Enter the 31-years strong Napa Valley Roasting Company between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. on any given Friday, and you’ll be treated to a live, musical perk.
Not only can you order a frothy “Cup ‘o Joe,” just the way you like it, but you’ll also be served the profound, mesmerizing artistry of J.S. Bach and local cellist Jeffrey McFarland-Johnson.
For the past three years, “Java and Jamming” has brought McFarland-Johnson to what he calls the “coffee house” at First and Main Streets. “After all,” he says, “Bach wrote “The Coffee Cantata,” and coffee and music have gone together for centuries. This is no exception.”
Last Friday morning, the popular, intimate café was overflowing with a steady stream of young and old alike. The hum of their voices combined with the swishing sounds of milk steamers did not preclude enjoying the depth of these classical masterpieces. I watched a makeshift “front row” of folks listening intently to every note.
Among them, friends Pat and Irina informed me, when I asked, that when they wish to hold a conversation, they “tune out if need be.”
Comfortably seated below a large black-and-white photo of himself (one gift of many received from listeners), McFarland-Johnson is honored to share the opportunity of making music for the community in this setting. He said that often the spirit of Bach taps him on the shoulder: “He’s asking, ‘How about playing it this way’? I try to play it as a human voice with the ability to have error and give human quality to those pieces.”
The effervescent McFarland-Johnson began his musical journey on the piano at age five subsequently earning a B.A. in cello performance and M.A. in composition. He moved to Napa in 1988 and retired in 2010 from 22 years of teaching music at Redwood Middle School. There is rarely an interlude in his busy performing, composing and teaching schedule – and then there’s his singular love of Bach.
In retirement, McFarland-Johnson has devoted his studies, recent recordings and community concerts to what he describes as the “bible of all solo cellists” — six, technically-challenging, Bach suites completed in 1723 and made famous by two of the world’s greatest cellists — Pablo Casals and Yo-Yo Ma.
“I’m blessed to be able to play them, still in my prime,” said McFarland-Johnson, adding that he has memorized and internalized the first three, but the fourth is requiring additional study. “It’s a greater learning process,” he continued, and “I kept away from it because it was too difficult to understand.”
In addition to 55 years of learning cello, McFarland-Johnson also studied the guitar for 50. His musical idols and “huge influences” include Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa and John Coltrane. His ability to play multiple musical genres and instruments makes for an eclectic repertoire appropriate for almost any audience.
The morning I visited, a beat box had been gifted, and McFarland-Johnson was enthusiastic: “I am going to busk with it, and I‘m checking out a busking license. The expansion of downtown, this is a moment I’ve been waiting for.”
As 10 a.m. rolled around and concert groupies were expressing their appreciation, McFarland-Johnson showed not a wisp of fatigue. “I’m putting out enough energy to teach 90 kids a day,” he said. “I have to use that same energy, and throw it into myself. I love playing guitar, but over and above the requests were to play cello. People like to get their caffeine and pick up live music, and with Bach, there’s a resonance, a language of emotion. By playing here, I give back to the community, and get my music fix!”