Johnson first picked up the trumpet as an 8th grader in Camden, learning under saxophonist Nasir Dickerson. From there she joined a group of young players called the Little Jazz Giants led by trumpeter Hassan Sabree, then attended Creative Arts High School, whose award-winning program was founded by Nasir’s older brother, trumpeter Jamal Dickerson. As her playing developed Johnson started crossing the bridge to Philly, where she would hang with students at the Clef Club, play jam sessions at Chris’ Jazz Café, or perform with pianist Kendrah Butler’s all-female band the Satin Dolls.
At Berklee Johnson was mentored by esteemed modern jazz players like drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and saxophonist Tia Fuller. It was the latter who encouraged the young trumpet player to begin composing her own music. “At the time I told everybody that I didn’t want to be a bandleader,” Johnson recalls. “After college I realized it wasn’t that I didn’t want to be a bandleader; I just didn’t want to play the music that other people thought I should play.”
When she initially formed her own band, she started out like most jazz musicians do – playing jazz and Songbook standards. But soon the influences of the hip-hop, R&B and rock that she’d grown up on began to creep in, and the sound evolved to what became SUNNY. While the group was named after a childhood nickname, Johnson retroactively transformed it into an acronym that serves as the band’s mission statement: Sounds Uplifting Nobility through Notes and Youth. The band became the outlet for Johnson’s notion of “disruptive jazz,” which she debuted on her 2019 album If You Hear a Trumpet It’s Me.
“We’re coming into what people consider jazz and saying, ‘Boom, Arnetta’s here.’,” she says with a laugh. “I always wanted to do things my own way. In order to break the rules, you’ve got to learn the rules. Ok, I learned the rules. Now it’s my turn to do what I want with them.”
A large part of that is in her stage presentation, which fights against the sometimes staid portrayal of virtuoso musicians dressed in their finest suits. Johnson says that touring with Beyoncé taught her how to shake things up onstage. “I’ve learned that people come for a show. They love the music, but they love the entertainment aspect just as much. And that’s just a visualization of how much you enjoy what you’re doing.”
“I always wanted to do things my own way. In order to break the rules, you’ve got to learn the rules. Ok, I learned the rules. Now it’s my turn to do what I want with them.”