Considered by many to be the finest jazz trombonist of all time, J.J. Johnson somehow transferred the innovations of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to his more awkward instrument, playing with such speed and deceptive ease that at one time some listeners assumed he was playing valve (rather than slide) trombone! Johnson toured with the territory bands of Clarence Love and Snookum Russell during 1941-42 and then spent 1942-45 with Benny Carter's big band.
He made his recording debut with Carter (taking a solo on Love for Sale in 1943) and played at the first JATP concert (1944). Johnson also had led plenty of solo space during his stay with Count Basie's Orchestra (1945-46). During 1946-50, he played with all of the top bop musicians including Charlie Parker (with whom he recorded in 1947), the Dizzy Gillespie big band, Illinois Jacquet (1947-49) and the Miles Davis Birth of the Cool Nonet. His own recordings from the era included such sidemen as Bud Powell and a young Sonny Rollins. J.J., who also recorded with the Metronome All-Stars, played with Oscar Pettiford (1951) and Miles Davis (1952) but then was outside of music, working as a blueprint inspector for two years (1952-54).
His fortunes changed when in August 1954 he formed a two -trombone quintet with Kai Winding that became known as Jay and Kai and was quite popular during its two years. After J.J. and Kai went their separate ways (they would later have a few reunions), Johnson led a quintet that often included Bobby Jaspar.