J. J. Johnson is captured performing in Germany at the Bern Jazz Festival in 1993.
James Louis Johnson was born on January 22, 1924 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Johnson began studying piano at the age of nine and took up the trombone at age fourteen because it was a missing instrument from a band started with his friends at the time. J.J. began his professional career with Snookum Russell playing along side Fats Navarro. In 1942 Johnson was hired by Benny Carter and performed in his orchestra until he joined Count Basie’s in 1945. After playing with Count Basie, Johnson moved into the next phase of himself and began performing in small group settings performing bebop which had not been done by a trombone player before. Dizzy Gillespie commented at the time, “I've always known that the trombone could be played different, that somebody'd catch on one of these days. Man, you're elected." J.J. toured with Illinois Jaquet in 1947 and also led and recorded with small groups featuring Max Roach, Bud Powell, Sonny Stitt and Charlie Parker.
Johnson toured the military camps of Japan and Korea with Oscar Pettiford and Howard McGhee in the early ‘50s before returning to the states to record the classic album “Walkin” with Miles Davis in 1954. J.J. then formed his famous quintet with fellow trombone player Kai Winding which was very well received by fans. The two trombone players had contrasting styles that blended perfectly together and would join each other for reunions throughout both their careers. In 1967 they recorded with Sarah Vaughan on her last recording session for Mercury Records called ‘Sassy Swings Again’. In the late ‘50s Johnson led several more small groups including bands with Clifford Jordan, Nat Adderley, Freddie Hubbard, Tommy Flanagan, Cedar Walton, Elvin Jones and Albert ‘Tootie’ Heath. It was during this period he recorded one of his great albums ‘Blue Trombone’.
In 1960s and ‘70s J.J. focused much more on writing and arranging. He began contributing to the movement called Third Stream which was the blending of Jazz and Classical music made famous by John Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet. In 1961 he composed a suite in six movements called ‘Perceptions’ with Dizzy Gillespie as the soloist. In 1968 he was commissioned by the American Wind Symphony and wrote a piece called ‘Diversions’ which was performed in by them in Pittsburgh. In 1970 Quincy Jones convinced J.J. to move out west and compose music for films and television. Johnson wrote scores for such films as "Cleopatra Jones," "Top of the Heap" and "Willie Dynamite" as well as television shows "Starsky & Hutch," "Mike Hammer" and "The Six Million Dollar Man." Johnson still managed to find some time to play while composing and worked in the Coconut Grove Orchestra of Sammy Davis Jr., the orchestra on the Carol Burnett show and six albums as a leader as well as sideman for an album with Count Basie.
It wasn’t until 1987 that Johnson went back to performing fulltime, kicking things off with a show at the Village Vanguard in New York City. He continued to perform around the world and recording albums until he stopped performing all together in 1996, to work on arranging and composing as well as his love for MIDI. J.J. passed away in 2001. Johnson was voted into the Down Beat magazine Hall of Fame in 1995 and was so popular he would win Trombonist of the Year from the magazine even during periods of time when he wasn’t recording or performing. J.J. is remembered as the greatest jazz trombone player who ever lived and he leaves a legacy on the instrument equal to Charlie Parker on alto saxophone or Miles Davis on trumpet.
“There are no black film composers doing the likes of Star Wars, doing the likes of E.T., doing the likes of Jurassic Park. There are none, nor will there ever be one. That ain't about to happen!”
“Most of the time that was the priority in stepping outside the jazz arena, to have a good look at jazz from outside looking in. Sometimes you need to get out, to get a good look at what's happening on the inside. Sometimes you need to stand with your nose to the window and have a good look at jazz. And I've done that on many occasions.”
“Contrary to popular opinion, I was never, never ever, preoccupied and consumed with speed and a virtuoso-type technique. Never! I have been, always was, and still am consumed and preoccupied with the business of playing the instrument with clarity and with logic and with some kind of expressiveness, if you will. So that if my trombone playing has a persona--I hope that it does--it is based on that desire to project on the instrument an improvisation with logic and with clarity, leaving no question in your mind as to, "What was he trying to do?" – J.J. Johnson