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J.J. Johnson: An Eminent Life in Music

Victor L. Schermer By

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This interview with trombonist J.J. Johnson along with Joshua Berrett and Louis G. Bourgois III, authors of his biography, The Musical World of J.J. Johnson (Scarecrow Press) was first published at All About Jazz in November 1999.

All About Jazz: Congratulations to Josh and Louis on your new book—and to J.J. for now having a scholarly reference devoted to your outstanding contributions to music. Just for the fun of it, which three recordings and/or scores would you take to the proverbial desert island, if they were to be your only sources of music there?

J.J. Johnson: Hindemith's Mathis der Maler, Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe. Any of the Miles Davis Quintet recordings that include John Coltrane, Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones, and Red Garland. In my opinion, contemporary jazz music does not get any better, or any more quintessential than that Quintet's live appearances or the recorded legacy that they left for us to enjoy.

Louis Bourgois: The scores I'd take would be: Aaron Copland, Third Symphony (CD: St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin conductor: Angel CDM7643042);. Leonard Bernstein, Chichester Psalms (CD: Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Robert Shaw, conductor; Telarc Digital). And a Compact Disc: Miles Davis Kind of Blue (Columbia CK40579). I would sneak a few more, including Hindemith, Mathis der Maler, which J.J. mentioned.

Joshua Berrett: My tastes here are very similar to J.J's: a mix of classical music and jazz. I would single out Brahms' Symphony No. 2, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, and Miles Davis' sessions with Coltrane and company.

THE BOOK AND ITS AUTHORS

AAJ: Josh and Louis, tell us a bit about your musical background.

LB: I teach low brasses, music history, and music technology at Kentucky State University, in Frankfort, KY. It is the smallest institution in the state university system (the largest, the University of Kentucky, is about 40 miles east). For the past ten years, my professional performance is mostly free-lance, primarily with the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra, and bass trombonist with the Lexington Brass Band (a British-style ensemble), the Vince DiMartino Jazz Big Band, and the Kentucky Jazz Repertory Orchestra (led by Miles Osland, Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Kentucky, and sort of a central Kentucky version of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra). Other gigs include occasional pit orchestra work, small brass ensembles, and the like.

Josh is a violinist, but he would have to confess what his playing experience has been recently.

AAJ: Josh and Louis, how did each of you become interested in J.J. Johnson and his music?

LB: In 1973, when I started my undergraduate studies in music education at Murray State University, in Murray, KY, I became very good friends with a couple of guys who roomed together in a dormitory across from the one where I lived. One of them, Dick McCreary, was a fine jazz drummer who actually worked briefly with Sonny Stitt from what I recall. He is now a public school music educator in the St. Louis area. The other guy, Dan Schunks, was a trombonist who could blow some really nice jazz. We were all in the marching band, so we saw a lot of each other. Since my jazz experience prior to college was limited to listening to my dad's record collection (mostly Stan Kenton band recordings from the 40's and early 50's), Dan and Dick helped me along with jazz artists that I needed to know: in Dan's case, particularly J.J. Johnson as well as a few other trombonists influenced by him. So, I started collecting recordings and anything in print about J.J. (which wasn't much, cumulatively, at the time). Early on, my passion for J.J.'s jazz was a hobby. Later, it developed into much more than that.

JB: I became interested in J.J. and his music through my association with Lewis Porter at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers, starting in the late 80s and continuing into the 90's.

My deep fascination with J.J. revolves around the idea of how he has helped make jazz into such an elastic, inclusive musical art, blurring categories of style, drawing upon sources ranging from Bela Bartok, to Benjamin Britten, to blues, to Stravinsky, and much more. In a special way, he represents in my mind a kind of evolution of the work I previously published on Louis Armstrong and opera.

AAJ: Tell us a bit about how the idea for the book came about and how the two of you (Josh and Louis) worked on it together?

LB: I wrote the dissertation that was the "seed" for the whole project. Subsequently, I wrote the NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities) grant for the underlying oral history/archival research, and compiled the discography, filmography, and catalog of compositions.

Joshua and I both participated in the process of interviewing musicians and other personages, sometimes together, most of the time separately. Josh did the bulk of the interviews as well as the biographical writing. Elements of the original dissertation dealing with early performance style analysis made their way into the book. Joshua's expertise in musicology and compositional style analysis permeates the book.

Actually, without Joshua's collaboration and vision, a collaboration that was initiated by Lewis Porter at Rutgers University, the only scholarly work out there would be my dissertation. It was, at the time of its writing (1986) a major piece of work, but now 13 years later admittedly a thin one. In fact, the book far surpasses the dissertation, in content and accuracy of information, enough so that I will be contacting University Microfilms International and asking them to place the original dissertation on their restricted list (not for sale to the general public). In fact, not much of the original dissertation remains in the book, thankfully, since there are errors in it (errors that were not discovered until the book research shed light on them).

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