An Interview with J. J. Johnson
In the 1920s, Louis Armstrong raised the art of trumpet playing to previously unknown heights. A decade later, Art Tatum did the same thing for the piano. Then Jimmy Blanton did it for the bass and Charlie Parker for the saxophone. For the trombone, it was James Louis (J.J.) Johnson.
Born in Indianapolis on January 22, 1924, Johnson, during the first half of the 1940s, worked his way through territory bands, followed by a series of big-time gigs (Benny Carter, Count Basie, Illinois Jacquet). By the end of the decade he had successfully translated the intricacies of bebop onto his demanding instrument. Suddenly jazz trombone playing underwent a quantum leap. Johnson's rich, dark tone and virtually flawless command of the horn became the barometers by which all subsequent trombonists have been measured, the standards which they have labored to attain. But for all his virtuosity, Johnson never abandoned the elusive quality that, call it what you will, is essential to all great jazz: feeling, passion, soul.
During the 1950s, Johnson began building his reputation as a gifted composer, crafting hip, challenging originals like "Kelo," "Enigma," and the haunting "Lament." He also created such ambitious works as the four-part suite, Poem for Brass (1956), and Perceptions (1961), an album-length, six-movement showcase commissioned by (and featuring) Dizzy Gillespie and a large brass and rhythm ensemble. In 1970, he took his talents to Hollywood and spent the next 17 years there scoring films and television series. Johnson returned to the jazz world full-time in 1987 and since then he has released a progression of standout CDs, with more on the way.
On one of your recent recordings you have a tune titled "Why Indianapolis--Why Not Indianapolis?" and that's where I'd like to begin. Why have you chosen to live in Indianapolis instead of New York or Los Angeles?
Many people have asked me that same question. I can best answer by saying that in 1987, Vivian, my late wife, and I decided that the reason for moving to Los Angeles had run its course. I had done the film composing situation for 17 years. I had gotten it out of my system, finally, so it was a question, "Well, what do want to do, Jay? Do you want to get out of film composing but remain in California, or do you want to move elsewhere?" And I said, "Vivian, that's a good question." And I thought about it.
Previously, we lived in New York for all those wonderful years. I loved every minute of it, but I knew I did not want to move back to New York. We lived in New Jersey for a number of years, in Teaneck. Fond memories. Didn't want to move back to New Jersey. To make a long story short, Vivian and I were both born in Indianapolis, Indiana. So the logical choice was to move back to our roots, back to Indianapolis, where we both had families, friends, everything. That's why.
Let's look back for a moment. Why did you chose to play the trombone?
On the one hand, because it was somewhat of a challenge. On the other hand, I ran around with a bunch of school buddies who all played various miscellaneous and sundry instruments. None of them played trombone. One of them said, "J.J., we need a trombone player in this amateur"--if you will--"garage band." And so, I took them up on it and took up the trombone.
I'm wondering what you played like before you heard Charlie Parker and absorbed bebop. Who were your musical influences at that time?
In those days before hearing Charlie Parker and Dizzy, and before learning of the so-called bebop era--by the way, I have some thoughts about that word, "bebop"--my first jazz hero ever, jazz improvisor hero, was Lester Young. I was a big "Lester Young-oholic," and all of my buddies were Lester Young-oholics. We'd get together and dissect, analyze, discuss, and listen to Lester Young's solos for hours and hours and hours. He was our god.
When I began to learn how to improvise on the trombone, I didn't try to emulate or play Lester Young licks or any of that. That wasn't what it was all about. What struck me about Lester Young then, and still does after all these years, was his maverick approach to tenor sax improvisation. He marched to the beat of his own drum. After two or three notes, you'd know, "That's Lester Young!" It could be no one else, 'cause his playing had a persona that was uniquely Lester Young.
Same thing with Trummy Young. Trummy had a persona about him. Dickie Wells, there was a persona. Dickie Wells was uniquely Dickie Wells when he played. He didn't play many notes on the trombone when he improvised. It was like, "Less is more, simple is good." I loved Dickie Wells' trombone conceptualizing because it was based on a minimum of articulation, not all over the horn, just a few bluesy, well chosen notes that made chills run up and down your spine. So these were my influences. And J.C. Higginbotham, of course.
How about Fred Beckett?
Fred Beckett was a great influence on me because he was the first trombonist I ever heard play in what we call a linear approach to improvisation, nice lines that started here and went there, as opposed to the other trombonists who for the most part were playing, shall we say, licks. Fred Beckett came closer to the Lester Young lyrical approach to improvising than any other trombone player that I heard up to that point.
He did not make many recordings. Unfortunately he died at a relatively young age because of alcoholism and other personal problems. It's too bad that the jazz world at-large did not get to hear more of Fred Beckett, because I think he had great promise that was never realized.
Translating bebop onto the trombone must have posed some technical challenges because, well, the trombone is--
Don't mince words, Bob!
--or it can be a somewhat awkward or cumbersome instrument.
Don't mince words, Bob!
I think you know what I mean. I'm wondering if you needed to change your approach to the instrument.
Obviously, there was a challenge involved there. The way I met the challenge head on was to try to think in terms of jazz improvisation. Not to try to keep up with the crowd and to play fast, fast, fast, or high, high, high, or anything like that, but to approach jazz improvisation in such a manner that I could articulate with logic and with clarity, minus ambiguity.
Contrary to popular opinion, I was never, never ever, preoccupied and consumed with speed and a virtuoso-type technique. Never! I have been, always was, and still am consumed and preoccupied with the business of playing the instrument with clarity and with logic and with some kind of expressiveness, if you will. So that if my trombone playing has a persona--I hope that it does--it is based on that desire to project on the instrument an improvisation with logic and with clarity, leaving no question in your mind as to, "What was he trying to do?"
Was it your objective to sound like a valve instrument, a valve trombone, instead of a slide instrument?
Never. Never was. No.
In the early 1950s, you dropped out of the jazz scene for a couple of years and took a nine-to-five job. Why did you do that?
Not only during this cycle that you just spoke about. There have been other cycles in my career where I have dropped out of the jazz arena for various and miscellaneous and sundry reasons. I found out that I'm not unique in having done that. Many musicians have, on occasion, dropped out of the picture, dropped out of the jazz arena.
In my case, yes, of course, there were times of disillusionment with where jazz was going, or what seemed to appear where jazz was going. In some cases, it was disillusionment with where J.J. was going with jazz and how he was progressing with his manner of trombone playing. In other instances, it was just to step outside of the jazz arena so that I could have a view of jazz from the outside looking in.
That makes more sense to me than any other answer I can give you. Most of the time that was the priority in stepping outside the jazz arena, to have a good look at jazz from outside looking in. Sometimes you need to get out, to get a good look at what's happening on the inside. Sometimes you need to stand with your nose to the window and have a good look at jazz. And I've done that on many occasions.
The longest time was in 1970, when I got out of jazz to get into film composing. I was out of the jazz domain for 17 years. That's a long time to be out of jazz. It took me 17 years to get my passion for film composing out of my system. Obviously, I lost a lot of time as far as my career, etc., for staying out that long, but I had to get it out of my system and I did get it out of my system, after which I came back to jazz.
Let's talk about that for a while. How did you break into film composing?
Quincy Jones and Lalo Schifrin were very instrumental in prodding me into having a crack at something that I was eating my heart out to try. They reassured me, "J.J., have a go at it. What's the worst that can happen if it doesn't work out for you? It's a tough business, J.J. It's competitive. We don't know what kind of luck you'll have. All we know is, as far as we're concerned, you have what it takes to become a successful film composer and we would strongly urge you to have a crack at it. And we will do what we can to see that you get on the inside by way of having a good agent."
You must have an agent, a film composing agent, not a jazz agent. The film community is a whole 'nother world. And I can say without reservation that early on I also found out that, man, you're in a very racist element here. There are no black film composers doing the likes of Star Wars, doing the likes of E.T., doing the likes of Jurassic Park. There are none, nor will there ever be one. That ain't about to happen!
I was planning to ask you about that. Most of your film credits are for the so-called "blaxploitation" films of that time.
All of them were blaxploitation films.
So you feel that you were pigeon-holed or typecast into these sorts of films.
No question about it. I've had my film composing agent tell me, "J.J., I tried my best to talk this guy into hiring you for the film and the guy says, `Of course I know the name J.J. Johnson, but he's a jazz musician. We don't want jazz in this picture.' And I tried my best to tell him, `But he's not gonna write jazz for your movie. He's gonna write movie music.'"
They have tunnelvision. All they know is, "J.J. Johnson is a jazz musician, so therefore he will write jazz for my movie, and this movie ain't about jazz." So not only are they racist, they have severe cases of tunnelvision. The film production community is a horror show as far as being flexible enough to give a guy a chance at something. I thank God for the one or two cases where I was fortunate enough to work with people who were not of that mindset. That's how I got aboard Buck Rogers in the Twenty-first Century, for TV.
Was television any better?
In the main, no. Maybe a little less in some situations, where you run into guys who are a bit more open-minded, one or two who had heard Poem for Brass or Perceptions or something like that and said, "Hey, this guy can write more than just jazz and I think I like what I heard, so let's get J.J. Johnson on this series." So I was lucky enough to occasionally break out of that racist situation that prevails in the Hollywood film production community. But it was racist then and it will always be that way. It will never be otherwise.
We should make it clear that you were not writing jazz in Hollywood.
No, not at all.
Did you find that work artistically satisfying?
Very much so. Very rewarding. Why? It started with the very first time I ever heard Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. Then I became hooked on classical music. The person who introduced me to Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring was [trumpeter-composer] Johnny Carisi. I don't know how it happened that we, meaning a bunch of musicians, were at his place at one time, just talking about things, and he said, "Hey, I want you to hear something," and he played Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. And this had nothing to do with jazz, but it blew my mind, it blew everyone's mind who was there.
I became a big "Stravinsky-oholic" and became involved in listening to classical music. Mozart and Beethoven, no. Schumann, no. Stravinsky, yes. Ravel, yes. Benjamin Britten, yes. Paul Hindemith, yes. These are my idols, even today, in classical music.
Why did you stop working in Hollywood?
The scene began to dry up with the onset of synthesizers and the genre changed so that the order of the day began to head in the direction of sit-coms. Sit-coms became more and more prevalent in television programming, but sit-coms have very little scoring in the grand tradition of film composing. Hardly any. Just little sound bites, shall we say, to get from point A to point B in a half-hour show.
So I saw the handwriting on the wall and I got out just in time, because now they're telling me, "J.J., it's a good thing you left when you did because it's really Death Valley in Hollywood as far as the musicians whose livings depend on film music." It's tough, now, out there. It's very tough.
Did you stop playing the trombone during that time?
Live performing, yes. High-profile performing, yes, I stopped. But I did not stop playing completely. So that my chops wouldn't go completely down the tubes, I took many little odd jobs playing studio situations. For example, for a little better than two years I played third trombone under Peter Matz's conducting for The Carol Burnett Show. Not much money, but it was a good way to keep my chops in shape with a predictable activity. We rehearsed every Thursday, we did the show every Friday, so it kept my chops in pretty good shape while I was doing film scoring in the main.
When you rejoined the jazz world in the late 1980s, did you experience a sort of "culture shock" at how the scene had changed since you left? Did you see anything that you needed to adapt to?
Not really, on the one hand, and maybe yes, on the other hand. On the one hand, I'm called a "mainstream jazz player." That being the case, mainstream jazz, if you want to call it that, hasn't really changed that much through the years. It is still straight-ahead, acoustic jazz.
But obviously by the time I came back on the scene, fusion and/or electronic jazz had made its presence felt and became the order of the day in some quarters. It co-existed with mainstream jazz, and still does, thank heaven. There's something refreshing and worthwhile, in my opinion, that they can co-exist. Whereas some musicians feel threatened by fusion and/or electronic jazz and/or Midi, I don't feel threatened. As a matter of fact, I am a Midi freak.
If you walked into my home and saw my Midi studio, you wouldn't believe it: the computer, the laser writer, the keyboard controller, the interface, plus all of the devices--we call them "devices," we don't call them "synthesizers," in today's technology. It's incredible. Midi is my hobby. When I'm not working, when I'm in Indianapolis, I dabble in Midi. For my own enjoyment, and to get my mind off of jazz-related things, I write music just for Midi that will never be heard by anyone. It'll never be recorded, it'll never be played publicly. It's a very private thing with me that I do very selfishly, for my own amusement only.
Earlier you said that you had some thoughts about the term, "bebop."
As we all know, Dizzy Gillespie coined that term, "bebop." It was his creation. But in my opinion, the towering Dizzy Gillespie and his immense genius and his immense talents far transcended that little box that's labelled "bebop." Dizzy Gillespie was much more than bebop. And so the problem I have with bebop is that it tends to categorize you and place you in a small box that is very confining and very uncomfortable.
I can only hope that I, too, am bigger than that box that's labelled "bebop." I try to be bigger than bebop, even though I am labelled, always have been, and probably will always be labelled "the pioneer of bebop trombone." So be it. I inherited that and I lived with that and that's OK.
But you can pioneer something and then go beyond it.
I hope. I hope.
I understand that you just completed a recording project. Could you say a bit about that?
I went to my producer, Jean-Philippe Allard, with some off-the-wall ideas about what to record. I knew that I wanted to used steel drums. Why steel drums? Many years ago, Bill Withers came out with a recording that was a big hit for him called "Just the Two of Us." It had a steel drum solo in it. It did something for me and I never lost track of the fact that, hey, steel drums is a wonderful, unique, oddball sound that I love. There's something exotic about it, something about it that's so different, that all through the years I knew some day I was going to do something that had a steel drum soloist on it.
I also told Jean-Philippe that on this album I'd like to incorporate Steve Turre's sea shells. I also wanted to use harp on some of the ballad-type things. So there's steel drums, there's the sea shells, and there's harp on some of the cuts. And I have one original on it that's called "Mom, Are You Listening?" I'd like to tell this story and I hope it doesn't bring you down. I'd prefer that it'd just enlighten and inform you as to how it came about. I do hope that you will publish it unaltered, unedited, uncut.
On Christmas Day, 1989, in Indianapolis, with a house full of guests and family, I said to my wife, "Vivian, I don't want to be with these people, who are in my home to enjoy the Christmas Day. Vivian, I want to drive to Chicago and spend Christmas Day with my mother," who was in a nursing home there.
The weather was horrible. Vivian said, "Jay, I want to go with you to see your mother." I said, "No, Viv, you stay behind and entertain this house full of family and guests. I will drive to Chicago. I will take my trombone and play Christmas carols for my mother in the nursing home. Then I'm gonna come back and rejoin these wonderful guests." She was reluctant, but she said, "OK."
I put my trombone in the car. I drove through these terrible weather conditions to Chicago to visit my mother in this nursing home and to play Christmas carols for her on the trombone. When I got to the floor where my mother was in this nursing home, there was an aura that made me very uncomfortable. To make a long story short, my mother had passed away.
The attendants had not removed my mother's remains from the room as yet. They were very sympathetic. They said, "Mr. Johnson, your mother must have passed away while you were on the highway driving here, because she passed away about 20, 25, 30 minutes ago at the most."
Obviously it was a devastating, traumatic situation. They said, "Mr. Johnson, would you like to see your mother before we remove her from this room?' I thought about it. I said, "Yes, I would like that." They zipped down this large bag that my mother was in and I looked in at my mother's face and I had never, ever, seen such a serene, tranquil look on my mother's face. It was as if she was taking a nap. Not dead, taking a nap. She was so at peace with the world in that look that was on her face. I said, "Thank you." They zipped the bag back up. I got my trombone, got back in the car for the long drive back to Indianapolis with those horrible weather conditions.
And the combination of grief and tears and the horrible driving conditions caused a strange thing to happen. I pulled off the highway about midway between Chicago and Indianapolis, looked all around the car for scraps of paper on which to make ledger lines, and I composed a piece of music for my mother. The whole thing came to me at one time, the whole little composition and the title, which is "Mom, Are You Listening?"
It's a very simple little melody. It almost has no harmonic content, only a melodic line. That's what I wrote down--no harmony, no chord changes, just a melodic line. I played this piece of music, unaccompanied, at my mother's funeral, with my trombone slide pointing down at my mother's closed casket.
And I never thought anymore about "Mom, Are You Listening?" until this recording project. When this disc is released, you will hear "Mom, Are You Listening?," the piece of music that I composed on the highway, midway between Chicago and Indianapolis. I use on the recording celeste, piano, and harp--nothing else. It's beautiful, it's gorgeous.
Very ethereal, 'cause by now I've added harmony to it. Renee Rosnes played celeste and piano on the cut, and we use Emily Mitchell on harp. I told them the story and they both immediately grasped the spirit of "Mom, Are You Listening?" that I wanted to project in the recorded version, which made it all happen. And I'm very proud of that cut.
That's quite a story. I don't know where we should go from here.
I don't think we ought to go anywhere from here, because the recording will speak for itself. The only thing I want to add is the other meaningful recording project that I've been engaged in was the CD called Vivian, because it was dedicated to my wonderful wife of 43 years who passed away in 1991. I want your readers to know that, yes, that was a trying time for me, when Vivian passed away, and that recording was a tribute to Vivian.
I have since remarried. The man upstairs saw fit for me to have had not just one wonderful wife, but to have married two wonderful women. And my current wife, whose name is Carolyn, is good for me, good to me, and I depend on Carolyn. She is my business manager and it works out just fine.
So at the moment, everything is wonderful in my life. I'd like to end on that note, that J.J. is doing just fine, alive and kicking, getting on in years, but I am enjoying life to the hilt at the moment, with everything going wonderfully. And what do I plan to do? I plan to continue recording and I plan to keep touring. You've heard the phrase, "Shop 'til you drop?" I'm gonna tour 'til I drop! And on that note, I'd like to say, "Thank you, Bob."
In 1996, a year after this interview first was published, J.J. Johnson announced his retirement from live performing and settled down, back home again in Indiana, to enjoy the company of Carolyn and his MIDI. Johnson was diagnosed with prostate cancer in early 1999, but his attitude has been, typically, marvelous, and he has responded very well to hormone treatments. "The goal is still remission," he told his army of e-mail correspondents in late September, "and my team is optimistic that we will get there. ... I feel just great, as I have all along." Although another wonderful new J.J. Johnson CD, Heroes (Verve), surfaced in 1999, but "Mom, Are You Listening?"--which he has retitled "Nina Mae" (his mother's name)--still is awaiting release.