Johnson, J. J. (James Louis)

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Johnson, J. J. (James Louis)

Johnson, J. J. (James Louis), influential jazz trombonist, composer; b. Indianapolis, Ind., Jan. 22, 1924. His speed and facility were so surprising that from 1946 on he was suspected of playing a valve rather than a slide trombone. He influenced several generations of players, including Robin Eubanks and Conrad Herwig. His early solos are filled with impressive runs that often get repeated from take to take; by the late 1950s his solos were moving and structured organically (one idea leading to the next) rather than from predetermined licks.

Johnson began to play the piano at the age of nine with a church organist and the trombone at 14. His original influences were Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, and Fred Beckett. He toured with Clarence Love and Isaac “Snookum”Russell (1941-2; the latter with Fats Navarro) before attracting attention and making his first recordings and broadcasts as a member of Benny Carter’s Orch. (1942–15), and an appearance with the band in “As Thousands Cheer.” He also soloed at length on the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in 1944. After working with Count Basie (1945–46), he settled in N.Y. and did stints with various artists, notably Charlie Parker, with whom he recorded in December 1947. During this time period Parker and Gillespie had a great influence on him; he also began using a felt hat as a mute. He toured and recorded with Illinois Jacquet (1947–49). He toured Korea, Japan, and the South Pacific with a group led by Oscar Pettiford for the USO (1951). He temporarily left performing due to problems with drugs and worked as a blueprint inspector from August 1952-May 1954. During this period he recorded important sessions with Miles Davis and Clifford Brown, and as a leader, but declined gigs with Davis so as to hold onto his job. In 1954, he resumed his career, recording a much admired solo on “Walkin” with Davis and touring with Kai Winding in a group known as Jay and Kai; then formed his own quintet (1956–60), with which he toured Europe. In the later 1950s, he became a major witness in the case against the N.Y.C, practice of requiring cabaret cards for musicians. From September 1960 to March 1961, he worked on “Perceptions,” a piece written for orchestra with Dizzy Gillespie. The six-part work was recorded in May 1961 under the direction of Günther Schuller and was performed at Monterey in September 1961. After working with Miles Davis (1961–62), Johnson took a year off from playing to work on arrangements for his album J. J. ’s Broadway. He then formed his own quartet to play clubs and concerts. In July 1964, he toured Japan with a sextet including Clark Terry and Sonny Stitt. He gave increasing attention to composition, moving to Los Angeles as a composer for film and television in 1970; he studied with Earle Hagen and wrote music for television shows, including The Mod Squad, Mike Hammer, Harry-O, Starsky and Hutch, Six Million Dollar Man, The Rookies, and Barefoot in the Park, and films including Across 110th Street, Shaft, and Cleopatra Jones.He returned to active touring in 1977.

In April 1996 he was honored with a retrospective concert of his works played by the Harvard Univ. Jazz Band directed by Tom Everett, and a brief residency. He gave his last public concert at William Paterson Coll. on Nov. 10, 1996. In the June 1997 he announced that he was retiring from playing live performances.


Mad Bebop (1946); Jazz Quintet (1946); Afternoon at Birdland (1947); Jay and Kai (1947); Jay and Kai, Vol. 3 (1949); Modern Jazz Trombone Series, Vol. 1 (1949); Trombone by Three(1949); Modem jazz Trombone Series, Vol. 2 (1949); The Eminent Jay Jay Johnson, Vol. 2 (1954); J.J. Johnson, Kai Winding, Bennie Green with Strings (1954); Kai Winding & J. J. Johnson: East Coast Jazz Series, Vol.7 (1955); The Finest ofj. J. Johnson Jazz Workshop, Vol. 2 Trombone Rapport (1955); The Eminent J. J. Johnson, Vol. 3 (1955); East Coast Jazz 7 (1955); Trombone for Two (1955); Jay and Kai Octet (1956); Dave Brubeck and Jay & Kai at Newport (1956); Kai + J. J. (1956); J Is for Jazz (1956); Live at the Cafe Bohemia (1957); First Place (1957); Blue Trombone (1957); Trombone Master (1957); Mr. Jay Jay Johnson: Live (1957); At the Opera House (live; 1957); J. J. in Person (1958); Dial J. J. (1958); Really Livin’ (1959); Trombone and Voices (1960); J. J. Inc. (1960); The Great Kai & J. J. (1960); A Touch of Satin (1960); Perceptions (1961); Andre Previn and J. J. Johnson Play “Mack the Knife” (1962); J. J.’s Broadway (1963); Proof Positive (1964); Say When (1964); J. J. with Big Band (1964); Goodies (1965); Broadway Express (1965); The Total J. J. Johnson (1966); Israel (1968); Betwixt and Between (1968); Stonebone (1969); Man & Boy (1971); Yokohama Concert (live; 1977); Pinnacles (1979); Concepts in Blue (1980); Aurex Jazz Festival (1982): All Star Jam (live; 1982); Well Be Together Again (1983); Things Are Getting Better All the Time (1983); Quintergy: Live (1988); Standards: Live at the Village (1988); Vivian (1992); Let’s Hang Out (1992); Tangence (1994); J. J.J (1995); Jazz Quintets (1996); Brass Orchestra (1996); Heroes (1999).


D. Baker, J. J. J. (N.Y., 1979); J. Berrett and L. Bourgois III, The Musical World ofj. J. J. Johnson (Lanham, Md., 1999).

—Lewis Porter/Joshua Berrett