More J.J. Johnson at 100

Hello everybody! After J.J. Johnson’s death in 2001, Commander Trombone published the article below:

J.J. Johnson: Thank You Very Kindly

J.J. Johnson: Photo by Chuck Stewart

J.J. Johnson

On the At the Opera House recording J.J. Johnson made with saxophonist Stan Getz, the crowd applauds enthusiastically after J.J. finishes one of his choruses. The trombonist can plainly be heard saying, “Thank you very kindly.” J.J. Johnson, the master jazz trombonist who always accepted appreciation with grace, died on February 4, 2001. His career has been recounted many times, but his remarkable personal qualities are less well known. Despite the fact that musicians and critics consistently heaped praise on him for his expertise with the trombone and his overall musicianship, he remained a humble man his entire life, quick to give others credit and slower to discuss his own accomplishments. But J.J. often revealed something about himself when he talked about peers, colleagues, or leaders he respected. In a 1994 interview conducted by David and Lida Baker, Johnson described Benny Carter, one of his earliest employers and role models, but he could have been describing himself:

He was a brilliant musician, he was a brilliant arranger, a brilliant composer, a nice person to know-he exuded professionalism in his demeanor-when he would talk to an agent or musician or to YOU about your part . . . at rehearsal. He exuded this air of professionalism and dignity and courteousness that was quite extraordinary. He was an extrordinary man, and still is.

The realities of a working musician were something J.J. was familiar with, and Johnson had what he called the “battle scars” gained throughout his career to prove it. His focus, however, remained music: getting it out the end of the trombone or into an arrangement or composition. J.J. will certainly — and understandably — be remembered for having transferred the complexities of be-bop to the trombone with stunning technique, but there was more to it than that. It was musical clarity that J.J. was after. And like Miles Davis (who was a good friend), Johnson understood that a small musical gesture, properly presented, could loom large. As much as anywhere, the connection between the two men’s improvising styles is evident on Walkin’, which J.J. recorded with Miles in 1954. Like Miles, Johnson’s musical world kept expanding, and J.J. believed the music known as jazz should keep expanding, too. In a 1990 interview conducted by Lida Baker for Instrumentalist magazine, J.J. explained it this way:

Jazz is by its very nature is a very restless music. It won’t stay still; it won’t behave. You can’t just put over there and say, “Now be quiet and don’t say anything.” It won’t allow that. It must evolve; it must reach out and explore. When Dizzy and Bird came on the scene there was a hue and cry, “What is this crazy music with flatted fifths called be-bop?” Obviously, it prevailed. I think it will always be like that. When something new comes along there will be resistence to it at first. When Miles Davis recorded Bitches Brew there was a great hue and cry from the critics, the media, from everybody but especially his adoring fans. They raised a big ruckus about it. “He can’t desert us and go off into another world like that,” they said; but that’s what he did.

Johnson’s own musical journey started, in part, with a life-long appreciation of saxophonist Lester Young’s improvising. “I became a Lester Young a-holic,” J.J. remembered. “So much so that I could hum any one of his solos on any one of his recordings verbatim, just from listening over and over and over to a particular cut on a given lp . . . ” From there, J.J.’s musical life kept growing-from innovative and impressive sideman to leader, from arranger of pop tunes to composer of televison and movie scores, from an appreciation of Lester Young, to an appreciation of Hindemith, Stravinsky and Ravel. J.J. wasn’t above listening to “Rock” music either, and purportedly at one time had a fair amount of “Country and Western” in his record collection-but the grounding in jazz remained. As Johnson once put it in a 1970 Downbeat article, “I am a jazzman — first, last, always. But I feel that I must draw on all music to consider myself a complete musician.”

Not a technophobe

J.J.’s musical forays were augmented by interest in many subjects, including electronics. At one point, he assembled hi-fi equipment from a Heath kit. During the period in which J.J. was employed by MBA in New York, he was dispatched to Trumansburg for training on the Moog synthesizer, making him one of the first to understand how the new instrument worked. Johnson became involved with computers and Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) later, and in his last years spent time composing MIDI compositions for his own amusement which he then archived with the help of a CD burner.

J.J. Johnson in the Internet Age

J.J. Johnson

J.J. Johnson

In 1996, Matt Calvert, a trombonist in the Bay Area of San Francisco, decided to create a web page devoted to J.J. Johnson. Calvert was surprised when J.J. discovered the web site and made contact through e-mail. Soon the two were talking on the phone on a regular basis. Eventually Calvert added a discussion/mailing list to the website in 1998, and musicians from all over the world began to subscribe. The topics discussed on the list ran a gamut from J.J.’s recordings, jazz, other important trombonists, and music in general. When activity on the list was slow, J.J.’s posts proved to be the biggest catalyst in getting things fired up again. His posts, while often about music, could be about nearly anything and were often entertaining. There were occasional controversies on the J.J. mailing list-the real kind and the fake kind provoked by the occasional persistent e-mail exacerbator known on the internet as a “troll.” While heated discourse was never J.J.’s style, he often mentioned on the list that he found the disagreement interesting and provocative. “I’m no goody-two shoes,” Johnson once commented on the mailing list.

A Legacy of Great Recordings

J.J. made hundreds of recordings in his lifetime, some as a leader and some as a sideman. Understandably, he made so recording dates he couldn’t always remember the specific circumstances of each. “I hope the record will show I recorded with Charlie Parker,” J.J. Johnson said in an interview for the Global Music Network. He did, in 1947. He also recorded as a sideman with Sonny Stitt, Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Horace Silver, among others. His performances as a sideman are always excellent, but on recordings where J.J. is the leader he is able to bring to bear the full level of his ability as a improviser, composer and arranger. The groups involved might be as small as a quartet (First Place recorded for Columbia records), or as large as a big band (The Total J.J. Johnson originally recorded for RCA Victor. The Brass Orchestra recorded for Verve in 1997 is another good example.) Which recordings are the classics? Well, J.J. Inc is excellent. The Eminent J.J. Johnson Vols 1 and 2 are known for their quality. Proof Positive, recorded for Impulse! is a Tour de Force. In truth, though, which J.J. recording is the classic depends on who you ask. One thing is for certain: it is nearly impossible to imagine a bad J.J. Johnson performance. It’s no wonder that he won Downbeat polls for trombone year after year.

Missing in Ken Burn’s Jazz

Johnson was not mentioned at all in Ken Burn’s recent and controversial documentary Jazz. Certainly, J.J was in good company-many important jazz artists were not mentioned either. Yet it still is a shame that a career so full of artistry, mastery, craftmanship, growth and staying power could have gone unmentioned. Some of J.J.’s performances as a jazzman did find their way onto film, kinescope (a film recording of a television picture), and video footage. One of the very best-and most recent-was an amateur video shot in February of 1991 at Kentucky State University, now distributed by Jamey Abersold because Johnson’s performance was so outstanding. (The Global Music Network video link, above left, is another version of the same concert.)

In 1987, J.J. Johnson, not long back into the jazz scene after spending years in California composing for television and movies, played at the Village Vanguard with his newly formed group. The jazz critic Stanely Crouch described J.J. and his triumphal return for the Village Voice:

On opening night, the house was full of enough trombonists to create a brass shortage had the Vangaurd blown up. Slide Hampton presented Johnson with a scroll signed by many fellow trombonists who wished to express their love, respect, and best wishes for the master. It was fitting, and Johnson, who embodies the dash and grace at the center of the feeling of jazz, stood there radiating the aristocratic glow of those who have been chosen by nature to provide flesh and blood examples of poetic excellence. Though there have never been many, few of his kind will always be enough.

Certainly Crouch is right — few of J.J.’s kind will always be enough — but of course what this means is that it will always be more difficult to say goodbye.

100 Years of J.J. Johnson

Yesterday was the 100 year anniversary of J. J. Johnson’s birth, January 22, 1924. Of course, that’s not the kind of day we can just let pass into history without saying something. J.J. was — and is — one of the most influential jazz trombonists ever. A big reason for that influence was a slide-trombone-technical-facility that could meet the demands of “be-bop,” the primarily small band jazz music that emerged after the big band based Swing Era. Given that accomplishment, it seems surprising that J.J. might say the following to jazz critic Leonard Feather about his early experiences with the trombone:

“There’s an innate clumsiness about it; it’s a beastly, horrid instrument to play, and particularly to play jazz on. Many times I wondered, how and why did I ever pick up this horrid instrument?”

How could J.J. feel that way? In The Encyclopedia of Jazz, Leonard Feather wrote of J.J.:

“In the early stages of bop evolution his technique seemed so incredible that many listeners to his records refused to believe that he was not playing a valve trombone to achieve the fast-moving multi-note passages which this type of improvisation sometimes required.”

Even as his innovations were changing people’s minds about what jazz trombone could sound like, J.J. appreciated — and was no doubt influenced by — all the formidable trombonists who could get around all that “innate clumsiness,” thank you very much: Trummy Young, Fred Beckett, Vic Dickenson, Jack Teagarden among others. Importantly, as revolutionary as J.J.’s trombone be-bop forays seemed to be in the 1940s, there was always more to it than mere technical facility. The impetus was musical, and his musical influences began well before the advent of “be-bop.” Johnson became a composer, too. He played and wrote music the way he did because that’s the way he heard it: with clarity. It’s that musical approach, just as much as the technical facility, that remains a model for jazz trombonists today.

Jimmy Knepper Interview

From the National Jazz Archive, an interview with jazz trombonist Jimmy Knepper, who died in 2003. Since high school — after I found the album Jimmy Knepper in LA in the bin at the local Record Bar — his playing has been a favorite.

Jimmy Knepper

Like many jazz musicians of his generation just after the Swing Era, Knepper became fascinated with “Modern Jazz” in general and Charlie Parker’s playing in particular.
At least once, Knepper recorded Parker live himself; he’s responsible for a recording initially distributed by Charles Mingus’s Workshop label called Bird at St. Nicks. (To conserve tape, Knepper turned the tape recorder on only during Charlie Parker’s solos.)

Despite the primary influence of jazz players on instruments other than the trombone, Jimmy’s improvising style is unique and features a personal sound that is immediately identifiable. It’s virtuosic without ever being cold or showy.

Knepper is perhaps best known for playing with Charles Mingus, but he had a varied career which included playing in the Broadway pit orchestra for the entire original run of Funny Girl.

Jimmy Harrison, Gone But Not Forgotten

For jazz appreciation month, more about jazz trombonist Jimmy Harrison, Coleman Hawkin’s friend and bandmate mentioned in the Hawkins documentary from the previous post.

Jimmy Harrison

Jimmy Harrison

Harrison was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1900. He was raised in Detroit, Michigan. Like Jack Teagarden, he was largely self taught, but started the trombone later, as a teenager. It didn’t take too long for Jimmy to find work as a musician in Detroit, and soon he was gigging throughout the midwest. He eventually made it to New York City, and continued a promising trajectory. There were stints with with Fess Williams, Elmer Snowden, June Clark, Billy Fowler, and even, in the early 20s, Duke Ellington.

Kaiser Marshall, Fletcher Henderson’s drummer, remembered meeting Jimmy Harrison at Small’s 5th Avenue Club in 1923, when he was playing with cornetist June Clark’s five-piece band. He recalled:

“Jimmy played riffs and often played his trombone very high, so that sometimes you would think two cornets were playing instead of one…He was crazy about Louis Armstrong, and some of the things that Louis made on his cornet or trumpet, Jimmy could play the second part of it. In fact like I said, before you could think, two trumpets were playing.”

Harrison joined Fletcher Hendersons’s band in 1925, becoming bandmates with Coleman Hawkins in the bargain. Kaiser recalled that Harrison had a one-year contract with Charlie Johnson and that Fletcher Henderson had to “buy his contract in order get him.” The meeting between Jimmy and Jack Teagarden took place soon after, in part engineered by Hawkins himself at the Roseland Ballroom. Later, the musicians put together jam sessions at Marshall’s place. Kaiser again:

Jimmy Harrison

Harrison on record:

Blazin’ May 29, 1925 with Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra: Harrison’s solo is in at 1:10:
Sweet and Hot 1931 with Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra: Jimmy Harrison, trombone and vocal.

“Jack Teagarden … used to come over to our house often, sometimes staying all night, and we would have a slight jam ses­sion between Hawk who lived only a few doors from us. So Jack would play piano, Jimmy trombone, Hawkins tenor, and myself on my rubber-pad I kept at home. Then Hawk would play piano, Jack and Jimmy trombone. My, what fun we had!”

Most of Harrison’s best recorded solos are with Benny Carter‘s Chocolate Dandies, a group that at the time had a fair amount of overlap, personnel wise, with Fletcher Henderson’s aggregation.

Here’s Jimmy with his pre-Henderson employer, Charlie Johnson. With Johnson’s “Paradise Orchestra,” the tune is Walk That Thing, recorded on September 19, 1928:

Also with Johnson, The Boy in the Boat from 1928:

Here’s Jimmy with Benny Carter’s Chocolate Dandies group: Dee Blues, recorded on December 3, 1930:

In addition to arriving at similar jazz trombone styles inspired by Louis Armstrong, Harrison and Teagarden were both singers. Jimmy added something more, entertainment wise: a Bert Williams inspired, vaudeville-style “preaching” act. Some of these performances by Harrison were apparently recorded; none have yet surfaced.

Jimmy Harrison continued playing with Fletcher Henderson through early 1931. He joined Chick Webb‘s band next. Sadly, he became ill soon after, succumbing to a severe stomach ailment that has been described as “ulcers,” or possibly cancer. He was only 29.

Including Coleman Hawkins, musicians that enjoyed much longer careers in jazz never forgot about Jimmy Harrison. Benny Carter lauded him for his “warmth, tone, feeling and style,” and felt that recordings don’t give a full picture of his playing. Trumpeter Rex Stewart also testified to Harrison’s preeminence as a swing trombonist in mid-twenties New York, adding that, because of the trombonist’s early death, “History inadvertently and unwittingly bypassed Jim.”

Coleman Hawkins Remembers Jimmy Harrison and Jack Teagarden

In 1956, Coleman Hawkins was interviewed by Bill Grauer and Paul Bacon for Riverside Records. At one point, Hawkins recalls a period — about April, 1928, it turns out — that he played at the Roseland Ballroom with Jimmy Harrison, a trombonist and fellow member of Fletcher Henderson’s band. Hawkins and Jimmy already shared a kidding, bantering friendship, and soon, the arrival of Jack Tegarden at the Roseland would give Hawkins another thing to tease Harrison about:

Below is a transcription of this portion of the Hawkin’s interview done by writer Richard Hadlock in the 60s. Hadlock tries to contain some of Coleman’s valuable digressions, but it’s mostly accurate. I recommend listening, of course.

“I’d heard about this Teagarden . . . Jimmy and all the rest of them were down­stairs, or I don’t even know if they were in yet. I heard him playin’, so I went downstairs to get Jimmy and the fellows to start kidding about it. I says, “Man, there’s a boy upstairs that plays an awful lot of trombone.” “Yeah, who’s that, Hawk?” I says, “He’s a boy from New Orleans or Texas or somethin. I don’t know. What do they call him? Jack Teagarden or somethin’. Jimmy do you know him?” “No, I’m not gonna know him . . . trombone player, ain’t he? Plays like the rest of the trombones, that’s all. I don’t see no trombones. I say the trombone is a brass instrument; it should have a sound just like a trumpet. I don’t want to hear trombone sound like a trombone. I can’t see it. I said, “Jimmy, he doesn’t sound like those trombones. He plays up high; sounds a lot like a trumpet, too.” He says, “Oh, man, I ain’t paying no mind.” Jimmy and Jack got to be the tightest of friends. After this night, I couldn’t separate Jimmy and Jack Teagarden. So we used to come up to my house practically every night . . . I don’t know how they made it, because we’d sit up there and fool around ‘til two, three, four o’clock in the afternoon–no sleep. And we were working every night. We used to go there and eat these cold cuts, cheese and crackers and stuff, and we’d do this and play–playin’ all night. Jimmy and Jack both jivin’ each other . . . trying to figure out what he lacks so he can get from the other one . . . and I dug what was going on . . . I had the piano, and they could play all night. It didn’t disturb anybody or nothin’. The house was all draped and carpeted . . . Both of them got their trombones, and I played pi­ano for them. This used to go on all night long, listening to records and eating and talking and back to playing again–every night. You couldn’t keep Jack out of Harlem . . . He made every rent party . . . Jack made himself right at home. And always had that horn. He must have never slept, playing horn night and day. But that was a funny experience when Jack came up, ‘cause Jimmy never heard anyone play trombone like that.”