J. J. Johnson
The most important figure in modern jazz trombone was J. J. Johnson. Johnson, born in 1924 in Indianapolis, discovered his musical talent early. By the age of eighteen he was performing with Benny Carter. In 1945 Count Basie was looking for a new sound in his trombone section, and Johnson stepped in to fill the position until 1946. It was in this band that Johnson played with Dickie Wells, who was to become a strong influence on his playing.
After playing with Basie, the allure of the new music being played by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie prompted Johnson to remain in New York. There he absorbed the music of Parker and Gillespie while working on his own style. Johnson received encouragement from Parker and Gillespie to continue to develop his ability to play Bebop. Johnson talked of one encounter with Gillespie that occurred while he was practicing the new music.
Johnson successfully took the influence of Parker and Gillespie and adapted the melodic lines for the trombone, rather than trying to adapt the trombone for Bebop. While his solos lacked the harmonic and melodic complexity of a saxophonist or trumpet player, he managed keep up with the fast tempos that Bebop required. His speed was so revolutionary for its time that when many trombonists heard Johnson on record they were convinced that he was playing a valve trombone. His staccato approach to playing fast is said to be influenced by trombonist Fred Beckett from Lionel Hampton's band. (Carr, Fairweather, and Priestley, 1988, p. 264)
Johnson's style was revolutionary for qualities other than speed. Unlike trombonists before him, Johnson rarely used vibrato, and when vibrato was employed it was narrower and more subtle than the Swing trombonists used. His sound was very smooth and consistent throughout the entire range of the horn. Unlike many of the Swing trombonists, Johnson avoided glissandi and growls. Where Swing trombonists preferred to use the plunger mute, Johnson's favorite mute was the cup mute, which better complimented his smoother, more mellow tone.
Johnson played one recording with Parker on a session for Dial on December 17, 1947, and went on to perform with him in clubs frequently. Johnson played with Dizzy Gillespie's band in 1949 and again in 1951. By this time Johnson's position as the best Bebop trombonist was secured, yet he still had trouble finding work. In 1952 he took a job as a blueprint inspector until musical work became more steady.
In 1954 Johnson teamed up with fellow Bebop trombonist Kai Winding to form the Jay and Kai Quintet, a group that would bring both Johnson and Winding critical and commercial success. The Jay and Kai Quintet was expected to be a dull group, where both the horns were the same and would lack contrast, but the two trombonists utilized mutes and small arrangements so creatively that they were able to use the two trombone front line-up to their advantage.
Johnson and Winding began working together in August of 1954 in Philadelphia. In early 1955 the group had their first hit seller, the standard That's All Right With Me. Following the success of this recording, the group started to work together full time. Over the next fourteen months Johnson and Winding performed and recorded together in groups that varied in size from two to eight trombones and a rhythm section. In 1956 Johnson and Winding disbanded the group to pursue solo projects, although the two reunited several times to record other albums.
From 1956 to 1960 Johnson primarily led his own groups. In 1961 he played for a year with Miles Davis. He continued to perform until 1970, when he moved to Los Angeles to score music for films and television. In the mid-1980s he began performing again, and to this day is still considered one of the finest jazz trombone players around.
Johnson's style is characterized by melodic simplicity, rhythmic precision, and light vibrato used as an occasional ornament. (Owens, 1995, p. 195) His technical command of the trombone is outstanding, particularly his speed. Johnson stated that, "There was a time in my life, in the mid-1940s, when my aim was to play as fast as physically possible on the trombone." (Bourgois, 1961, p. 9) His upper register and stamina were also revolutionary for his time.
A transcription of Johnson's solo on the blues tune Stratusphunk, composed by George Russell, shows many of important elements of Johnson's style. The most noticeable difference in Johnson's style from earlier trombonists is Johnson's abandonment of the glissandi and growls frequently used by Swing Era trombonists.
Noteworthy features of this solo include Johnson's use of space, particularly in the second chorus. Johnson quotes George Gershwin's composition Rhapsody in Blue in measures 38-39. Even though Johnson is capable of playing very quickly and cleanly, which he demonstrates in the first chorus and several other times during the solo, he frequently plays entire phrases consisting of mostly quarter notes.
Danish trombonist Kai Winding, often mistaken for Johnson on recordings, was considered to be the finest Bebop trombonist after Johnson. Like Johnson, Winding was capable of playing the fast lines of Bebop. However, Winding's tone was a bit rougher than Johnson's, and unlike Johnson, Winding retained more of the influence of the Swing trombonists in his phrasing.
Winding, who was born in 1922, immigrated with his family to the United States from Denmark when he was twelve. His first musical job of major importance was with the Stan Kenton Orchestra. Winding played with Kenton from 1946 to 1947, later working with Charlie Ventura and Todd Dameron.
Johnson and Winding teamed up for the popular Jay and Kai Quintet in 1954 to 1956. In 1956 Winding led his own septet, which included four trombones and a rhythm section. In the 1960s he became the musical director for the Playboy Club. In the early 1970s he went on two world tours with the Giants of Jazz, an all-star band that included Bebop pioneer Dizzy Gillespie. In 1979 he performed with Lionel Hampton, and in 1980 he co-led a two-trombone group with Curtis Fuller. Winding died in 1983.
The included solo transcription of two choruses of the blues composition "Wee Dot (Blues For Some Bones)," helps to show elements of Winding's style. Throughout the solo Winding employs isolated triplet figures, a device which he used frequently. Measures 5, 14, and 23 are examples of this device. Winding played the F in a sharp fourth position, which allowed him to cleanly articulate the triplet without tonguing all of the notes.