In sports there are some particularly superlative athletes who also stick around long enough for observers to remark that if you divided their careers in half, each half would represent a career worthy of the corresponding hall of fame. While that’s not the way jazz works, exactly, the same principle applies to J.J. Johnson, who was born 100 years ago yesterday (oops). While he was writing distinctive compositions as early as the 1940s, the way he burst onto the scene as a trombone soloist at that time was profoundly game-changing, demonstrating the capacity of that instrument to be (in the right hands/mouthpieces) a powerful part of bebop. Indeed, while there have certainly been other great trombonists in the history of jazz, J.J.’s work had firmly established him as the towering figure of modern jazz trombone by the mid-1950s.
And then he had another forty-plus years to add to his legacy. His writing became more elaborate and ambitious (and more central to his livelihood), and his undiminished command of the trombone put him into a realm where it’s almost dismissive to emphasize the instrument he played, so universal is the brilliance of his improvisations. Every day is a good day to celebrate J.J. Johnson, but today is a particularly good one.
With apologies for all the J.J. records and sideman records (including classics by Stan Getz, asdf) for which I couldn’t make room, here are ten among my personal favorites in chronological order.
1 ) “Jay Bird” from J.J. Johnson’s Jazz Quintet (1946)
This track (from a compilation of three different sessions) comes from J.J.’s first session as a bandleader, and it’s striking how mature his conception already was. This one of several of his impeccable bebop compositions from this session and his solo lines dodge and dart through the chord progression, inspired by the prodding of bebop architects Max Roach and Bud Powell.
2 ) “Drifting on a Reed” by Charlie Parker from various compilations(1947)
Serving as a trombone soloist alongside the kingpin of bebop, Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, is not a task for the faint of heart or the deficient of chops. J.J. was neither of these things, and his fluid, assured playing following Parker’s own solo is both a highlight of Bird’s work for Dial Records and a
3 ) “Coffee Pot” from The Eminent J.J. Johnson (1954)
The two volumes of The Eminent J.J. Johnson on Blue Note Records provide multiple examples of J.J.’s unprecedented flow over very fast tempos, and I don’t think it is hyperbolic to suggest that he basically wrote the book on this with these recordings. I chose this tune, a Johnson original composition over the chord progression to “All God’s Children Got Rhythm” in large part because as the only wind soloist here, his own playing is featured particularly prominently, though the fiery work of Wynton Kelly, Charles Mingus, Kenny Clarke, and Sabu Martinez keeps things chugging along as well.
4 ) “Blue Trombone (Vol. 1 & 2)” from Blue Trombone (1957)
So much brilliant trombone, wow. This track is on the one hand less “impressive” than the prior one if measured simply by the fact that the tune has a simpler chord progression (a blues) and is taken at a much more relaxed tempo. The result, though, is a comparatively blank canvas in which J.J., sandwiched among great solos by pianist Tommy Flanagan, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Max Roach, has two extended solos of his own and demonstrates the bottomless well of creativity and vocabulary he brought to the table.
5 ) “Mack the Knife” from Mack the Knife by J.J. Johnson and Andre Previn (1961)
This album is out of print but this track is available on various compilations of the work of the multifaceted Andre Previn, a skilled jazz pianist but known more for his work as a composer, conductor, and classical pianist. One of the things for which J.J. is known is his involvement in the so-called “third stream,” the melding of jazz and European classical music, both for his composing in that vein and for his involvement as a trombonist on sessions that are important parts of that oeuvre. This track represents a variation on that – the polytonal (in lay terms: playing in multiple keys at once) interpretation of the familiar melody suggests the influence of modern classical music, but that this influential performance is not relegated to the realm of “intellectual curiosity” hinges in large part on the extraordinarily swinging and melodic trombone solo that J.J. delivers.
6 ) “Nutville” from The Cape Verdean Blues by Horace Silver(1965)
There’s so much great work by J.J. as a bandleader in this era that I was a little ambivalent about putting a sideman recording in here, but this is not just any sideman recording, given that J.J. is given co-billing as a featured soloist on the record. This track demonstrates his command of upbeat Latin grooves and of more harmonically modern settings, as he fits right in next to Joe Henderson and Woody Shaw, the young cutting-edge soloists who made up Silver’s front line at the time.
7 ) “In Walked Horace” from The Total J.J. Johnson (1966)
I could easily have focused this whole list on J.J.’s work as a composer for larger ensembles, and this big band record is one of my favorite examples thereof, constantly juxtaposing familiar, traditional sounds with quirkier sonorities. On this track the percussion (hand and mallet) is one such quirk, as some would also consider the flutes (particularly that of Jerome Richardson, whose swinging solo precedes J.J.’s own) to be. Of course with J.J.’s pen and trombone and a swinging rhythm section like this (Hank Jones, Ron Carter, and Grady Tate) quirkiness isn’t the dominant trait.
8 ) “Mojo” from J & K: Stonebone by J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding(year)
It was important to represent the influential and popular two-trombone group pairing J.J. with Danish-born trombonist Kai Winding. I could have easily put in something from one of their very straight-ahead 1950s records, but this Johnson composition (a noteworthy example of the burgeoning sound of the CTI record label) not only showcases their brilliant playing and ability to inspire one another, but also foreshadows J.J.’s distinctive (if perhaps surprising to some straight-ahead jazz enthusiasts) funk-infused writing for Hollywood in the 1970s.
9 ) “Lament” from Jackson, Johnson, Brown, and Company by Milt Jackson, J.J. Johnson, and Ray Brown (1983)
There needed to be a ballad on this list, given what a lyrical genius J.J. was. This Johnson original is one of the few ballads in the modern jazz canon (alongside such tunes as “’Round Midnight” and “I Remember Clifford”) to fall within the stylistic realm of the best-loved Tin Pan Alley standards while becoming ubiquitous itself. There are numerous great recordings of the tune to choose from (including those recorded by others, such as Hank Jones and Miles Davis/Gil Evans), and I chose this one for the delightful rapport between J.J. and vibraphonist Milt Jackson, a fellow trailblazer of bebop on a less-common instrument.
10 ) “El Camino Real” from The Brass Orchestra (1996)
By this point an elder statesman, J.J. remained prolific and artistically fertile well into the 1990s, even as he could have rested on his laurels. His pen and ‘bone are both in wonderful form on this re-arrangement of one of his most gorgeous tunes from the 1960s.