I was stunned and saddened to hear that Bernard “Bunchy” Johnson, one of New Orleans’s top jazz and R & B drummers, was found dead at his home on Sunday morning, the apparent victim of a heart attack.
Bunchy was one of my happiest discoveries after returning to live here in 2007—not that he needed me to “discover” him. He was one of the city’s best known drummers and had worked with a Pantheon of New Orleans greats, including Allen Toussaint, Dave Bartholomew, James Booker, Aaron Nevile and Dr. John. He was also a movie and TV actor—he played the sheriff’s deputy who evicted Halle Berry from her house in “Monster’s Ball” and appears in two episodes of the upcoming “Tremé” series on HBO.
I didn’t know any of that when I met Bunchy on a gig in the Maison de Ville courtyard two years ago. It was a wedding reception as I remember. The band was a pickup group put together by trumpeter Clive Wilson. As soon as we started the first number, I was enthralled by Bunchy’s playing. His style was loose and easy, a seemingly effortless swing that just flowed from him in a way that was both driving and unhurried. I never saw a drummer who looked so natural and comfortable when he played, sitting low on the stool and barely moving his arms. The sticks seemed to grow out of his hands. And his personality was perfectly suited to his music: jovial, warmhearted, laid-back.
I got Bunchy’s business card that night and resolved to call him on future gigs. But I was rarely able to get him: he was one of the most in-demand musicians in town. He had a regular Saturday night hotel gig and often went out on the road. Every time I called him, he would tell me, “I can’t make that one, but keep trying me, hear? I want to play with you, man.” We did manage to get together at the Palm Court a few weeks ago, and again, I was delighted and amazed by his smooth swing and flawless timekeeping. He was one of those drummers who made a horn man play better—made the whole band sound better in fact. When we parted that night, I told him, “Bunchy, we got to get together again. You’re such a kick to play with. ” He chuckled and told me to keep calling him. “I want to play with you, too, man. You know my number.”
Well I can’t call that number anymore. Bunchy played his last gig Saturday night. A fellow musician came to pick him up for a brunch job on Sunday morning and found him dead in his bed. The news spread quickly among his fellow musicians. When I showed up to play at Preservation Hall last night, the mood was somber. But drummer Shannon Powell said what we all thought: “When they take Bunchy to the church, we all got to be there for him, you know what I’m sayin’?” Yes, we’ll be there with our horns and our drums, just as Bunchy would have been there for any of us. That’s the New Orleans way.
Rest in peace, Bunchy.