It’s the birthday of one of the great voices of jazz music, J.J. Johnson. Of the slide instrument, J.J. — often referred to as the father of modern jazz trombone — once quipped, “It’s a horrible, beastly to play, especially to play jazz on.” Well? You could never really tell that when J.J. played. His handling of the trombone always projected a relaxed calm, and the musical results speak for themselves.
In 1960, for Jazz at the Philharmonic, here’s J.J. playing with Stan Getz and band: Victor Feldman piano, Sam Jones, bass, Louis Hayes, drums. The location is the Salle Pleyel in Paris, France. The musical vehicle is Sweet Georgia Brown, a tune whose changes J.J. was evidently fond of improvising on. He recorded it more than once as a harmonic basis for tunes he composed like Sweet Georgia Gillespie and Tea Pot. Speaking of composing, the fact that J.J. was an inventive composer showed in all of his musical expressions.
Last time, I wrote about the varying quality of digital transfers at the iTunes music store, specifically on some Kai Winding and J.J. Johnson recordings. The odd situation I mentioned was that newer cover art sometimes accompanies some digital transfers of the albums — even from a scratchy LP as the source ― while the original cover art sometimes accompanies separate digital transfers, which — possibly ― come from the original master tapes.
But wait — there are more geeky details: below is the original LP cover art for J Is For Jazz. Look familiar? The striking photo sets J.J. against a black background, head-on down the length of his trombone slide, just like the art for Kai Winding’s The Trombone Sound (See the last post, which appeared far too long ago).
What you can’t see on the iTunes cover art is the photo credit that exits on the LP versions. Not surprisingly, both of these album cover photos are by the same photographer, Dan Wynn, who died in 1995. Although he had training in art, Wynn began developing technical skills in photography while serving in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II. Out of the Army in 1947, he began focussing his photographic eye on fashion while working for Seventeen Magazine. In his subsequent career, he ended up photographing nearly everything — cars and scooters, food, models, movie stars, and, of course, musicians.
J.J. Johnson’s Exercises and Etudes for the Jazz Instrumentalist is probably not as celebrated an etude book as it should be. On the cover, the publisher Hal Leonard promotes it as “Easy to advanced,” and “Great for sight reading.” Certainly true, but J.J., after dedicating the book to Fred Beckett inside, makes this better explanation:
This method book is based primarily on my own personal experiences and career as a jazz trombonist, and therefore has very little to do with dogma or tenets…In my opinion, if jazz improvisation is the heart and soul of jazz music, then a clear and basic understanding of jazz syntax (or the language of jazz) is the necessary heart and soul of jazz improvisation. With this book I am committed to helping you get a basic and clear understanding of jazz syntax.
Naturally, it won’t be a surprise to see Johnson drawing on the blues as a musical form. He also sometimes uses the be-bopper’s idea of “contrafact,” or writing a new melody over an existing chord progression. You’ll have to guess — or hear — which tunes are used as underpinning, though. No chord progressions are given.
J.J. sneaks in good advice, too. Over one etude, a reminder:
“How do you feel? Don’t overdue it. When your body is trying to tell you something, LISTEN !!! AND OBEY !!!
To sum up quickly, this is a fun, worthwhile, and thoroughly modern take on the traditional etude book. It’s available for all instruments, and is highly recommended.
During his career as a jazz musician, the late J.J. Johnson recorded many times as a leader. His well known musical vision and skills as a writer and arranger — not to mention his virtuosic translation of modern jazz to the trombone — meant the leader role fit him well. That same reputation, too, meant he was in demand as a sideman. In these instances, J.J.’s playing always adds something special to the musical proceedings, and, while freed from the responsibilities of a leader, he might sound a little more relaxed than usual. Below are three Blue Note CDs you may not have heard yet: all feature J.J. as a sideman. Check them out. The titles and cover art will link to the music at Amazon.
Out of the randomness that makes up YouTube content these days, real surprises occasionally surface that don’t have to do with dogs riding skateboards or cats playing the piano. One such find is the “Aurex Jazz Special” that aired on Japanese television in the 80s, apparently concurrent with the Aurex Jazz Festival. In the clip below (click movie to start play), J.J. Johnson explains his early musical influences:
There’s also a version of Jay and Kai playing It’s All Right With Me with a rhythm section that includes Tommy Flanagan on piano and Roy Haynes on drums. On what seems to be the same occasion, Dexter Gordon and Clark Terry join for I’ll Remember April, and Milestones. There are a few awkward Lost in Translation moments during the show as the musicians smile and “play along” with whatever is being said by the show hosts.