The Musical World Of J.J. Johnson
The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
J.J. Johnson is known to the listening public as a jazz trombonist who has repeatedly won the Downbeat and many other polls, who has played the instrument at super-rapid clips (a Philadelphia nightclub once billed him, Barnum and Bailey style, as "The Fastest Trombone Player Alive!"), and who, with the great Kai Winding, made the famous "J.J. and Kai" recordings showing that the trombone could indeed be a virtuoso instrument. A new and exciting book by Joshua Berrett and Louis Bourgois III entitled The Musical World of J.J. Johnson corroborates these impressions, and more importantly, details the extraordinary contributions that this consummate musician has made to trombone playing, jazz music and musicians, composition, arranging, and a massive number of recording dates over a period of about 55 years. (Berrett and Bourgois document the recorded legacy in a "state of the art" comprehensive discography of J.J. Johnson to be found in the book. Christopher Smith has also assembled a Johnson discography, available on the Web, and has consulted for the book's compilation.) In this scholarly and comprehensive volume, J.J. Johnson consistently comes across as a highly disciplined, multi-faceted, prolific, and creative musician.
J.J. Johnson made an indelible mark on the history of jazz when, with the help of Dizzy Gillespie, he reconfigured trombone playing for the be-bop era, playing linear progressions, minimizing vibrato, and producing a lucid, controlled, and clean sound which yet has the ability to express a wide range of emotions and nusical ideas. The dust jacket of the Berrett/Bourgois volume nicely sums up J.J.'s coming of age as the quintessential be-bop trombonist:
In 1946, Dizzy Gillespie overheard J.J. Johnson using his trombone to make music that until then could only be played on other instruments. Gillespie liked what he heard and effectively invited Johnson into the inner circle of beboppers with the comment, "I've always known that the trombone could be played different, that somebody'd catch on one of these days. Man, you're elected."
Figure 3.2 shows how J.J. and the other beboppers such as Fats Navarro and Charlie Parker, influenced each other's soloing. (The book is rich with transcriptions and excerpts.)
Berrett and Bourgois depict and carefully document the evolution of Johnson from his first days with the trombone at Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis, his fascination with the recordings of the immortal Jack Teagarden, tenor saxophonist Lester Young, and trombonist Fred Beckett, who appears to have in some ways anticipated J.J.'s "linear" style of playing by a generation (see Figure 1.4); to his big band years with LaVon Kemp, Benny Carter, and Count Basie; to his landing on 52nd Street, New York, where the once thriving jazz clubs became the hub of the development of bebop through the likes of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and others who emerged from the big band era to develop the complex harmonies and melodic and rhythmic variations that formed the basis of "modern jazz." Berrett and Bourgois, first highlighting the importance of the predominantly black groups which performed for black audiences in the late ‘thirties and early ‘forties- a crucial aspect of jazz history which is too often neglected- show through historical documents, recordings, and transcriptions (the book has many written out samples of solos and ensemble excerpts) how the music evolved within a social, economic, and political context.
Berrett and Bourgois emphasize the continuity between the jazz of the "swing era" and bebop/ modern jazz. While they support their arguments well, this reviewer, along with a number of other jazz critics, is more taken by the extraordinary advances in playing which seemed to occur over just a few years, from about 1943 to 1950 which changed the face ("cosmetically" for the authors, at the foundations, for this reviewer) of jazz. While the authors correctly point out the role of post-World War II economic factors, they devote relatively little space to the creative formation of the small groups which had been previously overshadowed by the big bands. It was as if the economic forces which led to the attrition of the big bands established a need to capture nuances and complexities which would keep musicians and audiences attuned, a parallel to the dialectic between orchestral and chamber music in classical venues.
The book goes on to describe J.J.'s life, career, and output beyond be-bop over the next 45 years right on through his semi-retirement from live performances in 1996. (J.J. continues to oversee his recordings, provide help and guidance to musicians everywhere, compose, and experiment with his array of synthesizers, computers, and music software, in addition to being a loving husband and father.) That career includes recordings, world tours, composing and arranging, and playing within his own combos and those of others. His two most recent CD's "The Brass Orchestra" and "Heroes" recapitulate in 1990's terms aspects of his career writing and performing for larger ensembles with a contemporary and "third stream" flair ("The Brass Orchestra") and small groups, especially his own quintets ("Heroes")
In the process of offering a meticulous and illuminating analysis of J.J.'s musical evolution, Berrett and Bourgois also reflect on J.J.'s personal and professional life, which they have carefully researched via interviews and other sources. There is little here of a "sensationalist" nature. The book is written with the same professionalism which has characterized J.J.'s own stance. There are several very moving times in J.J.'s life which are disclosed and discussed. One is J.J.'s brief hiatus from music in 1952-1953 when he worked as a blueprint inspector for Sperry Gyroscope. Usually explained in terms of the lack of musical work available at the time, this excursion into the engineering field was also, the book discloses, propelled by a brief period of drug use from which he needed escape, and a desire to re-think his life and career.
J.J. subsequently played a key role in abolishing the absurd "cabaret card" laws which were used by the NYPD to keep many jazz musicians from performing in New York clubs. Testifying before the New York State Supreme Court in May 13-14, 1959, J.J.'s professionalism and dedication to his family convinced Judge Jacob Markowitz to see to it that he was issued a permanent cabaret card, setting a legal precedent for his fellow jazz artists. Berrett and Bourgois provide the details of this story, which made news headlines at the time, and offer an interesting explanation of this bizarre and hurtful oppression of musicians, tracing it back to police attitudes that developed in the time of the "speakeasies" of the Prohibition Era, and to a Red scare that occurred within the Roosevelt Administration..
There is also a marvelous vignette- one of those oddities that happen in life- about a time when J.J. was performing at the Village Vanguard, opposite, of all people- Jack Kerouac- who gave a poetry reading there. Kerouac, apparently inebriated, told J.J. that he always wanted to play jazz, perhaps as a saxophonist. J.J., with his characteristic good manners and capacity for understatement, simply said, "I'd think of you more as a trumpet man." Stories such as this are priceless.
Occurring many years later, the most poignant and tragic event in J.J.'s life was probably the death of his first wife, Vivian. J.J., devastated by this loss, cancelled all his "gigs" for a period of time. He emerged with new resolution from this time of grief, sublimating his loss into a hauntingly beautiful album of ballads appropriately entitled "Vivian" and eventually re-marrying. These and other events show J.J. Johnson in his most humanly vulnerable "off-stage" moments. The book, however, does little to explain J.J.'s motives or personality. It is rather devoted primarily to the man's art, and less his heart (which, by the way, is a deeply caring one).
In sum, The Musical World of J.J. Johnson is a fascinatingly written, stimulating, and scholarly exploration of the musical development of one of the jazz giants of the twentieth century, placed in historical and personal context. One in a series called "Studies in Jazz" produced by Dan Morgenstern and Edward Berger for the Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers, it will be the definitive scholarly resource on J.J. Johnson and his music for a long time to come. (It should, of course, be studied carefully by trombonists and jazz scholars.) It will increase the reader's grasp and enjoyment of the musical accomplishments of J.J. Johnson. (I suggest that you have on hand some of J.J.'s recordings- as well as those of some of the other musicians and composers who influenced him- to listen to as you read. This reviewer found it a profound experience to listen once again to Ravel's "Daphnis and Chloe," for example, or Hindemith's "Mathis der Maler," two of J.J.'s favorite pieces, and then to compare them with some of J.J.'s own orchestrations.) And The Musical World of J.J. Johnson is rich with vignettes, anecdotes, and musical observations which will make it memorable and highly readable to anyone with a love of jazz music.
Click here for Vic Schermer's All About Jazz interview with JJ Johnson and the authors, Joshua Berrett and Louis Borgois III on the publication of this new volume.
NOTES: The reviewer, Vic Schermer , is a psychologist, former trombonist, and jazz afficianado in Philadelphia, PA. He writes about jazz for several websites.
To learn more about J.J. Johnson and his music, and for instructions about how to order the book, visit The J.J. Johnson Homepage.
Thanks are due Matt Calvert, webmaster of the J.J. Johnson Homepage, and Tom Lawton, jazz pianist extraordinaire and instructor at Esther Boyer School of Music at Temple University and the Music Department of Bucks County Community College, for their invaluable assistance in making this interview possible.
The photo images in this review were reproduced with the permission of Scarecrow Press, J.J. Johnson, Joshua Berrett and Louis Bourgois. These images may not be further reproduced without their express written consent.