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Sons of Miles
JJ JOHNSON: The Sackbut's Elegant Descendant
by Mike Zwerin
25 February 1999

J.J. Johnson has asked himself many times what went through his mind when he volunteered to play the trombone in high school in Indianapolis. "I really cannot imagine what attracted me to it," he says. "It's the most ungainly, awkward, beastly hard instrument you can imagine."

The trombone's ancestor, the sackbut, was an important member of European royal ceremonial bands as far back as the 14th century. In 1495, Henry VII engaged four "Shackbusshes." Sackbuts played chorales from 16th century German church towers. The tone produced by blowing into a varying length of tube unimpeded by mechanical devices has been called "the closest sound to the human voice."

Giovanni Gabrieli used trombones in his ecclesiastical compositions. Monteverdi wrote for five of them in his opera "Orfeo." Bach and Handel scored for it. The instrument contributed important dramatic effects in Mozart's "Don Gionanni" and "The Magic Flute." Wagner and Berlioz increased its importance, though Mendelssohn said it was "too sacred for frequent use."

It does not, however, look very sacred. Piping protrudes in front and back - trombonists tend to bump into things. The only place the trombone would fit during turn-of-the-century New Orleans parades was on the end of the wagon, its role was called "tailgate." Any instrument nicknamed "slush pump" cannot be considered sexy. A series of innovative soloists including J.C. Higgenbotham and Jack Teagarden earned it respect in the world of jazz. Tommy Dorsey opened up its lyrical possibilities. J.J. Johnson made it elegant.

Elegant is the adjective for Johnson. Rarely does a musician's physical presence reflect his music with such accuracy. He is at home in a suit. His coordinated colors favor the colors of autumn. His shirts are starched, you call his dress conservative. The occasional flash of red or a polka dot necktie (it is hard to imagine him without a necktie) reflect a taste for adventure. His personal dignity matches his dignified sound. His complex, carefully constructed syntax and soft, warm voice reflect his articulation and rich tone.

He describes himself as a Lester Youngaholic. "From the beginning I decided I wanted to play trombone in Lester's linear manner. Many trombonists were using tricks and gimmicks, glissandi and wah-wahs I wanted to avoid. Then I heard Dizzy and Bird and was floored like everyone else by this new music. It was difficult at first. Dizzy gave me the most encouragement. He put his arm around me and said, 'I know it's tough on that instrument but I know you can do it. You will be our representative on the trombone.' Actually he did not say that in so many words but he extended himself. He knows a lot about the trombone, he taught me positioning and how to deal with the so-called 'bebop' situation."

Stanley Crouch, the columnist and critic, said: "Johnson is to his horn what Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were to theirs. When he came to full power, his work had the dreamy smoothness heard in Young, the crackle of [Roy] Eldridge's fourth-gear lyricism, the rhythmically intricate contempt espoused by Parker for the limitations of articulation, and the gnarled wit of Gillespie."

JJ Johnson

After learning his trade in the big bands of Snookum Russell and Benny Carter, and then Count Basie (his solo bridge on "The King" is a classic), Johnson, now 64, has totally dominated the instrument for the last 50 years. His sound is as readily recognizable as that of Miles Davis, and his combination of technical mastery and impeccable taste remains unequaled.

He recorded with Parker, Bud Powell, Sonny Rollins and just about everybody else. His two-trombone front line duo with Kai Winding, "Jay and Kai," was a commercial success in the '5Os. Then he took an increasing amount of the lucrative studio work that was beginning to open up for black musicians in New York, while turning more and more to arranging and composition. His "Poem for Brass" was performed by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. In 1970, Quincy Jones suggested a move to Los Angeles.

"After living in New York for so many years," says Johnson, "my wife, Vivian, and I felt the need for a drastic change in our lifestyle. As destiny would have it, at the same time I felt the urge to explore movie composition. The two elements tied in beautifully. I put playing on the back burner, so to speak. I practiced daily, remained psychologically prepared for jazz. I kept my antenna up. I never left the jazz situation intellectually, psychologically, emotionally or spiritually. But I made my basic living as a film composer."

His credits include Bill Cosby's "Man and Boy" and "blacksploitation" films like "Cleopatra Jones" and "Top of the Heap." He scored episodes of "Starsky and Hutch," "The Six Million Dollar Man," "The Mod Squad," "Mike Hammer" and other TV series.

Then he got "this urge to play again and once more as destiny, or luck, would have it, the film scoring business began to get, let's say, questionable. With new technology, one person could program and perform entire movie scores. The young directors and producers wanted synthesizers, which they began to consider the 'hip' sound. They didn't want to hear about trombones or arrangers."

So after some 20 years of being, as they say, "buried" in the studios, J.J. Johnson came back. This may not exactly have been a second coming, but it was, and is, certainly a treat for the ears.

Photo: JJ Johnson.
Credit: Christian Rose

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