The Musical World Of J.J. Johnson
The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
J.J. Johnson is known to the listening public as a jazz trombonist who has repeatedly won the Downbeat and many other polls, who has played the instrument at super-rapid clips (a Philadelphia nightclub once billed him, Barnum and Bailey style, as "The Fastest Trombone Player Alive!"), and who, with the great Kai Winding, made the famous "J.J. and Kai" recordings showing that the trombone could indeed be a virtuoso instrument. A new and exciting book by Joshua Berrett and Louis Bourgois III entitled The Musical World of J.J. Johnson corroborates these impressions, and more importantly, details the extraordinary contributions that this consummate musician has made to trombone playing, jazz music and musicians, composition, arranging, and a massive number of recording dates over a period of about 55 years. (Berrett and Bourgois document the recorded legacy in a "state of the art" comprehensive discography of J.J. Johnson to be found in the book. Christopher Smith has also assembled a Johnson discography, available on the Web, and has consulted for the book's compilation.) In this scholarly and comprehensive volume, J.J. Johnson consistently comes across as a highly disciplined, multi-faceted, prolific, and creative musician.
J.J. Johnson made an indelible mark on the history of jazz when, with the help of Dizzy Gillespie, he reconfigured trombone playing for the be-bop era, playing linear progressions, minimizing vibrato, and producing a lucid, controlled, and clean sound which yet has the ability to express a wide range of emotions and nusical ideas. The dust jacket of the Berrett/Bourgois volume nicely sums up J.J.'s coming of age as the quintessential be-bop trombonist:
In 1946, Dizzy Gillespie overheard J.J. Johnson using his trombone to make music that until then could only be played on other instruments. Gillespie liked what he heard and effectively invited Johnson into the inner circle of beboppers with the comment, "I've always known that the trombone could be played different, that somebody'd catch on one of these days. Man, you're elected."
Figure 3.2 shows how J.J. and the other beboppers such as Fats Navarro and Charlie Parker, influenced each other's soloing. (The book is rich with transcriptions and excerpts.)
Berrett and Bourgois depict and carefully document the evolution of Johnson from his first days with the trombone at Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis, his fascination with the recordings of the immortal Jack Teagarden, tenor saxophonist Lester Young, and trombonist Fred Beckett, who appears to have in some ways anticipated J.J.'s "linear" style of playing by a generation (see Figure 1.4); to his big band years with LaVon Kemp, Benny Carter, and Count Basie; to his landing on 52nd Street, New York, where the once thriving jazz clubs became the hub of the development of bebop through the likes of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and others who emerged from the big band era to develop the complex harmonies and melodic and rhythmic variations that formed the basis of "modern jazz." Berrett and Bourgois, first highlighting the importance of the predominantly black groups which performed for black audiences in the late ‘thirties and early ‘forties- a crucial aspect of jazz history which is too often neglected- show through historical documents, recordings, and transcriptions (the book has many written out samples of solos and ensemble excerpts) how the music evolved within a social, economic, and political context.
Berrett and Bourgois emphasize the continuity between the jazz of the "swing era" and bebop/ modern jazz. While they support their arguments well, this reviewer, along with a number of other jazz critics, is more taken by the extraordinary advances in playing which seemed to occur over just a few years, from about 1943 to 1950 which changed the face ("cosmetically" for the authors, at the foundations, for this reviewer) of jazz. While the authors correctly point out the role of post-World War II economic factors, they devote relatively little space to the creative formation of the small groups which had been previously overshadowed by the big bands. It was as if the economic forces which led to the attrition of the big bands established a need to capture nuances and complexities which would keep musicians and audiences attuned, a parallel to the dialectic between orchestral and chamber music in classical venues.