Bebop + Trombone = J.J. Johnson

Written by Áron Simon
Edited by Sarah Tako


During the prosperity of bebop there were many virtuoso trombone players who excelled; among these are Frank Rosolino, Urbie Green, Carl Fontana, Eddie Bert, Kai Winding and J.J. Johnson. Of these, Johnson was the one who played together with bebop fellows like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, or Miles Davis. As legendary jazz trombonist Steve Turre once said: “J.J. did for the trombone what Charlie Parker did for the saxophone.” The pioneers, these two solo trombone players, together with Kai Winding, eventually gained adherents to their jazz set up. Johnson’s compositional work was remarkable, and many of his compositions have become jazz standards, for example: “Wee Dot,” “Lament,” ”Enigma” and the ”Elora” have come to define the genre. How did a trombone player get to be a part of mainstream bebop, in the smoked 52nd street of Manhattan?  Before answering this question, let's take stock of the genre itself, from its birth until this point in time.

J. J. Johnson

Bepop is well-known for its quick tempo, instrumental improvisation, and an approach that brings the melody and harmony into contact from a new point of view. At the start of the 40’s,  the style was shaped by the younger generation of jazz musicians from the swing music of the 30’s. Modern jazz history commenced as this style fizzled out in the 60’s. Bebop introduced a drastic change in the contemporary period of swing music because its songs were fast paced and consisted of unsymmetrical phrases and complicated melodies. The music itself hasn’t become popular among the ordinary/global music listener, who were already used to Benny Goodman’s and Glenn Miller’s more danceable music.      

By that time, social and economic changes started to have an effect on the development of bebop. Slump was followed by prosperity and the disquiet and restlessness accompanying World War II, the function of the black soldiers in the army, the metropolitan lifestyle, the rejection of the role of the entertainment industry marked by Fats Waller, Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong all contributed to a new self-conscious black community. As a musician, Johnson was already in possession of his artist status, which was a rejection of white culture and an emphasis on the cultivation of black heritage. While swing was founded on big instrumentation, bebop focused on the soloist. Some themes sound tutti in the beginning and at the end of the tracks and in the middle part improvisations followed by the soloists. The world of the jazz harmony was expanded in the age of bebop. Complex chords appeared, that made modern the already predictable harmonies. The composition of classical bebop orchestra was made by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to include the saxophone, trumpet, double-bass and piano.   

Trombone was used in swing and dixieland, and was out of favor among the bebop musicians in the beginning. A probable reason being, instruments with keyboards and pistons could more easily overcome the new technical challenge of a quick tempo. For this, many virtuoso trombone players jumped on the bebop train much later on, among them J.J. Johnson first and foremost.

James Louis "J. J." Johnson was born in 1924 and started to play the trombone at the age of 14. Instead of attending college, Johnson began touring. He played in different territory bands, where he recorded his first albums. In Snookum Russell’s band he played together with the trumpeter Fats Navarro, who motivated him to develop his technical knowledge and ability on the trombone. After Benny Carter’s orchestra, he went on tour with the famous Count Basie Big Band and was making recordings until 1946.   



He left Basie Big Band and played in different clubs, with different bebop ensemble groups in New York City. By then, he had already played together with renowned musicians like Max Roach, Sonny Stitt and Bud Powell. In December of 1947, he played along with Charlie Parker. In the beginning of the 50’s, many of his songs were recorded by Miles Davis, in the studio sessions orchestra of whom he was playing with at the time.



In 1954, they established their common group with trombonist Kai Winding. This group was worked until 1983, until Winding’s death. During their common job they recorded and published 12 albums, among other thing with the Columbia Records. Amongst these we find such unique albums as Jay & Kay + 6, for which trombone octet, piano, double bass, percussion transcriptions were composed. This album is pretty special as well because you can hear the sound of the trombonium with Windings, an instrument that is rarely used today. 



At the beginning of the 60’s, Johnson devoted more and more time to composing music. In his music, classical and jazz elements are amalgamated. In 1970, he moved from New York to California by Quincy Jones’ persuasion. In California he composed soundtracks and music of many TV series for Hollywood. At the time he focused on composition and didn’t play many concerts.

In 1987, he returned to the life of an attractive musician but at the end of 1988 because of his wife’s illness he gave up all of his works. One year after her death, in 1992 he remarried and he flung himself into the job again. At that time, he was nominated for a Grammy award several times. He gave his last concert in 1996, then he moved back home to Indianapolis, where his time was dedicated to composition and instrumentation. Later on, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. His attitude towards his sickness was positive and he underwent treatments. Moreover, he even wrote a book about exercises and etudes for jazz musicians. A biographical book was published about him in 2000. In 2001, he committed suicide. 

J.J. Johnson’s heritage is summarized most eloquently by Steve Turre: “[…] all of us that are playing today wouldn't be playing the way we're playing if it wasn't for what he did. And not only, of course, is he the master of the trombone—the definitive master of this century—but, as a composer and arranger, he is in the top shelf as well.”

Here, www.sakermusic.eu you can find the 8-trombone transcript of Elora by J.J. Johnson. 


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