J.J. Johnson; Innovative Bebop-Era Jazz Trombonist and Composer


J.J. Johnson, a singular figure in jazz whose innovative trombone play in the bebop era expanded the boundaries of his instrument, died Sunday in Indianapolis. He was 77.

In ill health for several months, Johnson committed suicide, according to a report from the local sheriff.

An excellent composer and arranger as well as an extraordinary musician, Johnson's career spanned six decades. He played with some of the finest musicians in jazz--Benny Carter, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. But it was with the bebop sound pioneered by Gillespie and Parker, with its rapid-fire phrasing, complex harmonies and offbeat rhythms, that Johnson made his name.

Adapting the trombone to the demanding genre was a remarkable accomplishment, given its traditional use as a rather light, melodic instrument in the swing-oriented bands of the early 1940s. Johnson managed the technically virtuosic demands of the new style with ease, however, playing with astonishing facility from the time of his very first recordings.

In fact, many jazz fans listening to Johnson on record at the time assumed that he must be playing a valve trombone because they didn't believe that anyone could possibly move a slide trombone that fast.

"Making that adaptation to the trombone was very demanding," said Don Heckman, The Times' jazz writer. "It took a decade before other trombonists on the whole began to master what Johnson was doing."

Born James Louis Johnson in Indianapolis, Johnson began studying piano with a church organist at age 9. He first learned baritone saxophone in high school because it was the only instrument available to him at the time. When he gained access to a trombone, he learned that too, playing in marching bands sponsored by the high school and the YMCA.

At 18, he left home to begin his professional career as a trombonist. He got his first big break with Benny Carter's orchestra in 1942. Over the next decade, he played with groups led by Count Basie and Illinois Jacquet. His first recorded performance was with Carter's orchestra in 1943.

In 1944, Johnson played in the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert at Philharmonic Hall in Los Angeles. Sponsored by the now legendary impresario Norman Grantz, Jazz at the Philharmonic was billed at the time as "the city's first full-scale jazz concert." Its success fostered nationwide tours and a series of well-received albums.

From 1946 on, Johnson turned his attention to bebop playing and recording with Parker, Gillespie and Jacquet.

"J.J. Johnson was to the trombone what [Dizzy] Gillespie was to the trumpet--the definitive trendsetter who established beyond doubt that bebop was not beyond the technical possibilities of the instrument," the late jazz critic Leonard Feather wrote some years ago.

In 1949, Johnson played with Davis on his influential "Birth of the Cool" recording.

But after a problematic USO tour of Asia in 1951 with another band, Johnson gave up music and found work as a blueprint inspector for a manufacturing firm. He played only occasionally for a couple of years, then returned to active performance when he formed a two-trombone quintet with Kai Winding. The Jay and Kai pairing was commercially successful for a couple of years before both men moved on to new projects.

Over the years, Johnson led a succession of popular groups, but by the 1960s, he had disbanded his touring and recording sextet and was increasingly turning his attention to composition.

His most challenging piece, called "Perceptions," was commissioned by Gillespie. The six-part work was recorded in 1961 under the direction of Gunther Schuller, a noted composer, educator and jazz historian.

By the 1970s, Johnson had moved to Los Angeles to try his hand at writing for movies and television. And although he had virtually given up playing in favor of his compositional work, Johnson continued to win readers' polls in popular jazz magazines as the finest player on the trombone.

In Hollywood, Johnson wrote music for such popular television shows as "Mayberry R.F.D.," "The Danny Thomas Show," "That Girl" and "Mod Squad." He also found movie work, either orchestrating or writing the music for films such as "Shaft" and "Cleopatra Jones."

But Johnson never believed he got the opportunities his distinguished career as a musician and composer merited. And race, he believed, was the reason.

"Film scoring is still a white world," Johnson told Heckman in 1996. "That's the way it is, that's the way it always has been. . . . The four or five major films I did were all about black people.

"A black film composer will never do a big budget picture like 'Jurassic Park' or 'The Fugitive'--the biggies," he said. "We won't get there."

In the early 1990s, he returned to Indianapolis. His first wife, Vivian, died after suffering a stroke when a Johnson-led band was on the road in Tokyo. After a period of depression, he remarried and began playing again, recording his last album, "Heroes," in 1998.

He is survived by his wife, Carolyn Johnson. Funeral arrangements were incomplete.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World