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.
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.