Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music
JOHNSON, J. J.
(b James Louis Johnson, 22 Jan. '24, Indianapolis IN; d there 4 Feb. 2001) Trombone, composer, also sometimes called Jay Jay. Played with Benny Carter '42-5, Count Basie '45-6, played in bop combos NYC, toured with Illinois Jacquet '47-9, made USO tour of Korea and Japan with Oscar Pettiford '51. His technique became almost unbelievable: the trombone was a rhythm instrument in early jazz; Miff Mole, Jack Teagarden, Jimmy Harrison and Charlie Green had made progress on the instrument, playing without the slurs and rasps of older trombone styles, but Johnson named as his primary influence Fred Beckett (b 23 Jan. '17, Nettleton MO; d 30 Jan. '46, St Louis, of TB contracted in US Army: he played with Andy Kirk, Harlan Leonard, briefly Lionel Hampton). With roots in the swing era, J. J. was one of the first to develop the exceptional fluency necessary to play bop on an instrument not designed for it. He recorded a few tracks as a leader '45 and on Savoy '46; at the end of '47 he recorded in a sextet with Charlie Parker on Dial and again as a leader for Savoy, and was already extraordinary; by the time he recorded for Savoy and Prestige '48-9, first-time listeners thought that he must be playing a valve trombone, and he had become still more impressive on '53 Blue Note sessions. However, the trombone was an unfashionable instrument in modern jazz (dominated by trumpet and saxophones partly because few could play the trombone well enough), and those were lean years for jazz anyway; he worked in a Sperry factory as an inspector for nearly two years '52-4, but continued to gig. Four Trombones '53 was a Charles Mingus workshop with Kai Winding, Bennie Green, Willie Dennis (b 10 Jan. '26, Philadelphia; d 8 July '65 in a car crash).
J. J. formed a quintet with Winding as 'Jay and Kai' '54-6, with later reunions: '54 LPs on Savoy (with Mingus), Prestige and RCA (Live At Birdland), on Bethlehem '55, five on Columbia '55-6 (included Jay And Kai Octet, six trombones including Urbie Green and Jimmy Cleveland; Jay And Kai At Newport) proved that the public had not tired of the trombone; the combination of two of them despite initial poor reaction from club owners was almost as popular as Dave Brubeck for a while. He was established as the model on the instrument as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were on theirs, not only for technique but for beautiful, personal tone. Jay and Kai were reunited on an Impulse LP '60 (The Great Kai And J. J. with Bill Evans and a superb rhythm section), on three A&M LPs '68 with strings (one released only in Japan), and on All-Star Jam '82 on Aurex with Dexter Gordon, Clark Terry, Roy Haynes, Tommy Flanagan, Kenny Burrell, Richard Davis on bass. J. J.'s own LPs incl. The Eminent J. J. Johnson on Blue Note (three sessions from '53, '55, the first with Clifford Brown); J Is For Jazz, Dial J. J. 5, First Place, J. J. In Person, J. J. Johnson And Voices (with a choir and Frank DeVol's orchestra), Blue Trombone, A Touch Of Satin on Columbia '56-60; also J. J. Inc., a quintet with three horns including Clifford Jordan and Freddie Hubbard (also the first album to include entirely J. J.'s tunes). Meanwhile he played JATP concerts at the Chicago Opera House '57 with Stan Getz, now on a Verve CD. 'Poem For Brass' was commissioned for Brandeis U Festival of the Arts '57, conducted by Gunther Schuller (now on Birth Of The Third Stream on Columbia); Perceptions '61 on Verve was a six-part J. J. composition played by 21-piece Gillespie band conducted by Schuller. Then came J. J.'s Broadway '63 on Verve, Proof Positive '64 on Impulse. Compositions including 'Rondeau For Quartet And Orchestra', written for the MJQ; 'Sketch For Trombone And Orchestra' and 'El Camino Real' were commissioned for '59 Monterey Jazz Festival (John Lewis, music director); 'Camino' included on first of four LPs on RCA '64-6 with big bands including The Dynamic Sound Of J. J. With Big Band '64, Goodies '65. He spent much of the '70s in studio work, composing film and TV music; then Pinnacles '79 on Milestone; The Yokohama Concert '77 with Nat Adderley, Concepts In Blue '80 with Terry, Count Basie LP The Bosses, all on Pablo. He formed a new quintet '87 (with Cedar Walton, alumnus of '59-60 group), relocated from L.A. back to Indianapolis. Later albums included Quintergy and Standards on Antilles, both live at the Village Vanguard with Ralph Moore, Stanley Cowell, Rufus Reid and Victor Lewis; Let's Hang Out on Verve with them plus Jimmy Heath and Terence Blanchard. Tangence '94 was an album with the Robert Farnon orchestra on Gitanes ('Lament' won a Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement).