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Spearheading one of the trombone's earliest forays into the bop world, J.J. Johnson is nothing short of a legendary innovator on his home instrument. Often lauded amongst jazz trombonists as one of the greatest bone players of all time, many see J.J. as the progenitor of the bebop trombone style. With a full, emphatic tone coupled with an idiomatic approach to the horn, Johnson solidified himself within an ever-changing landscape of increasingly intimidating musicians as an equally brilliant improvisor with a one-of-a-kind voice — an impressive feat considering his instrument of choice.
In contrast to the sounds of other trombonists belonging to the 30's swing band era, Johnson was successfully able to adopt the technically-demanding vocabulary of the bebop style and adapt it for the slide trombone. Before the trombone found its place bebop's instrumental roster, its role of expertise was found in the swing ensemble, able to deliver mellow, silky-smooth solos that were lyrical and ballad-like (exemplified by players such as Dicky Wells, Trummy Young and Tommy Dorsey).
This all changed with the rise of the eminent Charlie Parker and the forerunners of bebop — Johnson followed suit and took the sound of the trombone in an entirely different direction, keeping up with the quicker tempos, challenging heads and complex chord changes that were staples of the genre. Such virtuosic playing from Johnson can be heard on the track Charlie's Wig, recorded with figureheads such as Parker himself, Max Roach and Miles Davis in 1947.
Whilst he was heavily influenced by the bebop masters such as Bird and Diz, as well as tenor saxophone legend Lester "Prez" Young, Johnson's voice quickly developed into a rounder, polished sound with language more befitting the physically-demanding nature of the trombone's slide. This culminated into a dynamic language ripe with idiomatic musical ideas and repeated lick-like motifs that were developed masterfully over time — Johnson's knack for maintaining musical interest with nothing but a sparse handful of melodic elements is expertly demonstrated on the track Blue Trombone. Such a recognisably captivating approach to improvisation set the precedent for many trombonists that succeeded him; fellow trombonist Curtis Fuller once said of him, "[a]s a jazz soloist... in the vernacular of bebop, [Johnson] was the trombonist for that language."
Beyond his penchant for crafting melodically stimulating ideas, Johnson brandished formidable technical prowess — his playing was so precise that oftentimes listeners were purportedly mistaken into thinking he was playing valve trombone instead. As the Times' jazz writer Don Heckman noted, "[i]t took a decade before trombonists on the whole began to master what Johnson was doing". Johnson's astonishing control over the instrument granted him a wide gamete of musical expression, from executing flawless, blistering lines over up-tempo blues such as Blues in The Closet with Stan Getz, to waxing sonorously poetic over ballads such as Lament, a well-known jazz standard and original composition of his.
The mid 50's saw Johnson's launch critical acclaim after meeting trombonist Kai Winding; the two would form a duo named "Jay and Kai" (sometimes stylised as "J and K") which, between 1954 and 1956, would see huge commercial success and bring trombone-centred ensembles into the limelight. While the two would inevitably go their separate ways, Winding and Johnson would reunite on many occasions to produce records and perform live. Some notable albums from the duo include The Great Kai and J.J., a greatly-anticipated reunion album with an all-star rhythm section, and Jay & Kai + 6, a dynamic brassy explosion of eight trombones appropriately credited as the Jay and Kai Trombone Octet.
It was also around this time when Johnson began to flex his muscles in the fields of arrangement and composition, shifting his focus as a musician more towards writing music. A tour de force record of his career as a soloist, J.J. Inc., features seven original compositions by Johnson, and the album J.J.'s Broadway is comprised primarily of his own arrangements. However, as his skills as a composer continued to develop, he began turning towards larger projects; upon being commissioned by Dizzy Gillespie who was impressed with his previous works, Johnson wrote and arranged an entire six-movement suite entitled Perceptions for five trumpets plus solo trumpet, four french horns and two harps. He continued to make waves in the third stream community throughout the 1960's with grand works such as Euro Suite, performed and directed by Austrian pianist Friedrich Gulda and his jazz-orchestral fusion ensemble.
Despite a notable deal of success as a solo artist, Johnson distanced himself from the jazz scene for a significant portion of his later career; later on in life, he'd go on to say "sometimes you need to stand with your nose to the window and have a good look at jazz," proclaiming that he was met with a sense of disillusionment with the scene. Primarily focusing on composition during the 70's and 80's, Johnson found a place in the Hollywood scene composing theme tunes for film and television, with many of them falling under the "blaxploitation" genre — unfortunately, he was met with a hefty degree of racial discrimination in his line of work, preventing him from progressing further than he did. In his own words, the film community was of a "very racist element" at the time.
It would be seventeen years since Johnson's last major record release when the world would finally witness his return to the jazz scene, recording new works and performing at a myriad of festivals all over the world up until his retirement in the late 1990's. This excerpt from his performance at the 1993 Umbria Jazz Festival highlights how Johnson's playing possessed the same pronounced vitality it had twenty years prior:
Upon peering into the world of jazz for the first time, J.J. was one of the first jazz trombonists I was ever exposed to. As I progressed through his discography, I was struck by just how many iconic licks and lines he'd frequently employ — however, what was even more striking to me was when I expanded to other bop trombonists and realised just how much they were influenced by Johnson's playing. The exact same phrases I'd heard on those classic J.J. records were showing up everywhere, from Curtis Fuller to Slide Hampton to Fred Wesley to Grachan Moncur III and so many others. While it's true that I've naturally moved away from so-called "J.J.-isms" in my playing, his influence has undoubtedly laid the foundation for me and countless other improvising trombonists, past, present and future.
In summation of his style, Johnson himself put it best: "I was never, never ever, preoccupied and consumed with speed and a virtuoso-type technique. Never! I have been, always was... consumed and preoccupied with the business of playing the instrument with clarity and with logic and with some kind of expressiveness." Nothing could ring more true; with an instantly identifiable sound that cuts absolutely no corners, J.J. Johnson's innovative approach to the instrument has had a hand in shaping the historical contour of jazz, and placed him amongst those worthy of the title of greatest jazz trombonist to have ever lived.
YouTube links to all albums/tracks mentioned in this article: