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Age 77
February 3, 2001
Suicide by gunshot
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James Louis Johnson
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OBITUARY

Renowned jazz trombonist dies at 77

By Kevin O'Neal, Indianapolis Star

James Louis "J.J." Johnson, an Indianapolis native who gained worldwide fame as one of the greatest trombonists and arrangers in jazz history, died Sunday. He was 77.

Considered as much a revelation on slide trombone as Charlie Parker was on the saxophone, Johnson also was a top arranger and composer and was a perennial winner of Down Beat magazine reader's poll as best trombonist.

As much as he was revered by jazz aficionados, he also made his mark in popular culture, handling the music for such television shows as Starsky and Hutch and Mayberry, R.F.D., and films including the original Shaft. He also performed with such jazz greats as Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie.

"He was mesmerizing,'' said Alonzo "Pookie'' Johnson, an Indianapolis saxophonist not related to J.J. who played with Johnson and traveled to Chicago to hear him play in the days when bebop was a sensation. "He was the most influential trombone player.''

After spending two decades touring with bands, then years in California arranging and recording film scores, Johnson returned to his Indianapolis home a dozen years ago and considered himself retired, although he had performed at the Indy Jazz Fest.

According to a report from the Marion County Sheriff's Department, Johnson, who had been ill in recent months, committed suicide at his Northside home on Sunday morning.

"It was very devastating,'' said his wife, Carolyn Johnson. "I will truly miss him.''

Along with Wes Montgomery and Freddie Hubbard, Johnson was one of Indianapolis' greatest gifts to the jazz world. "He was one of the best of the jazz players,'' said Virtue Hampton Whited, one of the members of the Hampton jazz family.

Bandleader Jimmy Coe, who attended Attucks High School with Johnson, said he revolutionized the trombone, turning it into a leading force.

"In those days the trombone was a slow instrument, but that didn't matter to J.J.,'' Coe said. "He opened a new field for trombonists. He was unlimited.''

Word of Johnson's death began to spread via the Internet Sunday, as jazz fans and professional musicians e-mailed each other -- hoping it wasn't true. Bill Dinwiddie, a professional trombone player in Chicago, called The Indianapolis Star newsroom after he received word, hoping the newspaper would confirm his suspicion that the news was an urban myth disseminated on the Web.

"He was the giant of the jazz trombone,'' Dinwiddie said, his voice choked with emotion even though he met Johnson only once -- to shake his hand in a nightclub. "The man invented an entirely new style . . . I more or less got my start by listening to his records."

Johnson was born on Jan. 22, 1924. He started on the piano when he was 11, then turned to the trombone three years later when friends needed a horn for their band.

"I enjoyed it, so I committed myself to that full-bore," Johnson said in 1995 when he was interviewed by The Star about his start with the trombone. "It didn't begin with that kind of passion. My parents were neutral about it all, but I had very good music teachers."

Johnson said his Indianapolis musical influences were Norman Merrifield, a music teacher at Attucks, along with piano player Erroll Grandy.

As his talent grew, Johnson left the Indianapolis scene and headed to the jazz mecca of New York. While touring with jazz bands during the heyday of those ensembles, Johnson played with the Clarence Love and Snookum Russell bands before he got his first big break with the Benny Carter band in 1942.

"J.J. and Carter used to get put out of hotels for practicing too loud,'' Coe recalled.

In those days, Johnson developed the rapid-fire playing technique that brought him national attention, making his first recordings in 1946. He performed with Milt Jackson, Illinois Jacquet and Sonny Rollins, and played on the historic Birth of the Cool album with Miles Davis in 1949.

Johnson briefly dropped out of music and worked as a blueprint inspector for an equipment company before forming an ensemble with fellow trombonist Kai Winding.

Johnson formed several small touring groups in the 1960s, then turned his attention to composing and arranging music in the 1970s.

He was responsible for the music in popular TV series such as Starsky and Hutch, The Mod Squad, That Girl and The Danny Thomas Show. Johnson's film music credits included Cleopatra Jones and Shaft.

After 17 years in Hollywood, Johnson moved back to Indianapolis in the late 1980s to resume his performing career, something he had to put on the back burner while he was a full-time arranger.

"The jazz scene -- or the lack of it -- has no correlation to my move back to Indianapolis,'' Johnson told The Star in 1988. "I wanted Indianapolis to be my home, and it is my home.''

Arrangements for Johnson were pending on Sunday.

Contact Kevin O'Neal at (317) 327-7928 or via e-mail at kevin.oneal@starnews.com

   

Modern Jazz Architect J.J. Johnson Commits Suicide

 J.J. Johnson, the most influential trombonist in jazz history, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home in Indianapolis on Sunday (Feb. 4). Johnson, who was 77, had been suffering from prostate cancer and other irreversible health problems.

Johnson's professional career stretched from the swing era, through the bebop revolution, and into the jazz-classical crossover movement known as the Third Stream. Equally wide-ranging and significant were Johnson's musical associations, a who's who of modern jazz that included Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Thelonious Monk, Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Sonny Rollins, Clifford Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Benny Carter, Stan Getz, and many others.

"It was profound, the way J.J. played, it was profound," says trombonist Steve Turre. "Just like the way Coltrane played, it went to the deepest source. Things like that, you can't really define them with words."

With an astonishingly clean, sharp tone, Johnson, essentially single-handedly, brought the trombone into the technically-demanding bebop arena, and erased popular notions of the instrument as a playful, even clownish novelty.

"J.J. did for the trombone what Charlie Parker did for the saxophone," continues Turre. "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."

James Louis Johnson was born in Indianapolis, Jan. 22, 1924. He learned to play piano at age 11, and picked up the trombone at 14. With only his experience from the Crispus Attucks High School band under his belt, Johnson soon turned professional, and in 1942 joined Snookum Russell's "territory" swing orchestra. A several-year stint with Carter followed, then two years in the Basie band, and assorted gigs with Gillespie, Parker, Illinois Jacquet, Woody Herman, and Oscar Pettiford. Johnson was part of the expanded Miles Davis ensemble that appeared on epochal Davis album The Birth of the Cool.

After an early-'50s hiatus (where he worked inspecting blueprints at a Sperry factory near New York), Johnson joined up with fellow trombonist Kai Winding in 1954 to form one of the most appealing acts in post-bop jazz, Jay and Kai. After he split with Winding, Johnson became better known as a composer. Johnson wrote the blue-hued jazz standard "Lament," but also immersed himself in more ambitious compositions. Among Johnson's best-known Third Stream projects is his "Poem for Brass," which he recorded under the aegis of classical composer-conductor Gunther Schuller, for the 1956 album Music for Brass.

After leading various groups through the 1960s, and recording for the Columbia, Blue Note, Impulse!, RCA, and A&M labels, Johnson moved to Los Angeles, where his jazz activities were combined with composing music for film and television. Johnson's scores and themes were heard in the films Shaft, Across 110th St., and Cleopatra Jones, as well as TV shows The Mod Squad, The Six Million Dollar Man, That Girl, and Starsky and Hutch.

After making relatively few albums in the '70s and '80s, Johnson returned to recording with two live sets on Antilles Records. (He returned to his native Indianapolis at around this time as well.) Shortly thereafter, however, Johnson's wife, Vivian, suffered a stroke, and Johnson reduced his musical activities in order to take care of her. Vivian Johnson died in 1991 and J.J. Johnson returned to recording in 1993. Johnson recorded a series of critically hailed albums for Verve in the '90s, but played his last concert in Nov. 1996, at New Jersey's William Patterson College. He officially retired in 1997.

"Before I knew him as a man, I loved him for his music," says Steve Turre. "Once I knew him as a man, I loved him as a human being, because he was such a wonderful, warm person, and so respectful of all people and a real king in every sense of the word. He was royalty."

Johnson is survived by his second wife, Carolyn Johnson; his sons William and Kevin Johnson; his sister, Rosemary Belcher; his granddaughter, Kenya Johnson; stepdaughter, Mikita Sanders; and step-granddaughter, Mytiya Sanders. A wake is planned 11:00-1:00 PM Saturday (Feb. 10) in Indianapolis at Witherspoon Presbyterian Church, 5136 N. Michigan Road, Indianapolis. The funeral will follow. -- Drew Wheeler

 

NY TIMES

J. J. Johnson, Jazz Trombonist, Is Dead at 77

By BEN RATLIFF

J. J. Johnson, the most influential trombonist in postwar jazz, died on Sunday at his home in Indianapolis. He was 77.

The Marion County Sheriff's Department reported the death as a suicide.

Mr. Johnson translated the fast, linear style of bebop to the trombone in the late 1940's. "He was the definitive trombonist of the bebop generation," said the saxophonist Jimmy Heath, who played with him in the early 1950's and remained a close friend. "He didn't use the trombone as it was usually played, with the slide being the important part; he could speak the language of bebop with such clarity and precision. And everybody wanted to play trombone like that afterward."

Mr. Johnson, born James Louis Johnson, started his music studies on the piano. He began listening to jazz in his early teenage years and switched to trombone in high school. In 1941, instead of going to college, he left Indianapolis to travel with the midwestern bands led by Snookum Russell and Clarence Love.

Most of his influences, he told the writer Ira Gitler in "The Masters of Bebop: A Listener's Guide" (Da Capo Press), were not trombonists but trumpeters and saxophonists like Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. In transferring bebop to the trombone, he used a clean, dry tone and short notes. He was often wrongly assumed to be playing the valve trombone, which allows easier articulation than the slide trombone. He did acknowledge the influence of Fred Beckett, a trombonist who played with Harlan Leonard and Lionel Hampton in the 1930's and 40's. Leonard, Mr. Johnson once explained, "was the first trombonist I ever heard play in a manner other than the usual sliding, slurring, lip-trilling or gutbucket style."

Returning to Indianapolis for a time, he was hired by Benny Carter in 1942 and spent three years in Carter's big band. In 1945 he joined the Count Basie Orchestra for a short period before becoming a bandleader in his own right.

For the next nine years Mr. Johnson balanced his band leading career with jobs as a sideman, playing with Parker, Gillespie, Illinois Jacquet, Woody Herman, Miles Davis and others. But the work wasn't enough to support a family, so Mr. Johnson, ever curious about electronic equipment, took a two-year job with the Sperry Gyroscope Company as a blueprint inspector.

In 1954 the Savoy label decided to record him and the trombonist Kai Winding in a double-trombone front line, a format that proved to be a hit. Jay & Kai, their band, allowed Mr. Johnson to quit his day job and was one of jazz's most popular acts until it disbanded in 1956.

Mr. Johnson was an admirer of Hindemith, Stravinsky and Ravel, and after his part in the famous "Birth of the Cool" nonet recordings of 1949 with Davis and Gil Evans, he soon got involved in the new large- ensemble jazz as a composer. His first large-scale work was the four- part "Poem for Brass," included on Columbia's "Music for Brass" album of 1956, a sort of recorded manifesto of the Third Stream movement, conducted by Gunther Schuller.

He wrote two pieces commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1959: "El Camino Real" and "Sketch for Trombone and Orchestra." And Gillespie, after hearing "Poem for Brass," asked Mr. Johnson to write him a whole album's worth of music in a similar style. The result was "Perceptions," a 1961 35- minute suite including six trumpets, four French horns and two harps.

From 1967 to 1976, Mr. Johnson barely recorded, devoting his energy to composing. In 1967, through the help of the film composer Elmer Bernstein, he got a job as staff composer and conductor for M.B.A. Music in New York, a company that provided music for television commercials. He moved to Los Angeles in 1970, writing and orchestrating music for films like "Barefoot in the Park," "Scarface," "Trouble Man" and "Sea of Love."

Despite his prolific career as a composer, Mr. Johnson's skill as a trombonist did not dull, even into his 60's and 70's. He was a firm believer in practicing every day, and his strength is fully evident in "Quintergy" and "Standards," albums recorded live at the Village Vanguard in 1988.

In the 1990's, under contract with the Verve label, Mr. Johnson created some ambitious recordings, including "Tangence," a collaboration with the arranger and film composer Robert Farnon; "The Brass Orchestra," which presented music ranging from bebop to selections from "Perceptions"; and "Heroes," an innovative straight-ahead jazz sextet album.

Mr. Johnson returned to Indianapolis with his first wife, Vivian, in 1987 and finally retired from public performance in 1997, refusing to play when he wasn't in top form. He had survived prostate cancer and spent much of his spare time in his home studio, mastering the new hard-drive technology for composing and recording.

He is survived by his second wife, Carolyn; two sons, Kevin and William, both of Indianapolis; a stepdaughter, Mikita Sanders, of Indianapolis; a granddaughter; a stepgranddaughter; and a sister, Rosemary Belcher of Denver.

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All-Music Guide

Considered by many to be the finest jazz trombonist of all time, J.J. Johnson somehow transferred the innovations of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to his more awkward instrument, playing with such speed and deceptive ease that at one time some listeners assumed he was playing valve (rather than slide) trombone! Johnson toured with the territory bands of Clarence Love and Snookum Russell during 1941-42 and then spent 1942-45 with Benny Carter's big band. He made his recording debut with Carter (taking a solo on "Love for Sale" in 1943) and played at the first JATP concert (1944). Johnson also had plenty of solo space during his stay with Count Basie's Orchestra (1945-46). During 1946-50 he played with all of the top bop musicians including Charlie Parker (with whom he recorded in 1947), the Dizzy Gillespie big band, Illinois Jacquet (1947-49) and the Miles Davis Birth of the Cool Nonet. His own recordings from the era included such sidemen as Bud Powell and a young Sonny Rollins. J.J., who also recorded with the Metronome All-Stars, played with Oscar Pettiford (1951) and Miles Davis (1952) but then was outside of music, working as a blueprint inspector for two years (1952-54). His fortunes changed when in August 1954 he formed a two-trombone quintet with Kai Winding that became known as Jay and Kai and was quite popular during its two years.

After J.J. and Kai went their separate ways (they would later have a few reunions), Johnson led a quintet that often included Bobby Jaspar. He began to compose ambitious works starting with 1956's "Poem for Brass" and including "El Camino Real" and a feature for Dizzy Gillespie, "Perceptions"; his "Lament" became a standard. Johnson worked with Miles Davis during part of 1961-62, led some more small groups of his own and by the late '60s was kept 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! However, starting with a Japanese tour in 1977, J.J. gradually returned to a busy performance schedule, leading a quintet in the 1980s that often featured Ralph Moore. In the mid-'90s he remains at the top of his field. J.J. Johnson has recorded as a leader for Savoy, Prestige, Blue Note, RCA, Bethlehem, Columbia, Impulse, Verve, A&M, Pablo, Milestone, Concord and Antilles. — Scott Yanow

   

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