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Impressions Of An Innovator

In an artform which has produced a Count, a Duke, and at least one Dark Prince, jazz has also given the world a considerable number of innovators.

Indeed, these masters took musical instruments otherwise relegated to hackneyed artistic uses, and single-handedly endowed their chosen vessels with richly filigreed vocabularies. More than this, these performers infused these instruments with a harmonic and melodic sophistication which positioned them squarely amongst the avant garde of their generation.

Alongside alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Bud Powell and tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins - to name a trifling few of such figures - must be mentioned the redoubtable J.J. Johnson, who died tragically on February 4, 2001, after a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head. He had been wrestling with prostate cancer.

James Louis Johnson (known affectionately as J.J.), was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on January 22, 1924. Taking up piano lessons at the age of 11, he switched to trombone at 14.

It was a decision, which in later years would radically rehabilitate the fortunes of the modern jazz trombone.

In 1942, Johnson joined Snookum Russell's 'territory' swing band. Mr. Johnson would later aid and abet Benny Carter for several years and then spend two years with Count Basie.

Johnson's was a storied career of countless gigs with the likes of Gillespie, Parker, Illinois Jacquet, Woody Herman, Oscar Pettiford, and notably with that Dark Magus of jazz, Miles Davis, on the watershed Birth of the Cool sessions.

It was in 1954, when J.J. Johnson teamed up with Danish-born fellow trombonist Kai Winding to form the epochal Jay & Kai aggregation, that the pyrotechnical possibilities of the jazz trombone were given their freest rein in J.J.'s capable hands. The groundbreaking release, Kai Winding and J.J. Johnson (East Coast Jazz SeriesBethelehem Records BCP-13) is but one of the many albums that documents Johnson's striking exploits. Al Harewood, one of two drummers on this album comments on how he met his employer:

"I'd been playing on an amateur basis for a couple of years and was depping for a friend of mine called Arthur Edghill. Arthur had three gigs on this particular weekend and could only make two of them. The gig was going to be at a place called the Putnam Central and to my great surprise, when I turned up, I found J.J. Johnson, Walter Bishop Jr, Sam Gill, and Kenny Dorham on the bandstand. They tested me by asking me to play "upstairs" and they played really fast. J.J. Johnson was flying through the changes. Needless to say I sailed through that gig and J.J. asked me to join the band."

J.J. Johnson's coming of age as the quintessential be-bop trombonist had its genesis in his study of seminal artists such as Vic Dickenson, Jack Teagarden, Freddie Beckett, Lester 'Prez' Young, and beboppers Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro and Charlie Parker. J.J. Johnson reconfigured the jazz trombone with lightning-fast arpeggiated chord progressions. His was a sound which was low on vibrato, fluid, and tightly controlled with a powerfully expressive range which encompassed both the tender and the tempestuous.

As Hamburg-based fellow trombonist and Both Feet recording artist Jerry Tilitz notes:

"Johnson's unmatched facility was a fundamental part of his message. His solos were an extensive catalogue of right choices played flawlessly and you never got the impression that he played a note he did not mean despite a near superhuman technique. He always had something interesting to say because of his extraordinary focus and catholic musical taste which roamed far beyond the jazz world."

It was this universal approach to music that earned Johnson one of the most enviable reputations in the history of a jazz musician: in a career spanning more than half a century, J.J. Johnson would traverse the realms of swing, bebop, Third Stream, and popular music for Hollywood, as a performer and valued composer.

After he left Kai Winding, Johnson turned his focus to composing. The now famous, pathos-drenched, 'Lament', is a notable example of his writing, but he also addressed himself to more ambitious works such as 'El Camino Real', 'Sketch for Trombone and Band', and 'Poem for Brass' which was recorded under the aegis of Gunther Schuller, for the album, Music for Brass. Johnson also wrote the classically influenced, six-part suite 'Perceptions' for Dizzy Gillespie.

Member of the Chick Corea aggregation, Origin, and faculty member of the Hartt School of Music, Steve Davis openly admits his reverence for J.J. Johnson. Davis, 34, says

"not a day has gone by since I was sixteen years old that haven't thought of J.J. Johnson and his brilliant music in some way."

A gentleman with an urbane manner, Johnson was always offering words of encouragement to young musicians. Davis again recalls:

"One of my proudest moments was playing two concerts with Jackie McLean's Sextet opposite J.J.s Quintet in Brazil in 1994. Josh Redman's quartet was on the bill as well and it was called "The Three J's of Jazz". We played second so I knew that J.J. was backstage during at least a portion of our set. I was extremely nervous, but excited too. J.J. however, was very polite, cordial and encouraging, even though opening for him basically scared me to death."

In 1970, J.J. Johnson moved to Hollywood. This had been precipitated by a successful commission by the American Wind Symphony Orchestra in 1968 in which he wrote 'Diversions for Six Trombones, Celeste, Harp and Percussion.' Johnson was to enjoy another six years of triumph with scores for blaxploitation films such as Shaft (1971), Man and Boy, Top of the Heap, Across 110th Street (1972), Cleopatra Jones (1973), and schmaltzy television programmes such as Starsky and Hutch and The Six Million Dollar Man. Even though he was not performing in jazz groups, Johnson was still consistently topping the Downbeat 'Best Trombonist' category.

Al Harewood, however, believes

"JJ Johnson moved to California because there wasn't that much money [as a jazz musician] in places like New York, and although he did lots of music for the movies, he never got the recognition he deserved."

During the 1980's Johnson rebounded to the jazz circuit, touring Japan and working with Norman Granz. Indeed, under the aegis of Granz, Johnson teamed up with Al Grey, resuscitating the Jay & Kai formula that brought him such renown in the 1950's. When Johnson's first wife Vivian died in 1992 he went into a brief period of retirement but recorded a sublime album of ballads in her honour.

Retiring from public performances in 1997, J.J. Johnson continued to record on the Verve label, his fecund musical pen delivering fine works such as The Brass Orchestra and Heroes.

J.J. Johnson, jazz legend, musical trailblazer and model for jazz trombonists the world over.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: J.J. Johnson
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