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  An INterview with J. J. Johnson
Bob Bernotas

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Earlier you said that you had some thoughts about the term, "bebop."

As we all know, Dizzy Gillespie coined that term, "bebop." It was his creation. But in my opinion, the towering Dizzy Gillespie and his immense genius and his immense talents far transcended that little box that's labelled "bebop." Dizzy Gillespie was much more than bebop. And so the problem I have with bebop is that it tends to categorize you and place you in a small box that is very confining and very uncomfortable.

I can only hope that I, too, am bigger than that box that's labelled "bebop." I try to be bigger than bebop, even though I am labelled, always have been, and probably will always be labelled "the pioneer of bebop trombone." So be it. I inherited that and I lived with that and that's OK.

But you can pioneer something and then go beyond it.

I hope. I hope.

I understand that you just completed a recording project. Could you say a bit about that?

I went to my producer, Jean-Philippe Allard, with some off-the-wall ideas about what to record. I knew that I wanted to used steel drums. Why steel drums? Many years ago, Bill Withers came out with a recording that was a big hit for him called "Just the Two of Us." It had a steel drum solo in it. It did something for me and I never lost track of the fact that, hey, steel drums is a wonderful, unique, oddball sound that I love. There's something exotic about it, something about it that's so different, that all through the years I knew some day I was going to do something that had a steel drum soloist on it.

I also told Jean-Philippe that on this album I'd like to incorporate Steve Turre's sea shells. I also wanted to use harp on some of the ballad-type things. So there's steel drums, there's the sea shells, and there's harp on some of the cuts. And I have one original on it that's called "Mom, Are You Listening?" I'd like to tell this story and I hope it doesn't bring you down. I'd prefer that it'd just enlighten and inform you as to how it came about. I do hope that you will publish it unaltered, unedited, uncut.

Certainly.

On Christmas Day, 1989, in Indianapolis, with a house full of guests and family, I said to my wife, "Vivian, I don't want to be with these people, who are in my home to enjoy the Christmas Day. Vivian, I want to drive to Chicago and spend Christmas Day with my mother," who was in a nursing home there.

The weather was horrible. Vivian said, "Jay, I want to go with you to see your mother." I said, "No, Viv, you stay behind and entertain this house full of family and guests. I will drive to Chicago. I will take my trombone and play Christmas carols for my mother in the nursing home. Then I'm gonna come back and rejoin these wonderful guests." She was reluctant, but she said, "OK."

I put my trombone in the car. I drove through these terrible weather conditions to Chicago to visit my mother in this nursing home and to play Christmas carols for her on the trombone. When I got to the floor where my mother was in this nursing home, there was an aura that made me very uncomfortable. To make a long story short, my mother had passed away.

The attendants had not removed my mother's remains from the room as yet. They were very sympathetic. They said, "Mr. Johnson, your mother must have passed away while you were on the highway driving here, because she passed away about 20, 25, 30 minutes ago at the most."

Obviously it was a devastating, traumatic situation. They said, "Mr. Johnson, would you like to see your mother before we remove her from this room?' I thought about it. I said, "Yes, I would like that." They zipped down this large bag that my mother was in and I looked in at my mother's face and I had never, ever, seen such a serene, tranquil look on my mother's face. It was as if she was taking a nap. Not dead, taking a nap. She was so at peace with the world in that look that was on her face. I said, "Thank you." They zipped the bag back up. I got my trombone, got back in the car for the long drive back to Indianapolis with those horrible weather conditions.

And the combination of grief and tears and the horrible driving conditions caused a strange thing to happen. I pulled off the highway about midway between Chicago and Indianapolis, looked all around the car for scraps of paper on which to make ledger lines, and I composed a piece of music for my mother. The whole thing came to me at one time, the whole little composition and the title, which is "Mom, Are You Listening?"

It's a very simple little melody. It almost has no harmonic content, only a melodic line. That's what I wrote down--no harmony, no chord changes, just a melodic line. I played this piece of music, unaccompanied, at my mother's funeral, with my trombone slide pointing down at my mother's closed casket.

And I never thought anymore about "Mom, Are You Listening?" until this recording project. When this disc is released, you will hear "Mom, Are You Listening?," the piece of music that I composed on the highway, midway between Chicago and Indianapolis. I use on the recording celeste, piano, and harp--nothing else. It's beautiful, it's gorgeous.

And ethereal.

Very ethereal, 'cause by now I've added harmony to it. Renee Rosnes played celeste and piano on the cut, and we use Emily Mitchell on harp. I told them the story and they both immediately grasped the spirit of "Mom, Are You Listening?" that I wanted to project in the recorded version, which made it all happen. And I'm very proud of that cut.

That's quite a story. I don't know where we should go from here.

I don't think we ought to go anywhere from here, because the recording will speak for itself. The only thing I want to add is the other meaningful recording project that I've been engaged in was the CD called Vivian, because it was dedicated to my wonderful wife of 43 years who passed away in 1991. I want your readers to know that, yes, that was a trying time for me, when Vivian passed away, and that recording was a tribute to Vivian.

I have since remarried. The man upstairs saw fit for me to have had not just one wonderful wife, but to have married two wonderful women. And my current wife, whose name is Carolyn, is good for me, good to me, and I depend on Carolyn. She is my business manager and it works out just fine.

So at the moment, everything is wonderful in my life. I'd like to end on that note, that J.J. is doing just fine, alive and kicking, getting on in years, but I am enjoying life to the hilt at the moment, with everything going wonderfully. And what do I plan to do? I plan to continue recording and I plan to keep touring. You've heard the phrase, "Shop 'til you drop?" I'm gonna tour 'til I drop! And on that note, I'd like to say, "Thank you, Bob."

In 1996, a year after this interview first was published, J.J. Johnson announced his retirement from live performing and settled down, back home again in Indiana, to enjoy the company of Carolyn and his Midi. Johnson was diagnosed with prostate cancer in early 1999, but his attitude has been, typically, marvelous, and he has responded very well to hormone treatments. "The goal is still remission," he told his army of e-mail correspondents in late September, "and my team is optimistic that we will get there. ... I feel just great, as I have all along." Although another wonderful new J.J. Johnson CD, Heroes (Verve), surfaced in 1999, but "Mom, Are You Listening?"--which he has retitled "Nina Mae" (his mother's name)--still is awaiting release.

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Bob Bernotas is the author of Top Brass: Interviews and Master Classes with Jazz's Leading Brass Players and Reed All About It: Interviews and Master Classes with Jazz's Leading Reed Players, available through Boptism Music Publishing. He has contributed to numerous print and Internet publications, and has written liner notes for over four dozen jazz CDs. He also is the host of the weekly radio program, Just Jazz, heard every Sunday night over the Internet at www.wnti.org.

Bob Bernotas, 1995; revised 1999. Used by permission. All rights reserved.