J.J. Johnson

TrackAlbum
Wee Dot (Blues For Some Bones)Four Trombones
Groovin'The Eminent Jay Jay Johnson Vol.2
ViscosityThe Eminent Jay Jay Johnson Vol.2
Old Devil MoonThe Eminent Jay Jay Johnson Vol.2
Blue TromboneBlue Trombone
Satin DollA Touch Of Satin
Minor BluesProof Positive
Across 110th Street (instrumental)Across 110th Street (OST)
Keep On Movin' OnWillie Dynamite (OST)
Just FriendsStandards

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J J Johnson photo

J.J. Johnson

 

Contributor: Calvin Rydbom

Oddly enough, J.J. Johnson started as a piano player, not picking up the trombone until he was 14. Which is considerably late for someone who would eventually become the accepted master, at least in the field of jazz, of the instrument. Within three years he was playing professionally, A year later, in 1942, he joined pianist Snookum Russell’s band. It was there he met trumpet player Fats Navarro whose influence is usually credited for moving Johnson towards playing his instrument in the way tenor sax Lester “Prez” Young played his. A fairly unique idea at the time.

Between 1942 and 1945 he played in swing master Benny Carter’s orchestra, where he quickly made a name for himself. Johnson made his first recording in 1942 and was given his first recorded solo on 1943’s Love For Sale. In 1945 he joined Count Basie’s Orchestra, staying there for a little over a year before embarking on what would become the second phase of his career, leading small groups with the trombone often the only horn present.

At this point in jazz history the trombone was falling out of favor in some corners. Mostly in the bebop world that would shortly take over jazz. It was well represented in Dixieland and swing, but there was a bias against it as a bebop instrument. The belief in those circles was valves and keys were needed for the genre’s quick tempo and were simply required to showcase any real technical skill. The way the story goes, Dizzy Gillespie told Johnson that he had always thought the trombone could be played differently, and that some trombone player would catch on to what they were doing some day, and that Johnson was going to be that guy.

Johnson left Basie, and orchestras, to play in small bebop bands. In 1947 he played with Illinois Jacquet and led groups that included Max Roach, Sonny Stitt and Bud Powell. In December of 1947 he worked with Charlie Parker. His ascent to the position of thee Bebop Trombonist was pretty quick and really unchallenged.

After touring overseas military bases in the early 1950s though he would wind up taking a job as a blueprint inspector when he got back to the states, although he was still recording some great music. The call for a bebop trombonist wasn’t high. The answer? More trombones.

Then came an era that really should stand on its own. The Johnson-Kai Winding years. In 1953 Johnson recorded a couple sessions with he, Winding and fellow trombonists Bennie Green and Willie Dennis. In 1954 producer Ozzie Cadena convinced Johnson and Winding, who although not as successful as Johnson up to that point had recorded a couple sessions as a leader, to join forces in a combo that would carry on past the experimentation of 1953. The two trombonists had divergently different styles, and from what their peers said were very different as people as well. But they blended together quite well. They recorded 8 albums together between 1954 and 1956 before deciding they had, at some level, explored to its fullest the idea of two trombones. Although they would reunite for four albums and a number of concert dates from 1960 until the early 1980s.

During the next few years J.J. Johnson led a couple a different groups that featured some all star lineups before moving into a period of what became known as Third Stream Music. While working with classical musicians – and the blending of jazz and classical is what Third Stream is – he really stretched his composing skills. Although his popularity started to dim as a small band leader, as many did in the 1960s, he became very involved in working with people such as Gunther Schuller, John Lewis, Friedrich Gulda and the American Wind Symphony. This also coincided with not a single release of a Johnson led band between 1966 and 1977.

It was at the midway point of this period Quincy Jones convinced him to try his hand at composing. He had a fair amount of success scoring a handful of movies and TV shows, which led to work such as being a part of Carol Burnett’s TV orchestra and performing with Sammy Davis Jr’s orchestra at the Coconut Grove.

He rarely performed in his own concerts during those years, although between 1977 and 1984 he released six albums. During that time, he did perhaps three shows.

In 1987 he made somewhat of a live comeback and performed at the Village Vanguard in New York City, a stand that birthed two very good albums. Which was where I really first came across Johnson. Shortly after that renewed success his wife became very ill and Johnson stepped away from all work for close to four years to care for her. Recording next in 1991 and dedicating the album Vivian to his wife after her passing.

From 1988 to 1996 he had another productive period, working with a number of artists, most notably singer Abby Lincoln. During this last period Johnson became a somewhat revered elder statesmen with a legion of protégés and he received several Grammy nominations. In 1996 he left the road to work on composing and arranging. In his early 70s, he embraced computers and digital equipment for use in his composing. He wrote a book of exercises for musicians and had a biography of his own life published. Unfortunately, in 2001, after struggling with prostate cancer he took his own life.

In his first couple of decades he led the way, and was perhaps the only one who did so, showing the slide trombone could be a bebop instrument. Steve Turre, who is certainly a protégé, has always said Johnson did for the trombone what Parker did for the saxophone and no trombonist would be playing the way they do today if Johnson hadn’t of paved the way.

J.J. Johnson was almost always Downbeat’s voter-elected trombonist of the year, even in years he wasn’t active. His impact was that strong.

In 1953, on Four Trombones, Johnson, Winding, Dennis and Green scored with Wee Dot. What could have easily been a novelty piece in less skilled hands was anything but. Fourteen minutes of forward thinking bebop using four trombones. Of course, having Charles Mingus on bass to anchor the piece didn’t hurt.

After that bit of experimentation Johnson recorded a trio of killer quartet albums, The Eminent Jay Jay Johnson Volume 1, Volume 2 & Volume 3. The second of the three though was the best, and possibly one of the best jazz albums ever. I really hesitated to do so but no matter how I looked at it I came up with three songs from the album for inclusion on this list. The first, Old Devil Moon, came from the second of three sessions that make up the album. The session saw Wynton Kelly, Mingus and Kenny Clarke joining Johnson. It’s interesting after playing with three other trombonists that Johnson led a session where he was only on horn. The piece starts out with a great Mingus intro followed by Kelly jumping in on piano. But throughout Johnson’s trombone is the dominant instrument.

The second two pieces came from a June 1955 session with Clarke still on drums, Hank Mobley on tenor sax, Horace Silver on piano and Paul Chambers on bass. Groovin’ and Viscosity are both amazing in my book. Silver’s playing really sets a great tone and Johnson and Mobley play over him at the start of the piece before they start to play off each other and give Silver a break. But he enters the casual conversation again rather quickly. Viscosity was the tune I seriously considered cutting, but it’s a wonderful representation of the kind of playing that made people question if that was really a slide trombone Johnson was playing.

Blue Trombone from the 1957 album of the same name was from yet another great combo. This one featuring Max Roach on drums, Chambers and Tommy Flanagan on piano. I’ve always been impressed how, as a leader, Johnson played to each musician’s strengths. All three piano players on the four previous pieces have very different styles. And Johnson used their strengths to his advantage. Flanagan plays such a different role in this band than did Silver or Kelly. And Roach is given a spotlight in a way Johnson didn’t reserve for Clarke. It’s another great trombone piece, with an inspired solo by Roach as well.

Jumping ahead a few years to 1962 we have Satin Doll from A Touch Of Satin. It has a laid-back quality the earlier songs didn’t have with Johnson going back to the only horn man in the quartet.

Minor Blues from 1964’s Proof Positive was recorded while Johnson was deep into his Third Stream phase but doesn’t have as much of an influence from the period as you would think. It makes sense given the name there is a bit more blues influence in the piece than there is classical. But it’s a strong tune regardless.

By the 1970s Johnson was writing and performing movie soundtracks. I enjoy some of his work during this period of his career so much it doesn’t even bother me he doesn’t actually play on the next couple of pieces all that much. In 1972 he co-wrote Across 110th Street with Bobby Womack, who had a No.19 hit on the R&B charts with the song. But it’s the instrumental version from the film, performed by the J.J. Johnson Orchestra, I’m listing here. It’s just such 1970s funk. Infectious and fun as hell, it really makes it clear how far-ranging Johnson’s talents were.

A couple years later he wrote the soundtrack for Willie Dynamite, with most of the song lyrics sung by Martha Reeves. So many good songs from that genre on the soundtrack, but Keep On Movin’ On stands out for me. It’s just a great song. And so different from the jazz standards Johnson did in the late 40s til the mid 60s, albeit with a slide trombone.

I knew I had to pick something from Standards, which is when I really began to appreciate Johnson. I’m reasonably certain I was aware who he was or I wouldn’t have bought the album. I just know it was then that I really became a fan. Just Friends is one of many cuts from the album I could have included. Today it’s my favorite, who knows about tomorrow. It will never be a wrong selection.

It’s difficult to choose ten selections for most jazz musicians in a way that it isn’t for pop/rock artists. A prolific group like the Rolling Stones or Kinks might have thirty albums; Johnson released his fortieth album as a leader at 38. They are just so much more prolific, and their ‘my favorite’ list can be so much more fluid. But these ten are as good as any.

 

J.J. Johnson (1924-2001)

 

A website dedicated to J.J. Johnson (including Discography)

J.J. Johnson tribute page at Online Trombone Journal

J.J. Johnson album covers gallery

The Incredible Kai Winding, His Official Website

J.J. Johnson biography (iTunes)

 

The Akron Sound cover

Calvin Rydbom’s latest book is “The Akron Sound: The Heyday Of The Midwest’s Punk Capital” published this year by The History Press. He is the vice-president and archivist of the “Akron Sound” Museum and vice-president of freelance archiving firm Pursue Posterity. He has published a number of music-related articles and was elected to the Society of American Archivists steering committee on recorded sound before being promoted to website liaison. Some of Calvin’s other toppermosts are on the Dead Boys, Rubber City Rebels and Tin Huey all from Ohio. He has also written about many of the great jazz artists for this website including Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins and McCoy Tyner.

TopperPost #752

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