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  An INterview with J. J. Johnson
Bob Bernotas

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In the early 1950s, you dropped out of the jazz scene for a couple of years and took a nine-to-five job. Why did you do that?

Not only during this cycle that you just spoke about. There have been other cycles in my career where I have dropped out of the jazz arena for various and miscellaneous and sundry reasons. I found out that I'm not unique in having done that. Many musicians have, on occasion, dropped out of the picture, dropped out of the jazz arena.

In my case, yes, of course, there were times of disillusionment with where jazz was going, or what seemed to appear where jazz was going. In some cases, it was disillusionment with where J.J. was going with jazz and how he was progressing with his manner of trombone playing. In other instances, it was just to step outside of the jazz arena so that I could have a view of jazz from the outside looking in.

That makes more sense to me than any other answer I can give you. Most of the time that was the priority in stepping outside the jazz arena, to have a good look at jazz from outside looking in. Sometimes you need to get out, to get a good look at what's happening on the inside. Sometimes you need to stand with your nose to the window and have a good look at jazz. And I've done that on many occasions.

The longest time was in 1970, when I got out of jazz to get into film composing. I was out of the jazz domain for 17 years. That's a long time to be out of jazz. It took me 17 years to get my passion for film composing out of my system. Obviously, I lost a lot of time as far as my career, etc., for staying out that long, but I had to get it out of my system and I did get it out of my system, after which I came back to jazz.

Let's talk about that for a while. How did you break into film composing?

Quincy Jones and Lalo Schifrin were very instrumental in prodding me into having a crack at something that I was eating my heart out to try. They reassured me, "J.J., have a go at it. What's the worst that can happen if it doesn't work out for you? It's a tough business, J.J. It's competitive. We don't know what kind of luck you'll have. All we know is, as far as we're concerned, you have what it takes to become a successful film composer and we would strongly urge you to have a crack at it. And we will do what we can to see that you get on the inside by way of having a good agent."

You must have an agent, a film composing agent, not a jazz agent. The film community is a whole 'nother world. And I can say without reservation that early on I also found out that, man, you're in a very racist element here. There are no black film composers doing the likes of Star Wars, doing the likes of E.T., doing the likes of Jurassic Park. There are none, nor will there ever be one. That ain't about to happen!

I was planning to ask you about that. Most of your film credits are for the so-called "blaxploitation" films of that time.

All of them were blaxploitation films.

So you feel that you were pigeon-holed or typecast into these sorts of films.

No question about it. I've had my film composing agent tell me, "J.J., I tried my best to talk this guy into hiring you for the film and the guy says, `Of course I know the name J.J. Johnson, but he's a jazz musician. We don't want jazz in this picture.' And I tried my best to tell him, `But he's not gonna write jazz for your movie. He's gonna write movie music.'"

They have tunnelvision. All they know is, "J.J. Johnson is a jazz musician, so therefore he will write jazz for my movie, and this movie ain't about jazz." So not only are they racist, they have severe cases of tunnelvision. The film production community is a horror show as far as being flexible enough to give a guy a chance at something. I thank God for the one or two cases where I was fortunate enough to work with people who were not of that mindset. That's how I got aboard Buck Rogers in the Twenty-first Century, for TV.

Was television any better?

In the main, no. Maybe a little less in some situations, where you run into guys who are a bit more open-minded, one or two who had heard Poem for Brass or Perceptions or something like that and said, "Hey, this guy can write more than just jazz and I think I like what I heard, so let's get J.J. Johnson on this series." So I was lucky enough to occasionally break out of that racist situation that prevails in the Hollywood film production community. But it was racist then and it will always be that way. It will never be otherwise.

We should make it clear that you were not writing jazz in Hollywood.

No, not at all.

Did you find that work artistically satisfying?

Very much so. Very rewarding. Why? It started with the very first time I ever heard Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. Then I became hooked on classical music. The person who introduced me to Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring was [trumpeter-composer] Johnny Carisi. I don't know how it happened that we, meaning a bunch of musicians, were at his place at one time, just talking about things, and he said, "Hey, I want you to hear something," and he played Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. And this had nothing to do with jazz, but it blew my mind, it blew everyone's mind who was there.

I became a big "Stravinsky-oholic" and became involved in listening to classical music. Mozart and Beethoven, no. Schumann, no. Stravinsky, yes. Ravel, yes. Benjamin Britten, yes. Paul Hindemith, yes. These are my idols, even today, in classical music.

Why did you stop working in Hollywood?

The scene began to dry up with the onset of synthesizers and the genre changed so that the order of the day began to head in the direction of sit-coms. Sit-coms became more and more prevalent in television programming, but sit-coms have very little scoring in the grand tradition of film composing. Hardly any. Just little sound bites, shall we say, to get from point A to point B in a half-hour show.

So I saw the handwriting on the wall and I got out just in time, because now they're telling me, "J.J., it's a good thing you left when you did because it's really Death Valley in Hollywood as far as the musicians whose livings depend on film music." It's tough, now, out there. It's very tough.

Did you stop playing the trombone during that time?

Live performing, yes. High-profile performing, yes, I stopped. But I did not stop playing completely. So that my chops wouldn't go completely down the tubes, I took many little odd jobs playing studio situations. For example, for a little better than two years I played third trombone under Peter Matz's conducting for The Carol Burnett Show. Not much money, but it was a good way to keep my chops in shape with a predictable activity. We rehearsed every Thursday, we did the show every Friday, so it kept my chops in pretty good shape while I was doing film scoring in the main.

When you rejoined the jazz world in the late 1980s, did you experience a sort of "culture shock" at how the scene had changed since you left? Did you see anything that you needed to adapt to?

Not really, on the one hand, and maybe yes, on the other hand. On the one hand, I'm called a "mainstream jazz player." That being the case, mainstream jazz, if you want to call it that, hasn't really changed that much through the years. It is still straight-ahead, acoustic jazz.

But obviously by the time I came back on the scene, fusion and/or electronic jazz had made its presence felt and became the order of the day in some quarters. It co-existed with mainstream jazz, and still does, thank heaven. There's something refreshing and worthwhile, in my opinion, that they can co-exist. Whereas some musicians feel threatened by fusion and/or electronic jazz and/or Midi, I don't feel threatened. As a matter of fact, I am a Midi freak.

If you walked into my home and saw my Midi studio, you wouldn't believe it: the computer, the laser writer, the keyboard controller, the interface, plus all of the devices--we call them "devices," we don't call them "synthesizers," in today's technology. It's incredible. Midi is my hobby. When I'm not working, when I'm in Indianapolis, I dabble in Midi. For my own enjoyment, and to get my mind off of jazz-related things, I write music just for Midi that will never be heard by anyone. It'll never be recorded, it'll never be played publicly. It's a very private thing with me that I do very selfishly, for my own amusement only.