Sunday, April 21, 2013

J.J. Johnson

            No less an authority than Robin Eubanks thinks modern trombonists owe J.J. Johnson a share of every dollar they've ever made.  J.J. was the guy who proved that the trombone's inherent limitations could be overcome and adapted to the language and tempos of post-swing era jazz.  He made it possible for everyone after him to actually earn a living with this thing.
            J.J. didn't just play fast. For me, he's always been an unreachable goal of apparent effortlessness and perfect intonation at any speed. From a just playing the trombone standpoint, the thing about J.J. is that it all sounds so deceptively easy. In a nutshell, he's had a bigger influence on the way his instrument is played than any other musician on any other instrument.
          Unfortunately for trombone players, much of what we have to do to keep up with saxophones and trumpets involves technique. To give you an idea of what J.J. Johnson, or anyone, had to accomplish I'll quote again from Robin Eubanks, "In articulating notes, you have to coordinate your attacks with your slide. The problem with the trombone ... is the distance from one note to another. On a saxophone, your fingers are already on every note, and it's just a matter of pushing down a combination of keys.... On the trumpet, your fingers are already on the don't have to physically move anything more than an inch and a half. But on the trombone, if you're going from an F on the fourth line of the staff to the G on the next space, you have to move the slide from first to fourth position — well over a foot [and] the distances between [other] notes are not equal. It's a physical problem that none of the other wind instruments have to deal with. You have to be able to move the slide a foot in the same length of time that somebody else moves something a half an inch."

            Apart from revolutionizing trombone playing, J.J. Johnson was a composer and arranger whose contributions and influence on the language of post swing era jazz will probably never be fully appreciated.  And not even J.J. could elevate the trombone to anything approaching equal status with the "official" instruments of jazz. If you saw Ken Burns' History of Jazz, you wouldn't know the trombone had much to do with anything. This documentary never even mentioned J.J. Johnson so the next time you tell a trombone joke keep in mind that we might be a little touchy on the subject. If the greatest trombone player who ever lived is missing from what some people think is the official history of jazz, what chance do the rest of us have?

            And while I'm on the subject, The Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz Competition, quoting from their website, "established in 1987, this is the world’s most prestigious jazz competition, recognized for discovering the next generation of jazz masters. The competition focuses on a different instrument each year..." It took them 16 years to include the trombone, which couldn't even get in ahead of hand drums. Frankly, I think it speaks volumes that, despite our obvious Rodney Dangerfield status, no trombone player has ever been accused of serial murder.

            The night I finally got to see J.J. was in 1993 at the Blue Note in New York where he, naturally, had to share the bill with James Moody. It could have been that the club was just trying to pack asses onto seats and I guess James Moody fans were pissed, too. But after waiting all my life to hear J.J. in person, I wanted more than one set.

            This hadn't started out to be a rant, it just went that way. So maybe you should just listen to this and let the man speak for himself. I picked this recording, as always, because it's one of my favorites but also because I think it's J.J.Johnson at his best. When The Saints Go Marching In has been played a million times but you've probably never heard it like this, unless you're into J.J. He brought the trombone into the modern era and he does the same for this old Dixieland cliché.


  1. Consumate respect, admiration & Love for and to JJ!
    I spoke with him on numerous occasions, and planned to visit him in Indianapolis, when his late wife was so ill...unfortunately sho passed, and plans to visit JJ didn't come to pass....c'est la vie....I learned to play jazz, to a great extent, by memorizing some of his recorded solos...playing them repeatedly, until they started to sound a bit like him.... a bit!
    Thanks too, to another trombonist, David Baker (cello too) for transcribing many of JJ's I could see what was happening on paper, in these masterpiece of my practice excercises, was to play along with Jay & Kai records...for hours...I couldn't get enough! Really helped, when I first moved to Holland....amazing for chop development, and jazz articulation!!
    God Bless You JJ!
    ANY documentary of jazz that leaves you out, isn't worthy of ANYONE'S TIME to view!!!

    1. Maybe trombone players should do our own history. Thanks for reading Rich.

    2. No maybe about it Bruce! We not only should, but being a jazz-historian, I do....full time, in conjunction with our radio support of by 24/7 jazz radio station,
      where we air celebrity jazz interviews every Saturday & Sunday at 12 Noon, Pacific time LIVE, and in REAL-TIME directly to 196 countries....all of our shows are archived at:

    3. Thanks for the info, Rich. I'll check it out. And thanks again for reading.