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  An INterview with J. J. Johnson
Bob Bernotas

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On one of your recent recordings you have a tune titled "Why Indianapolis--Why Not Indianapolis?" and that's where I'd like to begin. Why have you chosen to live in Indianapolis instead of New York or Los Angeles?

Many people have asked me that same question. I can best answer by saying that in 1987, Vivian, my late wife, and I decided that the reason for moving to Los Angeles had run its course. I had done the film composing situation for 17 years. I had gotten it out of my system, finally, so it was a question, "Well, what do want to do, Jay? Do you want to get out of film composing but remain in California, or do you want to move elsewhere?" And I said, "Vivian, that's a good question." And I thought about it.

Previously, we lived in New York for all those wonderful years. I loved every minute of it, but I knew I did not want to move back to New York. We lived in New Jersey for a number of years, in Teaneck. Fond memories. Didn't want to move back to New Jersey. To make a long story short, Vivian and I were both born in Indianapolis, Indiana. So the logical choice was to move back to our roots, back to Indianapolis, where we both had families, friends, everything. That's why.

Let's look back for a moment. Why did you chose to play the trombone?

On the one hand, because it was somewhat of a challenge. On the other hand, I ran around with a bunch of school buddies who all played various miscellaneous and sundry instruments. None of them played trombone. One of them said, "J.J., we need a trombone player in this amateur"--if you will--"garage band." And so, I took them up on it and took up the trombone.

I'm wondering what you played like before you heard Charlie Parker and absorbed bebop. Who were your musical influences at that time?

In those days before hearing Charlie Parker and Dizzy, and before learning of the so-called bebop era--by the way, I have some thoughts about that word, "bebop"--my first jazz hero ever, jazz improvisor hero, was Lester Young. I was a big "Lester Young-oholic," and all of my buddies were Lester Young-oholics. We'd get together and dissect, analyze, discuss, and listen to Lester Young's solos for hours and hours and hours. He was our god.

When I began to learn how to improvise on the trombone, I didn't try to emulate or play Lester Young licks or any of that. That wasn't what it was all about. What struck me about Lester Young then, and still does after all these years, was his maverick approach to tenor sax improvisation. He marched to the beat of his own drum. After two or three notes, you'd know, "That's Lester Young!" It could be no one else, 'cause his playing had a persona that was uniquely Lester Young.

Same thing with Trummy Young. Trummy had a persona about him. Dickie Wells, there was a persona. Dickie Wells was uniquely Dickie Wells when he played. He didn't play many notes on the trombone when he improvised. It was like, "Less is more, simple is good." I loved Dickie Wells' trombone conceptualizing because it was based on a minimum of articulation, not all over the horn, just a few bluesy, well chosen notes that made chills run up and down your spine. So these were my influences. And J.C. Higginbotham, of course.

How about Fred Beckett?

Fred Beckett was a great influence on me because he was the first trombonist I ever heard play in what we call a linear approach to improvisation, nice lines that started here and went there, as opposed to the other trombonists who for the most part were playing, shall we say, licks. Fred Beckett came closer to the Lester Young lyrical approach to improvising than any other trombone player that I heard up to that point.

He did not make many recordings. Unfortunately he died at a relatively young age because of alcoholism and other personal problems. It's too bad that the jazz world at-large did not get to hear more of Fred Beckett, because I think he had great promise that was never realized.

Translating bebop onto the trombone must have posed some technical challenges because, well, the trombone is--

Don't mince words, Bob!

--or it can be a somewhat awkward or cumbersome instrument.

Don't mince words, Bob!

I think you know what I mean. I'm wondering if you needed to change your approach to the instrument.

Obviously, there was a challenge involved there. The way I met the challenge head on was to try to think in terms of jazz improvisation. Not to try to keep up with the crowd and to play fast, fast, fast, or high, high, high, or anything like that, but to approach jazz improvisation in such a manner that I could articulate with logic and with clarity, minus ambiguity.

Contrary to popular opinion, I was never, never ever, preoccupied and consumed with speed and a virtuoso-type technique. Never! I have been, always was, and still am consumed and preoccupied with the business of playing the instrument with clarity and with logic and with some kind of expressiveness, if you will. So that if my trombone playing has a persona--I hope that it does--it is based on that desire to project on the instrument an improvisation with logic and with clarity, leaving no question in your mind as to, "What was he trying to do?"

Was it your objective to sound like a valve instrument, a valve trombone, instead of a slide instrument?

Never. Never was. No.