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."
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.
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.
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
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."
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."
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.