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Book Reviews

The Musical World Of J.J. Johnson

By Published: March 4, 2004
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.


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