The Independent (London)
Tuesday, February 6, 2001
OBITUARY: J. J. JOHNSON
BY: Steve Voce
J. J. JOHNSON turned jazz trombone playing on its head. By 1945 the Bebop style had matured at the hands of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Bud Powell. Their lightning- fast eloquence had laid out the methods for trumpet, saxophone and piano. But the trombone was a more cumbersome instrument. It wasn't suitable for the quick -fingered complexities of the new music.
Johnson found a way of adapting the instrument to Bebop that was to influence every jazz trombonist that followed. Up until then, the trombone had kept its majesty and full tone in the hands of the style-setters Jack Teagarden and Bill Harris. Johnson changed all that. The melodic and harmonic structure of Bebop demanded a nimble attack, and one of the first things Johnson did was to sacrifice the brazen sound of the instrument. He manipulated the slide quickly and precisely to produce showers of notes with machine- gun-like dexterity. His single- handed reappraisal of the trombone was the most radical revolution to affect any instrument in jazz. He made hundreds of records, each of them a textbook for trombonists throughout the world.
In all this Johnson's complete command of his instrument and his unfailing good taste tended sometimes to be overlooked. Never a flashy player, his work tended to be low on emotion.
After piano lessons from the local church organist, Johnson was handed a baritone sax when he joined his high-school band in 1937, aged 13. He didn't like the instrument and soon took up trombone. He was a fan of Count Basie's band, and particularly of two of its musicians, the tenor sax player Lester Young and trombonist Vic Dickenson.
Crucially Dickenson, a sort of shaggy-dog trombonist, had discarded the conventional sound of the instrument so that he could play rapid phrases, and he undoubtedly fuelled Johnson's innovations. So did an obscure giant of the instrument, Fred Beckett, who had achieved great things with Harlan Leonard's Rockets in 1940. By the time Johnson graduated in 1941 he was already writing music for the local band and had reached a high level with studies in theory and harmony.
"I took a few private lessons from a trombonist who played with the local YMCA band," said Johnson. "He got me into the band. We played mostly Sousa marches. I loved it! I never had a main trombone teacher as such, I learned the language of jazz improvisation flying by the seat of my pants. That of course meant that I went down a few blind alleys on the way."
In 1942 Johnson joined Snookum Russell's band where he played alongside the ill -starred Fats Navarro, one of the fastest articulators of the trumpet, and Navarro undoubtedly had a strong influence on Johnson. Later that year he joined Benny Carter's Orchestra, and toured the country.
Carter, a uniquely accomplished composer and instrumentalist, encouraged Johnson to write for the band's broadcasts and dances and Johnson's first solo on record was on Carter's 1943 version of "Love for Sale". Johnson was co-opted into the band for Norman Granz's first "Jazz at the Philharmonic" concert in Los Angeles in 1944. The band included Nat "King" Cole and Les Paul and the recordings of the concert show that Johnson, easily the most modern of the soloists, had already developed his rapid-fire style.
Johnson joined the Count Basie band in 1945, working mostly in New York, and left to settle in the city the next year. He slid easily into the Bebop scene and played regularly in small groups with Parker, Gillespie, Navarro and Miles Davis and was soon established as a major figure in the music. He played briefly in the bands of Woody Herman and Dizzy Gillespie before touring Korea and Japan to play for American forces in 1951. He had another tour the following year with an all -star band that included Miles Davis. However, lack of work forced him out of music and he worked for two years as a blueprint inspector.
His return in 1954, when he formed a trombone duo with Kai Winding, brought them both commercial success and universal recognition and their band, called Jay and Kai, became a fixture on the international jazz festival circuit. The two men toured Britain in 1958 with "Jazz from Carnegie Hall", a package that also included Zoot Sims, Lee Konitz and Kenny Clarke. The same year he worked for Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic, playing in a successful quintet with Stan Getz.
By now Johnson was establishing a reputation as a composer and orchestrator and his compositions "Poem for Brass", "El Camino Real" and "Sketch for Trombone and Band" attracted wide approval. In 1960 he wrote a six-part suite for Dizzy Gillespie, Perceptions. Gillespie recorded it for Verve in 1961 and Gunther Schuller conducted. Johnson's sumptuous writing drew comparisons with the settings that Gil Evans had done for Miles Davis.
"This music combines an eloquent musical imagination with a strongly disciplined mind," said Schuller, "producing an enjoyable music of depth, pulsating warmth and infectious spirit."
When appearances with Winding became sporadic, Johnson formed another quintet, this time with the Belgian tenor saxophonist Bobby Jaspar. Signed for Columbia, he made almost 100 recordings for the company between 1956 and 1961. He played and recorded with Miles Davis, spending a year on the road with Davis's sextet. He toured Japan with a sextet including Clark Terry and Sonny Stitt in 1964.
Commissioned by the American Wind Symphony Orchestra, he wrote Diversions for Six Trombones, Celeste, Harp and Percussion in 1968. All this led to his move to Hollywood in 1970 to write music for films. He wrote music for many popular television shows and his film scores included Shaft (1971), Man and Boy, Top of the Heap and Across 110th Street (all 1972) and Cleopatra Jones (1973). Although he wasn't playing at this time he continued to win polls as the best trombonist.
He returned to regular playing in the Eighties touring Japan and working with Granz. It was for Granz that he revived the Jay and Kai formula in 1984, this time with the trombonist Al Grey. He moved back to Indianapolis with his first wife. When she died in 1992 he retired briefly but went on to record a beautiful album of ballads, dedicated to her and entitled simply Vivian.
Johnson retired from public performances in 1997 but continued to record for the Verve label, his prodigious writing being showcased on The Brass Orchestra (1997), a sophisticated album including work for French horn, euphonium and harp.
James Louis Johnson, trombonist, bandleader and composer: born Indianapolis 22 January 1924; twice married; died Indianapolis 4 February 2001.