A Golden Month For J. J. Johnson - December 1947

By Christopher Smith • November 01, 1997 • • 14 min read

J.J. JohnsonThis month marks the 50th anniversary of an historic month in jazz trombone history. In a span of fourteen days in December 1947, the young J. J. Johnson made six recording sessions in New York with Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Illinois Jacquet, Leo Parker and his own Quintet.

The flurry of sessions Johnson made that month was brought about by an impending ban on new recordings. American Federation of Musicians President James C. Petrillo had decreed that as of the close of 1947, union musicians would cease recording for commercial labels. It was his belief that the proliferation of recorded music was hurting union members; that musicians were losing work to their own records. The ban ended early in 1949, with no real progress having been achieved; in fact, it was the beginning of a dramatic downturn in the fortunes of many jazz careers. Record companies had agreed to higher-scale wages for individual sessions, but this in turn increased the cost of recording. This led to a concentration of company resources on material that would sell in greater quantities, making jazz less of a priority in the industry. The effect of the ban as it loomed in late 1947, however, was that any artists under contract were encouraged to record as much material as the record companies deemed necessary before the deadline. Studios and engineers eventually found themselves working right up until midnight on December 31st. (Priestley, p. 101)

At that point in his career, J. J. Johnson had been a fast-rising sideman for five years, playing first with Clarence Love's band, then Snookum Russell's, Benny Carter's, Count Basie's, and Illinois Jacquet's. He had already made some landmark recordings, having taken part in the historic first Jazz At The Philharmonic concert on July 2nd, 1944, and had been an Esquire magazine New Star for 1946, recording with the Esquire All-Americans on the Victor label. (Bourgois, p. 11)

Johnson's solo style in 1947 had evolved from the swing-based sound heard in the first J.A.T.P. concert to a more bebop-oriented, yet subtle and introspective approach. He began to enhance his new, lighter tone with a felt mute on occasion, with the resulting sound resembling that of a French horn. (Porter, p. 622). Johnson was playing regularly with the inner circle of the still-new bebop movement and through diligent work became the first "bebop" trombonist (though he now finds such labels troubling, and hopes that he has moved beyond any narrow definitions). (Whiteis, p.25)

The jazz style known as "bebop" was radically different from the earlier forms of jazz. Melodies used "strange" sounding notes constructed in swooping, widely leaping runs. Chords became more complex, tempos were quicker, and soloing evolved into a highly virtuosic activity. Younger musicians were drawn to this new music, but the general public (and many older musicians) never really understood its appeal, finding it foreign-sounding and unlistenable. Johnson recalled years later that his precedent-setting adaptation of the bebop language for the trombone was helped along by encouragement from the master jazz musicians with whom he was performing.

I had encouragement from people like Dizzy [Gillespie] when I was struggling with lines of bebop tunes. I recall Dizzy planting seeds, saying, 'J. J., try it this way.' I was amazed when it worked out because Dizzy is not a trombone player and nobody realized that he knew anything about trombone technique, but he did. He'd show me little tricks with the slide and sure enough, it would be easier. It wasn't only Dizzy though. People planted little seeds here and there that paid off dividends in a big way. One who really helped me was Illinois Jacquet.

Jacquet was a wonderful bebopper, but he would do it offstage, over in the corner somewhere when he practiced. He played marvelous bebop, but then he went on-stage and played the show he was famous for, honking and screaming.

'C'mon, J. J., let's play this line in unison' he'd say, and then he'd tell me that I could do it. He was always a source of encouragement, and after a while I began to believe him. I was lucky to be exposed to such people. (Baker, p. 20)

J.J. Johnson

Johnson's career in the mid-1940s was that of a man in transition. In early 1946, after winding up in New York with the Basie band, he began appearing on 52nd Street with the small circle of bebop innovators. In June '46, after several years of recording as a big band sideman, he made his first session as a leader. The recording Coppin' The Bop and Jay Jay, on two sides of a disc, was soon in the hands of every young trombonist in New York. People who hadn't seen him live refused to believe that he was actually playing a slide and not a valve trombone. That first session made him an immediate influence on other trombonists. (Gitler 1966, p. 40) Joining Illinois Jacquet's group in mid-'47 brought J. J. a higher musical profile as the only trombonist in a popular eight-piece jazz group, but he was still finding his artistic voice--one that would find its permanent home in even smaller settings.

The recordings from these December 1947 sessions paint an accurate portrait of the 23-year-old Johnson, showing his flexibility in a variety of roles, his pioneering trombone technique, his evolving artistic voice, and his rise to the forefront of the jazz trombone scene.

On December 11th, the great tenor sax pioneer Coleman Hawkins took a band of young, adventurous musicians into the studio. Hawkins, although not a "bebopper," didn't oppose the new music as some older musicians did, but embraced it, playing and recording often with the new movement's stars. Of the five titles recorded, only two had J. J. stepping forward to solo. Half Step Down, Please, and Jumpin' For Jane are somewhat clichéd bebop lines (the latter tune written by the jazz critic and writer Leonard Feather), and give the musicians short solo statements of a chorus or less. On Half Step, Johnson plays the first two "A" sections of the last AABA chorus, building the intensity and volume in the second eight bars. He then restates the melody freely on the bridge with a rare (for him) legato sound, taking the band nicely into the last eight bars and a short extension. Jumpin', with a few Salt Peanuts quotes, is a good example of one of Johnson's occasional dryly humorous solos.

The famous Charlie Parker Dial Records session came next. Parker seldom used, and even more rarely recorded with, a trombonist. Johnson's first and only studio recording with "Bird" was brought about partly by the input of Dial Records' head Ross Russell. Russell later said, "I had always been interested in the trombone, and I thought J. J. was just the end. I liked the idea of getting him into a date, and Bird thought it was a pretty good idea." He thought Johnson was "easily the best trombonist of the new music."(Russell, p. 253)

Parker's group had rehearsed on Monday the 15th, prior to the session at WOR Studios on Wednesday the 17th, and Johnson fit in well and executed the challenging parts with confidence and style. (Bourgois, p. 12) The group recorded 19 takes of five Charlie Parker originals and one standard in just two hours and forty minutes. This session was more thoroughly modern than most of Johnson's to that point, and he sounds both relaxed and assertive. (Burns, p. 5)

J.J., playing mostly with a tight cup mute, came through the session with flying colors, skillfully handling the challenging Parker melodies and making strong solo statements in very "heavy" company. Quasimado [sic], while not a "fast" bebop line, contains some very intricate sixteenth-note passages and yet could not be played with more intention, velocity, and grace than Johnson does. Listening to this session's 16 issued takes in order gives a good idea of Johnson's abilities as an improviser of original jazz solos, especially when the presence of Parker, in 1947 already an acknowledged giant, is taken into consideration. In an interview with Gene Kalbacher in 1988, Johnson couldn't recall any specifics about the date, but did remember that standing next to Bird in the studio could make "your knees shake a lot (and) bump up against each other!" (Kalbacher, p. 18)

The multiple takes issued from this session also counter the incorrect notion later put forth by some jazz writers that Johnson's improvisations contained little more than "worked-up" material, conceived much earlier than the moment it was played. While Johnson does repeat phrases here and there in solos on the same tunes, it is no more than Bird himself does, and there are many other musical ideas which are clearly spontaneous.

Listen to the two takes of How Deep is The Ocean, the only tune on which Johnson plays unmuted. His first solo, 16 bars long, starts with a syncopated idea of four bars length, followed by a related idea, transposed to the changing harmonies of the tune. His closing eight bars are a marvel; tender yet unsentimental, melodically adventurous, balanced and succinct. The next take of the tune has Johnson soloing for only eight bars (in the same place as the last eight bars of the previous solo). He starts out with the same syncopated rhythmic motif as the first take, choosing different notes, but takes things in a different direction, and these musical ideas (while equally touching and no less satisfying than the previous take) are entirely different.

The ballad performance is the supreme test of a jazz improviser; the challenge is in trying to create original melodic ideas without playing "too much" or sounding too close to someone else's "style." Johnson's two solos on How Deep, although played only minutes apart, prove that at age 23 he already possessed an original and creative jazz trombone conception. The fact that Bird included J. J. in this important session is an indication of Johnson's acceptance as a maturing player.(Bourgois, p. 13)

The 18th and 19th found Johnson in the studio, this time with Illinois Jacquet's "little big band" of five horns and rhythm section. The group was experiencing a good measure of success at the time, appearing on tour with Nat King Cole. The Jacquet band was built around the screaming and honking tenor sax of the leader, and some of the music from these sessions (because they were originally issued separately on 78 r.p.m. records) can begin to sound repetitious and formulaic when the tunes are heard back-to-back. Jacquet also virtually monopolized the solo space, taking 26 of these sessions' total of 38 choruses for himself! A conclusion can be drawn that a good part of J. J.'s time with the band was surely spent creating and playing energetic riffs to support Jacquet, and indeed, much of the appeal of this band's sound was a result of the brisk, compact backing that the sidemen (Johnson included) gave their leader. (Burns, p. 5)

These sessions, the only of Johnson's that month which featured a regular working band rather than a pick-up studio group, were more arranged, and sound and feel musically "tighter" than the ones he made with other groups. Two cuts stand out among the tunes recorded, because of the speed (both at quarter note = ~336!) and sustained high energy level of the pieces. King Jacquet, which is thematically close to the well-known Lester Leaps In, contains a brief yet amazing solo by Johnson. He plays fills on the head of the tune, (Ira Gitler calls them "laser-like trombone thrusts" in a liner note description) and takes the bridge by himself, transcribed here.

Note the back-and-forth movement between the Bb and A in bar 5 of the bridge. This is one of J. J. 's "patented" (yet very simple) licks which only he can pull off. Embryo, co-authored by Johnson, is a catchy minor-keyed call-and-response tune on which he takes a very effective and concise eight-bar solo.

Jacquet's take on Basie's Mutton Leg is pure excitement; an insane tempo, with frenetic four-on-the-floor drumming, and gives J.J. a little more room to stretch out in--an entire 32-bar chorus which took all of 21 seconds to play!

Many years later, Johnson admitted that "there was a time in my life--the mid-1940s--when my aim was to play as fast as physically possible on the trombone. (Gitler 1966, p. 19) This session alone is proof of his having accomplished exactly what he had set out to do! While these solos are remarkable for their technical brilliance alone, closer scrutiny reveals the hallmarks of Johnson's trombone artistry; an outstanding musical concept played with flawless technique, unfailing good taste and real fire. Johnson, even as a young man, has always played with the ability to "edit" his solos; every note means something and contributes to the solo as a whole. Never in his improvisations does one find anything but real notes (no false tones or "funny sounds") which consistently add up to a satisfying musical statement.

Also on the 19th, J.J. made a session under the nominal leadership of Leo Parker, the man considered to be the first bebop baritone saxophonist. Wee Dot is an original blues of Johnson's, and sets the tone for the rest of the set - a loose, not-too-intense "jam session." Perhaps having something to do with their high-energy Jaquet sessions of the previous day and a half, the musicians sound drained, and this session feels tame in comparison. The melodies are played in unison and are minimally arranged apart from a few riffs and breaks, and sideman solos are limited to a chorus at most. This session is valuable historically, however, for the four takes of two tunes which serve to further illustrate J.J.'s ability to compose and then re-compose new solos back-to-back. After the three busy days above, Johnson had a break of four days to recuperate and prepare for his final session of the year, as a leader.

The J.J. Johnson Quintet, composed of players from the month's three previous sessions, recorded four tunes on Christmas Eve. The music from this date is probably more well-known to trombonists (and is more easily available) than any of the month's other sessions. Listening closely to J. J.'s tone here gives us an indication of his use of a felt mute, likely a beret, which he employed to give his tone a special textural quality.

Boneology is a relaxed-feeling original based on a hit tune J. J. played many times with Jacquet, Robbin's Nest. Johnson uses the "double-time" soloing technique for the first time on record, and winds up his improvisation with a reference to Moose The Mooche. Down Vernon's Alley is a bouncy tune which shows Johnson in a happy, lighthearted mood. Of special interest are J. J.'s effortless playing of the not-at-all-easy melody and his twisting and turning solo which includes many characteristic set-up and response phrases. Yesterdays is a tour de force ballad performance on which Johnson's felt-mute-enhanced tone is best enjoyed. J. J.'s improvisation is full of chord substitutions and extensions, as was common practice with many bebop readings of slower tunes. The ironic ending is another calling card of Johnson's subtle sense of humor.

Riffette, an original blues of J.J.'s which Jacquet also recorded, is played at a brisk tempo. Johnson's solo alternates between precision-crafted-and-executed bebop runs and swinging repeated-note ideas.

With this session, J.J. completed a historic two weeks in the studios; one of the busiest and certainly most productive months of his career. Within days, the union ban took effect, and there would be no studio recordings in 1948, as the strike lasted the entire year. Johnson's next recording was to be on January 3, 1949, with the Metronome All-Stars, a group that paired him with his future bandmate Kai Winding. The next few years were ones of declining fortunes in jazz, with J. J. eventually taking a "day job" as a blueprint inspector for the Sperry Gyroscope Company before finding great success with Winding with their "Jay and Kai" group.

Fast forward to 1997, and Johnson is not surprisingly the world's most influential jazz trombonist. Physically healthy at 73 and a half, long after the passing of most of his contemporaries, J.J. recently "retired" from touring and live performance, although he keeps as busy as ever working on composing, arranging, and dabbling in MIDI in his Indianapolis home studio. He recently took a Caribbean vacation with his second wife Carolyn, leaving his trombone behind at home, and had such a great time that they stayed away an extra week!