'That Trumpet Chic': Student Finds Mentorship at Berklee

Berklee trumpet player Arnetta Johnson receives a major scholarship from Blues Babe Foundation on BET's An Evening of Stars, a celebrity-studded award show sponsored by the United Negro College Fund.

October 2, 2014

This past April, Arnetta Johnson heard her name called to the stage by singer/actress Jill Scott. This was a defining moment in Johnson's life and career, and not just because that stage was part of BET's celebrity-studded An Evening of Stars, sponsored by the United Negro College Fund. Nor was it just because Scott's Blues Babe Foundation awarded her a major scholarship that would support her continued studies at Berklee as a trumpet player.

Scott has become a mentor for Johnson, but even before that, she was on the young trumpeter’s radar. "Jill Scott has been my favorite singer since I was 7," she says. "To hear someone you look up to say your name with so much excitement on stage was a huge moment."

For Johnson, this is a typical response to each bit of success she encounters, whether on a national stage or in a faculty office at Berklee—the focus is never on the achievement, but on who it was that guided her to a point of reaching such opportunities.

In fact, pursuing her heroes was how she came to Berklee in the first place.

A Visionary's Vision

Though she hails from Camden, New Jersey, Johnson was no stranger to Berklee. She traveled annually with her classmates from Creative Arts High School—itself affiliated with Berklee's City Music program—to perform at Berklee's High School Jazz Festival, even taking the Superior Overall Musician Award her senior year. But, when it came time to apply for colleges, Johnson looked elsewhere at first, nabbing full scholarships to the country's top music programs. At the time, Berklee's Brass Department chair, Sean Jones, was teaching at Oberlin and did everything he could to recruit her, calling Johnson "…one of the most gifted young women that I've come across in years." It wasn't enough—at least, not yet.

Little did he know that a few years later, in his new role at Berklee, Jones would get another chance to work with her.

It took a visit to commencement to watch a friend graduate for Johnson to make her emphatic decision to come to Berklee. There, she saw a man walking around snapping photos and learned that he was Darren Barrett, associate professor of trumpet. She looked him up online right there and came across a YouTube clip of him performing the song "Vision of a Visionary." "He took a solo," she says, "[and] it was literally the best thing I'd heard in my life." And that was the moment she knew: "I'm going to go to Berklee just so I can work with that guy."

Voices in the Hallway

After landing at Berklee, Johnson’s opportunities to learn from the greats had only just begun. One day in her second semester, she was walking down the hallway and heard someone talking from a short distance away. "No, this is not true," she thought, recognizing the voice as that of Tia Fuller, a saxophonist Johnson had been listening to for years. As she says, "I turned a corner and was like, 'Tia Fuller is at Berklee!'" She approached Fuller on the spot, asking if she could audition for her ensemble.

Since that first meeting, Fuller has become yet another mentor that Johnson cites as critical to her Berklee experience, both as a musician and as a person. Because of Fuller, Johnson has shared the stage on BET's Black Girls Rock! with stars like Janelle Monae, and even plays with Fuller in her quintet. But she can also call Fuller when she's just plain having a rough day.

As the only female African-American trumpet player at Berklee, Johnson finds solidarity with Fuller whose own journey as a female African-American brass player offers a vital model and sense of kinship. "It's always nice to see somebody that you can relate to," she says. "…[So] many times you look around and think, 'yep—I'm the only girl again.'"

There is a precedent for Johnson feeling this way. The issue of being "the only girl" is the topic of a documentary that is still in production called ...But Can She Play?, directed by journalist, author, and film artist Janice Littlejohn. In researching the goal to overcome gender bias in contemporary jazz, Littlejohn found Berklee to be a haven of top notch instrumentalists to feature, and yes, they happen to be female. "Berklee continues to be the leading college where women in my film either study or teach," she says. Fuller already figures in the film and and Johnson is on Littlejohn's radar. "I've been following [Johnson] for a couple of years now," she says, and as she continues to source funding for the film's completion, she hopes to return to Berklee in the spring to capture even more of the talent here.

Role models like Fuller have helped Johnson find confidence and own her role. Johnson’s often known on social media as "That Trumpet Chic," a moniker inspired by the many people who couldn't remember her name and simply referred to her as "that trumpet girl." She has since owned the nickname, dropping the "k" in "chick" to "chic" so that the connotation becomes a powerful and positive statement about being a woman in music.

Looking Ahead

Now in her fifth semester, Johnson is excited to build on her experiences with Barrett and Fuller, as well as to find new inspiration working with Berklee drummers Ralph Peterson Jr. and Grammy-winning Terri Lyne Carrington. "Arnetta is a visionary who has an extremely high work ethic," says Fuller. "Always setting new boundaries, Johnson is a powerhouse and undoubtedly will be a major voice in the music/jazz community."

As she looks ahead, she hopes to work with these same mentors, taking it into the professional world. "Fortunately, I've been able to play with them on this level anyway," she says. "But, I want to just soar by the time I'm out of here."

Listen to Zara Larsson's "Never Forget You," arranged by graduating student Paul Sanchez featuring Arnetta Johnson: