Entertainer, teacher Johnnie Jessen, 94, shared love of music

When Johnnie Jessen retired from the University of Washington in 1989, the music department held a concert at Meany Hall to celebrate the work of the saxophonist and his fellow jazz instructor, Roy Cummings.

Kenny Gorelick, one of the many musicians Mr. Jessen mentored over the years, returned to pay homage to his teacher.

The long-locked musician better known as Kenny G studied under Mr. Jessen for 12 years.

"I made a breakthrough after I started studying with Johnnie," Gorelick said at the time. "One morning I woke up, and I could play twice as fast. He had this great tone on flute, and got me to the point where I was doubling on clarinet and flute."

Mr. Jessen died in his sleep at his Magnolia home Oct. 7. He was 94.

The son of Danish immigrants, John Pagaard Jessen was born May 13, 1909, in Seattle.

A quiet and pensive man, Mr. Jessen was enormously dedicated to his music, recalled his daughter, Joel.

Despite a steady diet of performing and teaching each day, his daughter remembered her father going immediately upstairs to practice each night after he got home.

"(Music) was his whole life," she said. "He just loved his horn."

Mr. Jessen started young, learning the violin and entertaining at Capitol Hill parties at age 9. Soon after, he formed his first Seattle band, the Rinky Dinks.

Music later took Mr. Jessen around the world.

He entertained on cruise ships to Honolulu, China, Japan and the Philippines in the 1920s. In the 1930s he traveled with the RKO vaudeville circuit, performing behind stars such as Betty Grable, Judy Garland and Sammy Davis Jr.

During one RKO radio performance in Seattle, Mr. Jessen played with the brother-in-law of his future wife. Johnnie and Anne Jessen were married in 1933.

Anne Jessen, now 89, said proudly, "We had a very happy marriage." They would have celebrated their 70th anniversary Nov. 1.

Mr. Jessen played in Los Angeles with Jack Benny and in many local music halls. In the 1950s and 1960s, his band, the Esquires, were regulars at the Washington Athletic Club.

While Mr. Jessen's connection to Kenny G brought him public recognition, he brought music to the lives of thousands of Seattle youngsters during his career.

He began teaching saxophone, flute and clarinet at the Sherman Clay music store downtown in 1947. He later taught students at his home and at Capitol Hill Music as well. He taught for 10 years at the UW.

Though 79 when he retired from the UW, Mr. Jessen continued teaching until he turned 90.

He is survived by his wife, Anne, his daughter, Joel, and his granddaughters Jodi, Jennifer and Jana Evich. A son, Jan, died of Lou Gehrig's disease in 1997. He also has four great-grandchildren.

Mr. Jessen's family will hold a private burial Saturday. A public memorial service will take place in the spring.

Remembrances may be made to the Jessen Music Foundation, a nonprofit fund that provides music scholarships to aspiring musicians. Its address: P.O. Box 99458, Seattle, WA 98139.

David Bowermaster: 206-464-2724 or dbowermaster@seattletimes.com