J.J. Johnson was born in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1924. Considered by many to be the finest trombonist of all time, he somehow transferred the innovations of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to his more challenging instrument, playing with such remarkable speed and deceptive ease that at one time some listeners assumed he was playing valve (rather than slide) trombone. Johnson started touring with territory bands of Clarence Love and Snookum Russell during 1941-2, and then spent 1942-45 with Benny Carter’s band (taking a solo on “Love for Sale” in 1943). Johnson had plenty of solo space when he played with Count Basie’s Orchestra in 1945-6. During 1946-50, he played with all the top bob musicians, including Charlie Parker (with whom he recorded with in 1947), the Dizzy Gillespie big band (1947-9), and the epochal 1949 Miles Davis Capitol album “Birth of the Cool.” His own recordings from the era included such sideman as Bud Powel and Sunny Rollins. Johnson played with Oscar Pettiford (1951) and Miles Davis (1952), but then was outside of music, working as a blueprint inspector for two years (1952-4). His fortune changed when in August 1954, he formed a two-trombone quintet with Kay Winding that became known as Jay and Kay, and was quite popular during its two years. After Johnson and Winding went there own ways, Johnson started to lead his own Quintet. During his career, he recorded on Columbia, Capitol, RCA, Savoy, Blue Note, Prestige, Fantasy, Impulse and Verve Records, among other labels.
A lot more than a trombonist, Johnson also made his mark as an arranger and composer, one who has embodied influences from Basie to Bartok, funky blues to Britten, hard bop to Hindemith, swing to Stravinsky, disco to Schoenberg. Johnson participation in the “Birth of the Cool” sessions expanded his stylistic horizons. John Lewis and Gunther Schuller, in particular, were key figures in stimulating Johnson to move in the direction of third stream compositions. He started to earn high marks following the debut of his extended work “Poem for Brass”, featured on a much-discussed 1956 Columbia album, heralding the classically minded third stream music in jazz. From then on, this major work received numerous concert performances at Colleges and Universities, by the US Marine Band, and by various Symphony Orchestras. Dizzy Gillespie having heard “Poem for Brass”, commissioned Johnson in 1960 to write a work for him. He composed “Perceptions.” It was recorded in 1961 on Verve Records featuring Dizzy Gillespie. The album was well received and critically acclaimed. By the late ‘60s, Johnson was busy writing television and film scores. J.J. Johnson was so famous in the jazz world that he kept on winning Downbeat polls in the 1970s, even though he was not playing at all. After a Japanese tour in 1977, Johnson gradually returned to a busy performance schedule, leading a quintet in the 1980’s. And in the mid-‘90s, he remained at the top of his field; by the late ‘90s and early into the 2000s, the legendary musician fell ill with prostate cancer, and sadly took his own life on February 4, 2001.
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