Portrait of J. J. Johnson

n 1948, band leader Stan Kenton contemplated replacing all the slide trombones in his band with valve trombones. Under the influence of the new bebop style, all of the instruments had to play much faster than they had just a decade earlier. Kenton thought the slide trombone had become a jazz has-been that could never keep up.
He was probably unaware that a young trombonist named J. J. Johnson had already begun to demonstrate that the slide trombone could indeed keep up.

James Louis Johnson learned trombone as a school student in Indianapolis and played with such big bands as Illinois Jacquet, Benny Carter, and Count Basie. In the 1940s, swing band musicians gathered after gigs to keep playing informally. Bebop was born at these meetings.

Instead of winding down after a long evening of work, these sessions became highly competitive displays of improvisational virtuosity. Musicians attempted solos over complicated chord changes at breakneck speed. The earliest bop standouts included saxophonists, trumpeters, pianists, drummers, and, in short, everyone but trombonists. Then Dizzy Gilliespie heard J. J. Johnson in 1946 and introduced him to other boppers.

People who heard Johnson play only on the radio or on recordings assumed that he must have been playing a valve trombone. Surely no one could play that fast and that cleanly on a slide trombone. But Johnson did. He paved the way for numerous other slide trombonists to demonstrate their own virtuosity. No one has surpassed him yet in the breadth of his accomplishments or the reach of his influence.

After a brief hiatus from music in 1952-53, Johnson teamed with Kenton stand-out Kai Winding. For two years, “Jay and Kai” treated the musical world to the sound of two virtuoso slide trombonists playing at once.

Inevitably, Johnson and other boppers began to explore what else they could do besides play very fast. In Johnson’s case, he not only developed a more expressive approach to melody, but also turned increasingly to arranging and composing. In addition to original jazz works, he scored several movies and television shows.

After Johnson’s wife Vivian suffered a stroke in 1988, he canceled all of his commitments in order to take care of her during the last three years of her life. Upon his return to active music making, he dedicated his first recording, a set of ballads, to her memory. He resumed touring and recording from 1992 to 1996 and then retired for the last time. He continued to arrange and compose until he committed suicide in 2001. He left behind a tremendous legacy.

Here is at least one unique picture. In 1999, Chicago had its “Cows on Parade” art project, including one cow named “Music.” Probably lots of people took pictures of the cow, but I suspect I’m the only one who also took took a closeup of its portrait of J. J. Johnson.


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