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  An INterview with J. J. Johnson
Bob Bernotas

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In the 1920s, Louis Armstrong raised the art of trumpet playing to previously unknown heights. A decade later, Art Tatum did the same thing for the piano. Then Jimmy Blanton did it for the bass and Charlie Parker for the saxophone. For the trombone, it was James Louis (J.J.) Johnson.

Born in Indianapolis on January 22, 1924, Johnson, during the first half of the 1940s, worked his way through territory bands, followed by a series of big-time gigs (Benny Carter, Count Basie, Illinois Jacquet). By the end of the decade he had successfully translated the intricacies of bebop onto his demanding instrument. Suddenly jazz trombone playing underwent a quantum leap. Johnson's rich, dark tone and virtually flawless command of the horn became the barometers by which all subsequent trombonists have been measured, the standards which they have labored to attain. But for all his virtuosity, Johnson never abandoned the elusive quality that, call it what you will, is essential to all great jazz: feeling, passion, soul.

During the 1950s, Johnson began building his reputation as a gifted composer, crafting hip, challenging originals like "Kelo," "Enigma," and the haunting "Lament." He also created such ambitious works as the four-part suite, Poem for Brass (1956), and Perceptions (1961), an album-length, six-movement showcase commissioned by (and featuring) Dizzy Gillespie and a large brass and rhythm ensemble. In 1970, he took his talents to Hollywood and spent the next 17 years there scoring films and television series. Johnson returned to the jazz world full-time in 1987 and since then he has released a progression of standout CDs, with more on the way.

 
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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.