His funeral in Indianapolis drew jazz musicians, friends and family from around the country. Johnson was one of the first trombonists to embrace bebop music. He has long been regarded as one of the leading trombonists of the post-swing era, exerting a pervasive influence on other jazz musicians. Johnson’s work in the 1940s and 1950s demonstrated that the slide trombone could be played in the bebop style; as trombonist Steve Turre has summarized, “J. J. did for the trombone what Charlie Parker did for the saxophone. And 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.”
Johnson was born in Indianapolis on. At the age of 9, he studied piano with a church organist and became very interested in music during his second year at Crispus Attucks High School. The only school instrument available to him at the time was a baritone saxophone. J.J. played this instrument for a very short time and, at the age of fourteen, picked up the trombone, playing in the high school band as well as the brass marching band of the YMCA.
In 1941, he started his professional career with Clarence Love, but by the time he was eighteen, J.J. left home to play with Snookum Russel’s band, of which Fats Navarro was also a member, Navarro influenced him to play in the style of the tenor saxophonist Lester Young.
Johnson than went on to play with other legendary jazzers Benny Carter (from 1942-45), Count Basie (from 1945-46), and Illinois Jacquet (from 1947-49). The earliest recordings of J.J. are from October 1943 with the Benny Carter Orchestra, although he functioned only as a section player. Johnson’s first recorded solo, only twelve measures long, was with this group on the Capitol label on the track “Love for Sale.”
In 1944, he played at the very first concert of Jazz at the Philharmonic. J.J.’s fluid style and rapid fire technique on the trombone soon gained him notoriety. His technique on slide trombone was so clean, in fact, that most people at the time swore he was playing valve trombone. J.J. has stated that his “original influences were Pres and Roy, then Diz and Bird”. In 1945 he joined the big band of Count Basie, touring and recording with him until 1946.
While the trombone was featured prominently in Dixieland and swing music, it fell out of favor among bebop musicians, largely because instruments with valves and keys (trumpet, saxophone) were believed to be more suited to bebop’s often rapid tempos and demand for technical mastery. In 1946, bebop co-inventor Dizzy Gillespie encouraged the young trombonist’s development with the comment, “I’ve always known that the trombone could be played different, that catch on one of these days. Man, you’re elected.”
After leaving Basie in 1946 to play in small bebop bands in New York clubs, Johnson toured in 1947 with Illinois Jacquet. During this period he also began recording as a leader of small groups featuring Max Roach, Sonny Stitt and Bud Powell. He performed with Charlie Parker at the 17 December 1947 Dial Records session following Parker’s release from Camarillo State Mental Hospital.
In October 1951, with bassist Oscar Pettiford and trumpeter Howard McGhee, Johnson toured the military camps of Japan, Korea, and Southern Pacific islands. However, this group encountered internal problems that resulted in Pettiford leaving the tour early to return to the United States.
When Johnson returned to the US, he took a day job as a blueprint inspector for Sperry Gyroscope, performing only occasionally. Johnson admitted later he was still thinking of nothing but music during that time, and indeed, his classic Blue Note Records recordings as both a leader and with Miles Davis date from this period.
On April 20th, he recorded for Blue Note with the Miles Davis sextet on the titles “Tempus Fugit,” “Ray’s Idea,” “C.T.A.,” and Johnson’s own compositions “Kelo” and “Enigma.” It wasn’t until the next year, 1954, that he quit his job and started playing with fellow trombonist, Kai Winding. This led to the formation of the Jay & Kai group, which stayed together for the next couple years and enjoyed critical acclaim.
In 1954 producer Ozzie Cadena, then with Savoy Records, convinced Johnson to set up a combo with trombonist Kai Winding called The Jay and Kai Quintet. The trombone styles and personalities of the two musicians, although very different, blended so well that the pairing, which lasted until August 1956, was a huge success both musically and commercially. They toured US nightclubs constantly and recorded numerous albums before parting amicably, satisfied that they had fully explored (and exploited) their novel group.
Following the mid-1950s collaboration with Winding, J. J. Johnson began leading his own touring small groups for about 3 years, covering the US, the UK and Scandinavia. These groups (ranging from quartets to sextets) included tenor saxophonists Bobby Jaspar and Clifford Jordan, cornetist Nat Adderley, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, pianists Tommy Flanagan and Cedar Walton, and drummers Elvin Jones, Albert “Tootie” Heath, and Roach.
The New York Classical Jazz and Classical Music Society commissioned J.J. to compose a piece for solo brass instruments and brass ensemble. This resulted in his piece “Poem for Brass,” which was recorded in October of 1956. According to Schuller, this music was “third stream”, his term for music that combined the jazz and classical idioms.
Johnson became an active contributor to the Third Stream movement in jazz, (which included such other musicians as Gunther Schuller and John Lewis), and wrote a number of large-scale works which incorporated elements of both classical and jazz music. He contributed his Poem for Brass to a Third Stream compilation titled “Music for Brass” in 1957, and composed a number of original works which were performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1957, Johnson recorded the quartet albums “First Place” and “Blue Trombone,” with Flanagan, Paul Chambers and Roach. He also toured with the Jazz at the Philharmonic show in 1957 and 1960, the first tour yielding a live album featuring Johnson and tenor saxophonist Stan Getz. In 1958–59 Johnson was one of three plaintiffs in a court case which hastened the abolition of the cabaret card system.
The Jay and Kai Quintet reunited again in 1958 for a tour of Great Britain, an Impulse! studio album in 1960 and in 1968–1969 (two albums for CTI/A&M Records). Meanwhile, late 1959 saw J.J. reorganizing his sextet, keeping prior members Cedar Walton on piano, Albert Heath on drums, and Clifford Jordan on saxophone. To this, he added Freddie Hubbard on trumpet and Arthur Harper on bass. After working steadily for nine months, the group recorded one of J.J.’s best albums, “J.J. Inc.” This album included seven original tunes- “Shutterbug,” “Fatback,” “Aquarius,” “In Walked Horace,” “Minor Mist,” “Mohawk,” and “Turnpike” (this was not issued on the original vinyl album, but was included when the album was re-released on CD in 1998).
J.J. disbanded the sextet in September of 1960 so he could work on his compositional skills. From this month on to March 1961, he worked on a composition entitled “Perceptions,” written for orchestra and commissioned by Dizzy Gillespie. The six-part work was recorded on May 22, 1961 with a large orchestra under the direction of Gunther Schuller, who had this to say about J.J.: “His compositional abilities and his range of expressions . . . have expanded with each new work through the years. Beyond all externals of form and technique, this music combines an eloquent musical imagination with a strongly disciplined mind, producing an enjoyable music of depth, pulsating warmth and infectious spirit.”
In 1961, he composed a suite in six movements, titled Perceptions, with Gillespie as soloist. The First International Jazz Festival, held in Washington, D.C. in 1962, featured another extended work. In 1962 Johnson toured for a number of months with the Miles Davis Sextet of that year, which went unrecorded.
Johnson’s 1963 solo album “J. J.’s Broadway” is an example of both his mature trombone style and sound, and his arranging abilities. 1964 saw the recording of his last working band for a period of over 20 years, “Proof Positive.”
In July of 1964, he joined the Radio Corporation of America’s roster of musicians and toured Japan with a sextet including Clark Terry and Sonny Stitt. Beginning in 1965 Johnson recorded a number of large group studio albums under his name, featuring many of his own compositions and arrangements. In 1965 he spent time in Vienna to perform and record his Euro Suite with a jazz-classical fusion orchestra led by Friedrich Gulda.
The late 1960s saw a radical downturn in the fortunes of many jazz musicians and Johnson was consequently heard almost exclusively on big band-style studio records, usually backing a single soloist. In January 1967, Johnson and Winding were in an all-star line-up (alongside the likes of Clark Terry, Charlie Shavers and Joe Newman) backing Sarah Vaughan on her last sessions for Mercury Records, released as the album “Sassy Swings Again,” with three of the cuts, including Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the “A” Train”, being arranged by Johnson himself. The duo would also make some jazz festival appearances in Japan in the early 1980s, the last shortly before Winding died in May 1983.
In 1968, J.J. was commissioned by Robert A. Boudreau, Music Director of the American Wind Symphony Orchestra, located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The resulting piece was “Diversions for Six Trombones, Celeste, Harp, and Percussion.”
At the urging of Quincy Jones, J.J. moved from New York to Los Angeles in 1970 to write music for movies and television. Some of his first work was a little orchestration work for “The Adventurers” and composing music for “Barefoot in the Park” Other film scores included “Man and Boy” (1971), “Shaft” (1971), “Top of the Heap” (1972), “Across 110th Street” (1972), “Cleopatra Jones” (1973) and “Willie Dynamite” (1974). He was later assigned to write music for four popular television shows, “Mayberry R.F.D.,” “The Danny Thomas Show,” “That Girl,” and “The Mod Squad,” “Starsky & Hutch,” “Mike Hammer” and “The Six Million Dollar Man.”
Oddly enough, J.J. was winning polls as the best jazz trombonist at this time, even though he wasn’t actively playing. Despite his small level of success, Johnson acknowledged that racism and other prejudices kept a black jazz musician such as himself from securing the amount and quality of work he was qualified to perform. During this period, he played almost no concerts, except in 1977 and 1982 in Japan, and in 1984 in Europe. Despite the low profile, he did record six albums as a leader between 1977 and 1984 (including a 1984 trombone duo album with Al Grey) and a few albums as a sideman, two with Basie, and on “The Sting II” soundtrack. During the California period he also played in the Cocoanut Grove orchestra of Sammy Davis, Jr. and the TV orchestra of Carol Burnett.
Around the time he was recording for Antilles, he and his wife, Vivian, moved to his hometown Indianapolis. Sadly, several years later, Vivian passed away. J.J. dedicated an album to her, simply entitled “Vivian.” Eventually, J.J. started performing more frequently for the public in November 1987, and in 1988, he played the Village Vanguard in New York, where Slide Hampton made his way onstage and presented him with a scroll signed by many grateful trombonists in show of their gratitude for his contribution to jazz. Tours of the United States, Europe and Japan followed as well as a return engagement to the Vanguard in July 1988 which yielded two albums worth of material.
While touring Japan in December 1988, Johnson learned that his wife Vivian had suffered a bad stroke, which incapacitated her for her remaining three and a half years of life. During this period Johnson cancelled all work, devoting his energy to caring for his ailing wife. After her death in 1991, he dedicated an album to her on Concord. A year later the former Carolyn Reid became his second wife, and Johnson began actively performing once again. Following this second comeback in 1992, Johnson’s contracts with a variety of record labels, including Verve and Antilles, resulted in five albums as a leader, from small groups to separate brass orchestra and string orchestra recordings, as well as sideman appearances with his leading disciple, trombonist Steve Turre, and the vocalist Abbey Lincoln. He earned several Grammy nominations during this period. He retired from active performing and touring in late 1996, after having performed his last concert at William Paterson College on November 10, 1996, then choosing to stay at his home in Indianapolis where he could indulge his passion of composing and arranging music with computers and MIDI.
In the June 1997 issue of Downbeat magazine, J.J. announced his retirement from live performances. The next few years were spent in his hometown of Indianapolis, composing works on his Macintosh Quadra and occasionally offering input to the J.J. Johnson Mailing List. A book also came out written by Joshua Berret and Louis Bourgois III entitled “The Musical World of J.J. Johnson.”
Later diagnosed with prostate cancer, Johnson initially maintained a positive outlook and underwent treatment. He wrote a book of original exercises and etudes for jazz musicians, published later by Hal Leonard. A biography titled “The Musical World of J. J. Johnson” was published in 2000.