Johnson, J.J.

Johnson, J.J.
▪ 2002
James Louis Johnson 
      American jazz musician and composer (b. Jan. 22, 1924, Indianapolis, Ind.—d. Feb. 4, 2001, Indianapolis), was the first trombonist to improvise in the fast, complex phrases of bebop, and he was considered by many the most important modern jazz artist on his instrument. The Johnson style was dominant during the 1950s and '60s; virtually all other bop-era and modal trombonists based their styles on his lyric art. He played in the Benny Carter and Count Basie big bands before becoming active in 1945 in New York-centred bebop circles and working and recording with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Illinois Jacquet, Sonny Stitt, and others. In addition, Johnson led his own groups. By then his sound was smooth in all ranges of his horn, and he played fast melodic phrases, full of short, staccato notes, with great ease. Remarkably, he developed his virtuoso technique on the slide trombone, a singularly unwieldy horn; hearing his early recordings, many listeners assumed he was playing the valve trombone, a far easier instrument to manipulate. For a time Johnson also worked as a blueprint inspector, but the popularity of the unusual Jay and Kai Quintet (1954–56), which included fellow trombonist Kai Winding, enabled him to concentrate on music full-time. The middle and late 1950s were the height of Johnson's career as a soloist; he led his own groups, toured and recorded often, and appeared on noted albums, including Stan Getz and J.J. Johnson at the Opera House (1957) and ones for Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins. He also began composing large-scale works, including Poem for Brass (1956), El Camino Real (1959), Sketch for Trombone and Orchestra (1959), and the suite Perceptions (1961). During 1967–87 he concentrated on composing and arranging for commercials, films (Cleopatra Jones, Barefoot in the Park, and Shaft), and television (That Girl, The Mod Squad, and Starsky and Hutch). When Johnson returned to the limelight (1987–97), his jazz improvisations recaptured the vigour and mastery of his early work.

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▪ American musician
original name  James Louis Johnson 
born Jan. 22, 1924, Indianapolis, Ind., U.S.
died Feb. 4, 2001, Indianapolis
 American jazz composer and one of the genre's most influential trombonists.

      Johnson received early training as a pianist, and at age 14 he began to study the trombone. He became a professional musician in 1941 and during the decade worked in the orchestras of Benny Carter (Carter, Benny) and Count Basie (Basie, Count). He became widely recognized as a dexterous soloist (to the extent that many listeners believed he was playing a valve, rather than slide, trombone) who had assimilated the techniques of the bebop movement of the 1940s. He was in great demand among jazz musicians and performed with Charlie Parker (Parker, Charlie), Dizzy Gillespie (Gillespie, Dizzy), and Miles Davis (Davis, Miles), among others. After a temporary retirement (1952–54), he returned to tour with fellow trombonist Kai Winding; their duets have been recognized as watersheds in the evolution of jazz trombone technique.

      In the late 1950s and the 1960s, Johnson composed steadily, including the large-scale works El Camino Real (1959), Sketch for Trombone and Orchestra (1959), and Perceptions (1961). He also worked as a composer and arranger for commercials, films (including Shaft, 1971, with Isaac Hayes; Across 110th Street, 1972; and Cleopatra Jones, 1973), and television (including Barefoot in the Park, 1970–71, The Mod Squad, 1970–73, and Starsky and Hutch, 1975).

      In 1977 Johnson undertook a tour of Japan, and he eventually returned to performing full-time, and at full technical capacity, until he retired in 1997.

Additional Reading
Joshua Berrett and Louis G. Bourgois III, The Musical World of J.J. Johnson (1999).

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