PIF Board Member Has Storied Musical Career

Vocal professor believes music matters to young minds

When Julianne Johnson-Weiss was little more than 2 years old, she regularly climbed into the choir loft at Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church in Portland during services.

Rather than shush the curious child away, then Senior Pastor Dr. OB Williams told all the grown-ups to let her go.

“He said, ‘Leave the baby alone, she knows what she’s doing.’”

The pastor’s word turned out be prophetic, because only a few years later, at the age of 5, young Julianne was not only a member of the choir, but was leading it in hymns.

Elders paved way

For more than 50 years, Johnson-Weiss, a member of Play It Forward’s board of directors, has never stopped singing since she first climbed into that choir loft. Along the way she has added playing piano as well as acting to her set of artistic skills.

She credits the adults who took an interest in her talents for fostering her career, including her parents, Margaret Juanita and stepfather Robert; the folks who attended her church; a British woman, Edith Grovesnor, who taught her piano; or the nuns who taught her music at Immaculate Heart Grade School as well as the academics who shaped her college music and theater experience at the University of Portland. 

“I’m a beneficiary of somebody holding the door open,” she says, noting her mother encouraged her to “get your degree, and get everything you need to be successful and then reach back and bring someone along with you.”

Johnson-Weiss is a classically trained performing artist who has done a stint on Broadway as well as in more than 50 community theater productions; sung for U.S. troops in the Far East including the DMZ in Korea and for audiences in Europe; sung with bands in nightclubs and for charities in Portland and regionally sometimes as often as seven days a week; performed as headliner on regional and international cruise lines  and now directs and serves as professor and faculty department chair for both the Music and Theatre Programs District-Wide at Portland Community College.

She also recently worked as a producer and interviewer on the critically acclaimed documentary film “Tipping Point” about the 2020 protests in Portland that followed the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis (tippingpointfilm.com). The movie features “a cross-section of generations and artists” who contributed to the musical soundtrack. Working on the film made her realize “music is the catalyst for change in our society,” she says, adding, “through the music the path to understanding can be illuminated.”

In addition to the above, Johnson serves as board president and associate artistic director of Stumptown Stages, Portland musical theater company housed at Portland 5 Performing Arts Center.

Music education advocate

A music minister in the Baptist church, Johnson-Weiss has been a recording artist and concert performance partner with PIF’s co-founder, the acclaimed pianist Michael Allen Harrison, since 1988. The two have not only worked together as artists, they’ve also collaborated on music education funding efforts for more than two decades.

The two musicians have recorded multiple albums and their latest one called “My Romance” features jazz ballads and standards. She’s also recorded such albums as “Easy,” “Inspired,” “LIVE at Jimmy Mak’s,” “I’ll be Home,” and several compilations including two holiday albums.

Her love of music and her own experience growing up as an African-American in North Portland informs her work for Play It Forward, she notes.

“We have to create a level playing field and that’s what PIF is doing, trying to give students a level playing field,” she says.

She particularly likes the fact PIF not only provides free instrumental lessons but also provides children with instruments – pianos, keyboards, guitars or ukuleles — that they can keep for life.

“You’re going to hand them something that they thought would never be for them,” she says. 

A certified Montessori Guide who serves at Providence Montessori, Johnson-Weiss says music education teaches children to critically think and solve problems by showing them how to surmount obstacles one by one, rather than all at once.

By learning notation as well as the multiplicity of ways to use time and structure, a child can understand how to break down large tasks into smaller pieces or movements they can work on step by step.

Music education gives children confidence while helping to calm their nerves and opens their hearts and minds to new experiences, she adds.

Johnson-Weiss also believes music can help people heal from and overcome difficulties, noting she’s produced community musical performances featuring several area choirs of young voices since the end of the Covid lockdowns to revive people’s spirits.

A choir at PCC Sylvania Johnson-Weiss directs called Voices of Soul is an example of many ages and demographics coming together to make a joyful noise, she says.

“I just really want to see all the generations come together and communicate through music,” the PIF board member says. “I love to see people find joy in song.”

To learn more, email julianne.johnson2@pcc.edu.