Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music
(b William Geary Johnson, 27 Dec. 1889, New Orleans; d 7 July '49, New Iberia LA) Trumpet, cornet. He gave a birth date of 1879, but later research disproved this. A New Orleans legend who said he had played second cornet with Buddy Bolden, but that is probably why he added ten years to his age. According to John Chilton's Who's Who Of Jazz he retired from music '33 partly because of dental problems, but this was the bottom of the Depression, and perhaps the work had simply dried up. He was sought out by jazz fans '38 and worked as a music teacher in a WPA programme; he made his first records in June '42 and continued to record occasionally until late '47. He claimed to have taught and influenced Louis Armstrong, who denied it, but that may be typical of Armstrong, who always suffered from a certain insecurity, and was not about to let anyone borrow any of his glory. Johnson was said to be hard to get along with, perhaps understandably; his second career was controversial, and the orthodoxy is that he was past his prime. But his rediscovery was instigated by fans of traditional jazz as they understood it, and as Max Harrison has pointed out (see his collection A Jazz Retrospect) Johnson had only been out of action for six years, and there is no reason to think that New Orleans jazz had not evolved since King Oliver left town in 1919. On a radio broadcast in '44 Johnson played with people as 'modern' as Red Callender and Lee Young on bass and drums, and acquitted himself perfectly well; when he recorded with Sidney Bechet for Blue Note in March '45, that irascible man refrained from dominating the way he often did, allowing Johnson to run his own session. A careful listening to Johnson's recordings, though poorly recorded and often with second-rate sidemen, will reveal that he had ideas of his own (e.g. concerning ensemble texture), and was himself playing very well. Among the best are the American Music sessions supervised by Bill Russell in New Orleans May '45 (on American Music CDs; see entry for Jazzology family of labels). Johnson no doubt disliked the role of museum piece, and in fact his last sessions at the very end of '47 incl. an 'Out Of Nowhere' that (to quote Harrison) 'undergoes as drastic a desentimentalization as that recorded the previous month by Charlie Parker'.