Beginnings: the 1940s

A native of Indianapolis, Indiana, J. J. Johnson (January 22, 1924 – February 4, 2001) was one of the most prominent and finest trombonists, arrangers, and composers in jazz history. By developing a technique with characteristic flawless precision, deceptive ease, and speed he showed that it was possible to translate the harmonic and rhythmic innovations of bebop music into terms of the slide trombone. He remained unchallenged in this art throughout his jazz career and has exerted a powerful influence on past and present jazz musicians around the world. Several of Johnson’s works, such as Enigma, Lament, or Wee Dot are considered by many critics as jazz standards (“J. J. Johnson”).

Before Johnson decided to take up trombone at the age of fourteen, he had studied the piano for several years. His professional career began in 1941 when he started to play first with Clarence Love’s band and then with Snookum Russell’s band in 1942. Between 1942 and 1945 Johnson played in Benny Carter’s orchestra. During this period, he recorded his first solo in 1943 and played in the historic first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert that was held in Los Angeles in 1944. A year later he joined Count Basie’s band with whom he toured and recorded for several months (“J. J. Johnson”; Smith “A Golden Month For J. J. Johnson – December 1947”).

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After that there was a period of free-lancing with Dizzy Gillespie, famous bebop “co-inventor”, and Woody Herman, as well as with several other bebop units. He was also elected the New Star for 1946 by Esquire’s board of musicians and critics and became an acknowledged star in jazz circles both in America and abroad (“J. J. Johnson”; Smith “A Golden Month For J. J. Johnson – December 1947”).

During 1947, Johnson worked with Illinois Jacquet and made his first sessions as a leader. He manipulated the slide trombone with such extraordinary accuracy that many people who had not seen him live believed he was playing a valve and not a slide trombone. His first session and the  recordings Coppin’ The Bop and Jay Jay made an incredible influence on other trombonists of the time. (“J. J. Johnson”; Smith “A Golden Month For J. J. Johnson – December 1947”).

He also took part in the famous Charlie Parker Dial Records session as a sideman in 1947. Parker believed that Johnson was, without a doubt, the best trombonist of bebop music of all times. The fact that he included Johnson in this session indicates that at that time the young trombonist was accepted by jazz circles as a mature player (“J. J. Johnson”).

During the 1940s, J. J. Johnson evolved successfully from a fast-rising sideman to a bebop-oriented trombone soloist. Bebop music as a jazz style differed in many ways from the early forms of jazz. Bebop melodies were characterized by more complex chords, quicker tempos and a highly virtuosic solo performance. For this reason, the majority of bebop musicians believed that only instruments with valves and keys, such as saxophones or trumpets, could meet the new music movement’s requirements. That is why the trombone fell out of favor among bebop musicians at the time Johnson was starting his jazz career (“J. J. Johnson”; Smith “A Golden Month For J. J. Johnson – December 1947”).

However, Johnson’s enthusiastic and diligent work during the 1940s and 1950s contributed to the general acceptance of the slide trombone in the bebop style. Some jazz musicians often said that by showing that the trombone could be played different, Johnson did for this instrument what Charlie Parker did for the saxophone. By the 1950s, Johnson’s virtuosic trombone technique and conception, flexibility in a wide variety of roles and evolving artistic voice took him to “the forefront of the jazz trombone scene” (“J. J. Johnson”; Smith “A Golden Month For J. J. Johnson – December 1947”).

Johnson’s career in the 1950s-1960s

With the outbreak of war in the Far East, J. J. Johnson teamed up with trumpeter Howard McGhee and bassist Oscar Pettiford and went to entertain the military camps in Korea and Japan in 1951. Upon his return to the United States, the young trombonist found that the music business went into decline in terms of earnings. That is why he decided to take a day job to support his family and worked as a blueprint inspector at a Sperry factory in Long Island until 1954. During these hard times, Johnson, who was still thinking of music, recorded his compositions Kelo and Enigma with Miles Davis for his classic Blue Note recordings. Enigma, considered a jazz standard, is a beautiful ballad that Johnson composed for the entire ensemble with a couple of double-time sections. It features the first horn part and luxuriant horn backgrounds behind a piano solo. Johnson also took part in the Davis studio session band which recorded the jazz classic Walkin’ (“J. J. Johnson”).

In 1954, producer Ozzie Cadena convinced J. J. Johnson to form a two-trombone quintet with trombonist Kai Winding. Their quintet was known as the Jay and Kai Quintet. Despite the fact that the two jazz musicians had very different personalities, conceptions and trombone styles, they worked so well that their band was quite popular during the period of its existence and became a huge musical and commercial success. They performed in many American nightclubs and recorded several albums. The duo decided to go their separate ways in 1956 but teamed up again in 1958 for a tour of the United Kingdom as well as for studio albums in 1960 and in 1968-69. They also performed together at some jazz festivals in Japan in the early 1980s. The duo’s last performance was in early 1983 shortly before Winding’s death (“J. J. Johnson”).

After having successfully worked with Kai Winding for two years, J. J. Johnson went on to form and lead his own small bands (which ranged from quartets to sextets) and toured the United States, Great Britain and Scandinavia for three years. In these jazz bands Johnson worked with musicians such as saxophonists Clifford Jordan and Bobby Jaspar, pianists Cedar Walton and Tommy Flanagan, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, cornetist Nat Adderley, and drummers Max Roach, Albert Heath, and Elvin Jones. During this period, Johnson recorded his album Blue Trombone. His tour with the Jazz at the Philharmonic show resulted in a live album created in collaboration with tenor saxophonist Stan Getz (“J. J. Johnson”).

This period in Johnson’s career is also marked by his serious interest in Third Stream music.

He was busy writing and recording his music and also concentrated on perfecting his playing technique. Starting from the early 1960s, J. J. Johnson dedicated most of his time to composition. He contributed to the Third Stream movement in jazz music and wrote several important works which included elements of both jazz and classical music. Many of his original works were played at the Monterey Jazz Festival in the early 1960s. He spent six months writing Perceptions – a suite in six movements, then took part in Andre Previn’s trio in late 1961 and played in Miles Davis sextet during 1962 (“J. J. Johnson”).

In 1963 Johnson recorded his solo album J. J.’s Broadway, which reflected an incredible combination of his excellent trombone style and sound as well as his fine music arranging abilities. In 1964 his last working band for over twenty years recorded Proof Positive. Early 1965 saw the recording of several large group studio albums under Johnson’s name which included a lot of his own arrangements and compositions. In the same year, he recorded his Euro Suite in Vienna, Austria, and performed it with a local jazz-classical fusion orchestra. In 1968, the American Wind Symphony commissioned and performed his work titled Diversions. Starting from the late 1960s, when there came hard times for the fortunes of most jazz musicians, Johnson took part exclusively in big band-style studio records (“J. J. Johnson”).

Johnson’s later career

In 1970, J. J. Johnson moved from New York to California where he composed for television and cinema. He wrote music for TV series such as Mike Hammer, The Six Million Dollar Man, and Starsky & Hutch, and also for movies such as Top of the Heap, Across 110th Street, and Cleopatra Jones. In spite of his relatively small success in California, Johnson confessed that racism and other prejudices were the main obstacles in obtaining quality work he was supposed to perform. During these years, he performed just a couple of concerts: in Japan in 1977 and 1982 and in Europe in 1984. But between 1977 and 1984 he recorded several albums both as a leader and as a sideman, including a trombone duo album with Al Grey and two albums with Count Basie. During these years, Johnson also played in the TV orchestra of Carol Burnett and the Coconut Grove orchestra of Sammy Davis, Jr. (“J. J. Johnson”).

In late 1987, J. J. Johnson returned to playing and recording jazz music. He began to tour the United States, Japan, and Europe. But in December, 1988, his wife Vivian became incapacitated after she suffered a stroke, and died in 1991. During these three and a half years Johnson decided to devote himself to his wife and cancelled all his performances and work. Vivian’s death influenced him to dedicate an album to her on Concord in which the great trombonist sticks exclusively to ballads. Accompanied by guitarist Ted Dunbar, pianist Rob Schneiderman, drummer Akira Tana, and bassist Rufus Reid, Johnson’s tone sounds at its warmest throughout the whole album. The most interesting compositions dedicated to his late wife include There Will Never Be Another You, How Deep Is the Ocean, Alone Together, and I Thought About You (“J. J. Johnson”; “J. J. Johnson: Vivian”).

In 1992, Johnson married Carolyn Reid and returned to active performing once again. This resulted in five albums as a leader as well as sideman appearances with vocalist Abbey Lincoln and trombonist Steve Turre who were his disciples. He also earned a couple of Grammy nominations after his second “comeback” in 1992. His later recordings include Bebop, Quintergy, Standards, Let’s Hang Out, Tangence, Heroes (“J. J. Johnson”).

Finally, in 1996, Johnson decided to retire from active work and chose to stay with his family in Indianapolis. He began then to compose and arrange music using computers and modern music software. Diagnosed with prostate cancer, he wrote a book of etudes and exercises for jazz musicians that was later published by Hal Leonard. In February, 2001, J. J. Johnson committed suicide. Many jazz musicians and friends from around the United States who respected him as a man and an artist, came to his funeral in Indianapolis (“J. J. Johnson”).

The world’s most influential jazz trombonist’s career lasted for 54 years, from 1942 to 1996. In 1995, he was voted into Down Beat’s Hall of Fame.