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J. J. Johnson: 1924-2001
J. J. Johnson
Trombone, arranger, composer, bandleader

Born: January 22, 1924 in Indianapolis, Indiana
Died: February 4, 2001 in Indianapolis, Indiana

Premier Exponent of Jazz Trombone

Copyright © 2001 

The Scotsman, 2001

Johnson

The death of J. J. Johnson by self-inflicted gunshot wound has not only ended the life of the greatest jazz exponent of his instrument, the slide trombone, but also erodes one of the few remaining links to the formative era of modern jazz. Johnson emerged from a basic grounding in swing to establish himself as the undisputed premier voice on trombone in the bebop era, and invented a new language for the instrument in the process.

There had been great players before him, notably Jack Teagarden, while Johnson himself expressed an early admiration for Fred Beckett, a trombonist who played with Harlan Leonard and Lionel Hampton, Trummy Young, and J. C. Higginbotham among the older school. Attention tended to focus on Johnson’s development of a remarkable speed on an instrument which apparently did not readily lend itself to the short notes, wide intervals and rapid articulation of bebop, but his real innovation lay even more in his clean, fluent, flexible and highly inventive approach to both melody lines and rhythm patterns.

Bebop demanded a new approach, and Johnson provided it. One key musician who was quick to take note was Dizzy Gillespie, who welcomed Johnson into the fold with the words “I’ve always known that a trombone could be played different, that somebody’d catch on one of these days. Man, you’re elected.”

Johnson went on to establish himself as the greatest of all jazz trombonists. At one time or another, he worked with a who’s who of great jazz names, led his own bands, co-led a very successful group with Danish trombonist Kai Winding, and later made his mark as a composer, both of extended jazz works and film and television scores.

He was born James Louis Johnson in Indianapolis, a town which was also the birthplace of two subsequent jazz giants, Wes Montgomery and Freddie Hubbard. His first instrument was piano, which he began at 11, before switching to trombone three years later at Crispus Attucks High School, where he received his musical grounding. Jazz history might have been rather different had the school been able to give him the instrument he wanted, a saxophone, but the only spare horn was an almost unplayable old baritone, and he reluctantly accepted trombone instead.

He joined the successful “territory” band led by Snookum Russell in 1942, then spent several years in bands led by Benny Carter and Count Basie. The arrival of bebop drew him away from the swing bands, and he worked with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Oscar Pettiford in the late 1940s. The historic significance of his contribution to the development of jazz trombone has been likened to that of Charlie Parker on saxophone.

Johnson took part in the famous nonet sessions which later became Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool album, where he linked up with pianist John Lewis and French horn player Gunther Schuller, a relationship which would be developed later in the 1950s with the advent of the so-called Third Stream, in which these musicians sought a bridge between jazz and classical music.

Johnson took a break from music in 1952-3, during which time he worked as a blueprint inspector, a position he held until May, 1954. He had already built an impressive reputation, but began to reach an even wider segment of the jazz public when he teamed up with Kai Winding in 1954, in a band with the unusual line-up of two trombones and a rhythm section. Jay and Kai (sometimes J. J. and Kai), as the band were known, became a popular draw both in concert and on record, and added a succession of popular albums (including one with an expanded line-up featuring eight trombones) to Johnson’s already impressive discography, which included his classic The Eminent Jay Jay Johnson for Blue Note in 1953, and famous sessions for Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, among others.

Johnson parted company with Winding in 1956, at the height of their success, looking for a different musical challenge (they did team up again at various times in the decades until Winding’s death in 1983). He continued to record a series of dazzling hard bop albums for Columbia with his own groups in the late 1950s, and was also involved in the Third Stream experiments initiated by John Lewis, the musical director of the Modern Jazz Quartet, and Gunther Schuller, who was also a classical composer and conductor.

His best known works in that vein was Poem for Brass, which appeared originally on the Music For Brass album in 1957, and El Camino Real, premiered at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1959. He also wrote a difficult piece for Dizzy Gillespie and a 21-piece brass and percussion orchestra in 1961, recorded as Perceptions.

He led his own groups (and occasionally reconvened the group with Winding) throughout the 1960s, recording regularly for the Columbia, Impulse!, RCA, and A&M labels. As the decade progressed, he grew increasingly absorbed in composition, and in 1970 relocated his family to Los Angeles, where he concentrated on breaking into the lucrative film and television market, although not entirely to the exculsion of jazz.

Working with Quincy Jones on the soundtrack for The Pawnbroker in 1965 had sharpened his taste for the genre. He contributed soundtrack music to a number of films, including such ‘Blaxploitation’ movies of the early 1970s as Shaft and Cleopatra Jones, and television programmes like The Six Million Dollar Man and Starsky and Hutch, but never really established himself as a film composer.

He continued to make occasional jazz recordings during his time in Hollywood, for Milestone and Norman Granz’s Pablo label. Granz and Johnson went back a long way -- the impresario and producer had chosen the trombonist to play in his very first Jazz At The Philharmonic concert in 1944, and recorded a series of albums in which the trombonist was heard with Milt Jackson, Ray Brown, Joe Pass, and trombonist Al Grey, all in 1983.

Johnson returned to his native Indianapolis in 1987, and continued to write and record jazz, working both with small groups and large ensembles. He issued a number of recordings on Antilles, Concord Jazz (including a lovely tribute to his first wife, Vivian, who died in 1991), and Verve. His last record for that label, The Brass Orchestra (1996), provided an opportunity to work with a 23-piece band.

He retired from performing in 1997, and concentrated for a time on writing music on his computer and developing his skills in using the internet, which he took up with great enthusiasm.

He suffered from from prostate cancer and other health problems, and had been ill for some time prior to his suicide. He is survived by his second wife, Carolyn Johnson; two sons, Kevin and William; a stepdaughter, Mikita Sanders; a granddaughter; a stepgranddaughter; and a sister, Rosemary Belcher.

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With 7 reader comments, latest March 10, 2001