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Gus Johnson: 1913-2000
Gus Johnson

Born: November 15, 1913 in Tyler, Texas
Died: February 6, 2000 in Denver, Colorado

A Sensitive Drummer in Many Contexts

Copyright © 2000 

The Scotsman, 2000


Gus Johnson proved the vital drum impetus for a succession of the most famous names in jazz over a long career in the music. His satisfied employers included Count Basie, Woody Herman, Gerry Mulligan, Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne, but his resourceful, swinging style was entirely at home in any setting in which he was featured.

That versatility, and his sensitive use of dynamic contrasts, from gentle accompaniment behind a vocalist through to powerhouse big band swing, allowed him to play equally effectively in a wide range of contexts. He took up music in earnest as a young child, studying piano, bass and drums in school, and made his public debut at the age of 9 in Houston.

He formed his own vocal group, the Four Rhythm Aces, after graduating from high school in Kansas City, but subsequently decided to concentrate on drums. He began working with bandleaders like Jo Jones, Lloyd Hunter and Ernest Redd in the mid-1930s, then joined the band led by pianist Jay McShann in Kansas City in 1938, a band which included the youthful Charlie Parker.

He remained with McShann's band until 1943, and made his recording debut with the pianist. He entered the US Army in 1943, but returned to playing after the war, initially working for McShann again, then in bands led by pianist Earl Hines, saxophonist Eddie 'Cleanhead' Vinson, and trumpeter Cootie Williams.

He joined the Count Basie Orchestra in 1949, and played with the pianist in his subsequent slimmed-down sextet, a move forced upon the leader by the harsh economics of the period. He was a key member of the new big band which Basie launched in the early-1950s, powering the music in his typically fluid fashion, and played an important role in reestablishing Basie as a major force.

He left Basie in 1954, and worked as a freelance in New York, where he accompanied singers Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald (the latter for nine years), recorded with Billie Holiday, and played on many live dates and recording sessions. He had spells as a member of bands led by trumpeter Buck Clayton (1955-57) and saxophonist Woody Herman (1959-60) during this period, played frequently with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, and also recorded with saxophonists Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Hodges, Zoot Sims and Al Cohn.

In 1969, he joined the World's Greatest Jazz Band, a traditional and mainstream group which had grown out of the celebrated Colorado Jazz Parties run by Dick Gibson. The band was co-led by Yank Lawson and Bob Haggart, and enjoyed considerable success on the festival circuit. He remained with the band until 1974, and also recorded with pianists Ralph Sutton and Jay McShann and saxophonist Eddie 'Lockjaws' Davis in that period.

He settled in Denver in semi-retirement in 1974, but continued to play on a regular basis there, and emerged occasionally for festival appearances and recording sessions, including record dates with with Count Basie (in 1979) and Peanuts Hucko (1983). His last public concert took place in Berne, Switzerland, in November, 1990, where he played with Jay McShann, Ralph Sutton and Milt Hinton. The onset of Alzheimer's Disease ended his career at that point, and he was a semi-invalid in his last decade. He is survived by his wife, Mildred.

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