James Louis “J.J.” Johnson was born on January 22, 1924 in Indianapolis, Indiana and passed away on February 4, 2001 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Born in Indianapolis, Indiana on January 22, 1924 to Reverend James Horace Johnson and Nina Johnson, the boy grew up in a strict religious household. J.J. and his siblings were expected to attend his father’s Baptist church, as well as his mother’s Methodist church, every Sunday. His father was also a disciplinarian who believed in the virtues of corporal punishment.
Nina sent J.J. to piano lessons at age 11, and he briefly played the baritone saxophone at school. At age 14, when classmates wanted to form an amateur band and needed a trombone player, J.J. took up the ‘bone and never looked back.
Johnson and his friends at Crispus Attucks High School developed an early love for the conceptual melodic solos of tenor saxophonist Lester Young, and the boy was also drawn to the trombone work of Dickie Wells, Trummy Young and J.C. Higginbotham.
Still in high school, Johnson gained early professional experience around town, then joined Clarence Love’s regional touring band in September of 1941. In March of 1942, he joined Snookum Russell’s band, which led to touring opportunities with bandmate trumpeter Fats Navarro.
Johnson then received an offer to join the band of saxophonist Benny Carter for an extended tour. Johnson worked in Carter’s band as trombonist and staff arranger through the spring of 1945. During these years, the Benny Carter Orchestra participated in the Hollywood film Thousands Cheer with Gene Kelly and Lena Horne. Johnson also recorded with Carter for the first time, and was a featured soloist on Love for Sale in 1943.
On July 2, 1944, he participated in producer Norman Granz’s first Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) concerts in Los Angeles, and can be heard on Etaoin Shrdlu’s “Blues”. His association with Granz and the JATP endured throughout his career.
Not all of his experiences on the road were happy, however, and Johnson once suffered a concussion after a racially motivated incident at a nightclub where he was playing with Carter. He chose to leave the band in 1945, but allowed Carter to keep his arrangements in their book.
He moved on to work with bandleader and pianist William “Count” Basie, whom he joined in May of 1945. He can be heard as a featured soloist on “Rambo” and “The King”, both recorded on February 4, 1946.
Johnson’s trombone work around this time became increasingly skillful, and he became known for his ability to execute lines as fast as physically possible. By the time Johnson left Basie’s band in early 1946, his quickness on the trombone had reached a point that trumpeter and bebop evangelist Dizzy Gillespie, when he heard Johnson play, encouraged him to join the bebop movement, which was then flourishing on New York’s Fifty-Second Street.
Johnson spent the balance of the 1940s working in small groups in New York, where he recorded with, among others, Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Lewis, Illinois Jacquet, Babs Gonzalez, and as part of the Metronome All-Stars.
In 1949, he was invited by Miles Davis and Gil Evans to participate in the nonet sessions which spawned the Birth of The Cool album, which included “Israel,” “Deception,” and “Rocker.” In 1951, he toured Japan and Korea with the United Service Organizations (USO).
By this time, Johnson had established his reputation as the preeminent trombonist in modern jazz, but he also faced setbacks. In 1946, he lost his cabaret card – the New York musician’s indispensable passport to employment – after a misdemeanor conviction. The revocation of his card meant the loss of his ability to work in the city’s nightclubs, and Johnson struggled to find steady work over the next twelve years.
Like many other jazz musicians of his generation, Johnson had developed a taste for heroin. While never a full-blown addict, he became absorbed into the chaotic lifestyle of the drug culture, so much so that in August of 1952, he decided to leave music and take a job as a blueprint inspector for Sperry Gyroscope, a military contractor.
Johnson stayed at this day job and only intermittently recorded with small groups over the next two years. However, the records he made under his own name at this time became career hallmarks. He recorded a two-LP set for Blue Note, The Eminent Jay Jay Johnson, which includes his composition “Turnpike.” The album has since become a kind of audio textbook for jazz trombonists.
In the wake of the Eminent releases, and an award in the spring of 1954 for his work with French pianist Henri Renaud, Johnson reentered the music scene. He formed a collaboration with fellow trombonist Kai Winding, first in Philadelphia, then at Birdland in New York in 1956. Their string of nine successful recordings cemented their partnership as one of Johnson’s most vital career chapters.
First organized to record for Savoy by Ozzie Cadena, Johnson and Winding made a hit out of Cole Porter’s It’s Alright With Me for Bethlehem Records. Producer George Avakian, the head of jazz and pop at Columbia Records, then brought them over in a fourteen-month relationship with that label.
By 1955, Johnson had received a raft of accolades, including a Down Beat magazine award for best trombonist, and his two-year partnership with Winding wound down. Lament, heard on the Savoy album Jay and Kai, became Johnson’s most well-known original composition.
Johnson turned his attention towards composition, and he became a prime force in the nascent “Third Stream” movement, which sought to meld jazz with European concert traditions. Johnson brought his own experiences as an arranger, and his love works such as Paul Hindemith’s Kleine Kammermusik and Mathis der Maler, to the movement. His first big Third-Stream work was a piece for twenty-one piece ensemble, “Poem for Brass,” 1956.
Despite this growing interest in composition, Johnson continued to record small-group jazz as a leader and sideman, and he favored the blowing-session format of quickly-conceived arrangements and familiar chord structures, which enabled him and others to release dozens of records. One example of this quick-and-dirty approach was Johnson’s album First Place, recorded in April of 1957.
In his liner notes to the album, Nat Hentoff said, “There were sketches on each number -J.J. is so precise a spirit by temperament that he is not apt to leave all to luck, even on a blowing date. And in some cases there were even fuller arrangements. But basically, the four sessions that made up this and a succeeding album were conceived and executed as relatively free, almost entirely improvised conversations.”
Still banned from live performance in New York, in June of 1957 Johnson made his first European tour, and played for twenty thousand people in Stockholm, Sweden. After this tour, he rejoined Granz’s JATP, and recorded live concerts with Stan Getz at the Civic Opera House in Chicago in late September, which included his sensitive treatments of standards like “My Funny Valentine.”
Further work with Ella Fitzgerald and other JATP associates helped sustain Johnson’s reputation as a leading jazz performer, even though he remained absent from the New York scene. This changed in 1959, when he prevailed in a legal battle with the New York Police Department to reinstate his cabaret card.
As one of three plaintiffs in the case, Johnson showed the court he had no convictions since 1946, but had never been allowed a cabaret card after his misdemeanor offense that year. In 1956, a temporary card had been issued to him, which lasted only six months before requiring renewal. Television host Steve Allen testified on Johnson’s behalf.
On May 14, 1959, the court granted Johnson the right to perform once again in New York City nightclubs, and the case prompted an overhaul of the system of issuing performance permits for musicians. Twelve days later, Johnson performed at the Village Vanguard, after a set by beat poet Jack Kerouac. In March of the same year, Johnson released the album Really Livin’, and at that year’s Monterey Jazz Festival he premiered two orchestral works: his Sketch for Trombone and Orchestra, and “El Camino Real,” a piece for a fifteen-piece jazz ensemble, which has been consistently performed since its debut.
Johnson led a working quintet and recorded the album J.J. Inc. with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, saxophonist Clifford Jordan, pianist Cedar Walton, bassist Arthur Harper, and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath. After a brief stint teaching at the Lenox School of Jazz summer program in 1960, he disbanded his group. Johnson said, “It suddenly occurred to me that I needed a change, and I even began to wonder was it possible that a musician or artist could be much too dedicated – so much so that he lived in a very narrow world.”
In 1961, Johnson premiered his second extended Third-Stream work, a s thirty-five minute solo feature for Dizzy Gillespie entitled Perceptions. The titles of the six movements offer a look at how his mind was adapting to his growing knowledge of classical music: (1) The Sword of Orion (2) Jubelo (3) Blue Mist (4) Fantasia (5) Horn of Plenty (6) Ballade.
As the 1960s progressed, the audience for small-group jazz began to dwindle. Johnson worked many studio sessions, and collaborated with pianist and conductor Andre Previn on an album of Kurt Weill songs, Mack the Knife. In 1964, he recorded a big-band album entitled simply J.J.!, which includes El Camino Real as well as Gary McFarland’s Winter’s Waif.
In the second half of the 1960s, Johnson traveled increasingly to Europe, where he worked with Austrian pianist Friedrich Gulda and His Eurojazz Orchestra in a performance of Johnson’s Eurosuite for seventeen-piece band in 1966. He also wrote a work titled Diversions for Robert A. Boudreau, music director for the American Wind Symphony Orchestra in Pittsburgh in 1968.
Seeking to gain a foothold as a film composer, Johnson became a commercial jingle writer in New York for Marc Brown Associates (MBA Music, Inc.). During his work for the company, he experimented with the latest technology, and even took instruction in subtractive synthesis firsthand from inventor Robert Moog.
As the audience for jazz further cratered in the 1970s, Johnson set his sights on Hollywood. His first soundtrack was for the television series Barefoot in the Park, and with the guidance of Hollywood veterans Quincy Jones and Earle Hagen, he was able to secure work composing soundtracks for seven blaxploitation films between 1971 and 1973.
Beginning with some cueing on the soundtrack to Gordon Parks’ 1971 film Shaft, with music largely composed by Isaac Hayes, Johnson moved on to work with singer Bobby Womack on the film Across 110th Street. he went on to compose soundtracks for Man and Boy, Trouble Man (with Marvin Gaye), Top of the Heap, Willie Dynamite and Cleopatra Jones, which drew on elements borrowed from Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes.
After these movies, Johnson wrote primarily for television shows, such as Mike Hammer, That Girl, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Big Easy, Future Cop, and Travels with Flip. He “rotated in” as composer on various other shows like Harry O., The Bold Ones, and The Mod Squad.
Since commissioned work in film was sporadic, and Johnson gigged only occasionally in Europe and Japan, he struggled financially during his last years in Hollywood, even as continued to win trombone awards in Down Beat polls, even though he had not put out new albums or appeared live regularly to American audiences in years.
In 1979, he recorded an album called Pinnacles, using electronic instruments, coupled with a heavyweight line up of pianist Tommy Flanagan, bassist Ron Carter, drummer Billy Higgins, saxophonist Joe Henderson, Oscar Brashear on trumpet, and Kenneth Nash on percussion. Johnson also participated in the seventieth birthday celebration for Dizzy Gillespie at the Wolf Trap National Park near Washington, D.C.. It was there that he met with another Indianapolis native, trombonist Slide Hampton, and the pair discussed Johnson’s career direction.
Johnson and his wife Vivian moved back to Indianapolis from Hollywood in 1987. By November of that year, he was appearing in New York once again at the Village Vanguard. His new quintet, which consisted of saxophonist Ralph Moore, pianist Stanley Cowell, bassist Rufus Reid, and drummer Victor Lewis, performed at the famous club, and their performances were subsequently released on two albums in 1991, Quintergy and Standards on the Antilles label.
In May of 1988, Indiana University awarded Johnson an honorary doctorate. This award celebration was unfortunately followed by the death of his father on June 3. Not allowing this loss to set him back, Johnson appeared on August 21 in Chicago’s Grant Park in a reunion with Stan Getz for an audience of fifty thousand people. At the end of the year, however, tragedy struck again, when his wife Vivian suffered a stroke. She lived for three more years under care. Around this same period, Johnson’s mother died as well.
All of these tragedies led him to the decision that a retirement would best suit his circumstances, and he closed his file with Mary Ann Topper, his manager during his brief but spectacular return to active performing. Thankfully, Johnson later decided this premature retirement had been a mistake, and he underwent yet another vibrant return to performing with appearances at festivals, and teaching residencies at Kentucky State University and Oberlin.
In 1991, he recorded the album Vivian for Concord Records, and Renee Rosnes followed Stanley Cowell as the quintet’s pianist after 1992. Returning to work for Verve, Johnson’s quintet recorded the album Let’s Hang Out in 1992, and Heroes in 1996, which included “Carolyn (In the Morning), a tribute to his new wife, Carolyn Reid. He and Reid were married on September 11, 1992, after Johnson’s reported confession to her that he had contemplated suicide after losing so many family members in a close span.
In the final decade of Johnson’s life, he enjoyed his status as an elder statesman of jazz. On April 6, 1994, he played at a concert to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Verve Records at Carnegie Hall. He also recorded the album Tangence with Wynton Marsalis and the Robert Farnon Orchestra in England.
A few months later, Johnson’s quintet performed at the San Francisco Jazz Festival. Here, Johnson needed to find substitutes for Renee Rosnes and her husband drummer Billy Drummond. Pianist Geoff Keezer and drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith filled in, but soon more personnel changes followed. In February of 1995, saxophonist Ralph Moore joined The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and was replaced by Dan Faulk.
On January 12, 1996, Johnson was honored along with Tommy Flanagan and Benny Golson as Jazz Masters by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the United States’ highest honor for jazz musician. Later in the spring, he also held a residency position at Harvard, at the invitation of Thomas Everett.
In 1997, after a final quintet date, some high-profile concerts, and a final recording, Johnson finally said goodbye to his life on stage. His album The Brass Orchestra, which featured Jimmy Heath, Slide Hampton, Jon Faddis, Wayne Shorter, Don Sickler, and Thomas Everett, was a late highlight of his long performing career.
Johnson devoted his time to writing a book of trombone exercises, but he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. His controlling personality being what it was, Johnson chose not to “leave anything to luck” and ended his life on February 4, 2001 with a gunshot.
Countless artists have subsequently given Johnson deserved credit as the father of jazz trombone, and exceptional practitioners of that instrument like Wycliffe Gordon, Robin Eubanks, Andre Hayward, and Conrad Herwig all continue to play music inspired by and in debt to Johnson’s prodigious talent.