the United States” to be presented at Music—Sound—Radio: Theorizing Music Radio, University of Copenhagen, 25-27 May 2017.

“Trumpet Men Revisited” presented at Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies Colloquium “Masculinity and Affect,” University of Pittsburgh, 6 April 2017.

"The Pittsburgh Courier and Jazz on the Early Radio" presented at The Arts in the Black Press During the Age of Jim Crow, Yale University, 11 March 2017.

“Jazz Music and Artists and the Evolving (Noncommercial) Radio-Industrial Complex” presented at the annual meeting of Society for American Music (Sacramento, CA), March 2015.

“Re-purposing Music on Alternative Radio: Cultural Work and Imagined Communities,” presented at IASPM-US (Louisville, KY), 20 February 2015.

“A Date with The Duke: Duke Ellington on Radio, 1923-1953.” in the Musical Quarterly, 10.1093, 19 November 2013.

Book Review of You'll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi Band, by Bob Gluck in American Studies (pending)

"Shifting boundaries or "Man, _____'s a total sellout": The Battle for Jazz on 1970s Radio" at University of Salford Conference- Rhythm Changes II: Rethinking Jazz Cultures, Manchester, UK April 2013.

Book Review of Where the Dark and Light Folks Meet, by Randall Sandke in Current Musicology, Issue 92, Fall 2011.

"Lifted by the Audience: Audience Interaction in the Live Recordings of Donny Hathaway." presented at the annual meeting of Society for American Music (Charlotte, NC), 16 March 2012.

"Don't Bother Looking for Jazz on Commercial Radio" Invited paper, Institute of Jazz Studies Roundtable, Rutgers-Newark University, 18 January 2012.

“Trumpet Men: Two Representations of Masculinity in Jazz” at University of Salford Conference- Mediating Jazz, Manchester, UK November 2009.

Selected Recordings

Oliver Lake, Wheels, March 2013

Fred Ho, The Music of Cal Massey: A Tribute, 2011

Steve Swell's Nation of We, The Business of Here…Live at Roulette, 2011

Aaron J Johnson, Songs of Our Fathers, 2009

Charles Tolliver, Emperor March, 2009

Jay-Z, American Gangster, 2008

Charles Tolliver, With Love, 2007

Salim Washington, Harlem Homecoming, 2006

Oliver Lake, Cloth, 2003

Steve Turre, Rhythm Within, 1995

Education & Training

  • PhD, Columbia University, 2014

Faculty Groupings

Core Faculty

Main Department Affliliation

Assistant Professor