James Louis Johnson, better known as J.J. Johnson, was born in
Indianapolis, Indiana on January 22, 1924. At the age of 9, he studied
piano with a church organist and became interested in music. He started
playing the trombone five years later. Only four years after picking up
the instrument, J.J. left his home in Indianapolis to play with Snookum
Russell's band, which included Fats Navarro in the trumpet section. This
was only the first of steady gigs with legendary Jazz musicians: Benny
Carter (1942-1945), Count Basie (1945-1946) and Illinois Jacquet
(1947-1949). J.J.'s earliest recordings are with the Benny Carter
Orchestra, although he rarely played a solo. In fact, J.J.'s first
recorded solo, only five measures long, was on Carter's recording of "Love
J.J. played on the very first concert of Jazz at the Philharmonic in 1944
and his fluid style and rapid fire technique on the trombone soon caught
the Jazz world by storm. At the dawning of the Bebop revolution in the
mid-'40s, J.J. did for trombone what Charlie Parker did for the saxophone
and what Dizzy Gillespie did for the trumpet. In fact, if not for J.J.,
when Bebop hit, the trombone might have been left behind. J.J. was the
first to demonstrate that the trombone could be a solo instrument and keep
up with the faster tempos and chord changes associated with Bebop. J.J.'s
slide trombone was so clean that most people at the time swore he was
playing valve trombone.
During 1946-50 he played with 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).
In 1953, J.J. left Jazz to work as a blueprint inspector for Sperry
Gyroscope, performing only occasionally. Yet on April 20th of '53, he
recorded for Blue Note with the Miles Davis Sextet. But it wasn't until
the next year, 1954, that he quit his job at Sperry Gyroscope and started
playing with fellow trombonist, Kai Winding. This led to the formation of
the Jay & Kai group, which stayed together for the next couple of years and
enjoyed critical acclaim.
By 1956, J.J. was composing ambitious works including "Poem for Brass" then
"El Camino Real" and then a feature for Dizzy Gillespie, "Perceptions." By
this time, he was already recognized as a major Jazz composer, writing a
number of Jazz standards, including "Lament."
Late 1959 saw J.J. reorganizing his sextet, which included Cedar Walton on
piano, Albert Heath on drums, Clifford Jordan on saxophone, Freddie Hubbard
on trumpet and Arthur Harper on bass. The group recorded one of J.J.'s best
albums, "J.J. Inc." J.J. worked with Miles Davis during part of 1961-62,
led more small groups of his own.
J.J. moved from New York to L.A. in 1970 to write music for movies and
television. Some of his first work was a little orchestration work for 'The
Adventurers' and composing music for 'Barefoot in the Park.' He later wrote
for the television shows 'Mayberry R.F.D.,' 'The Danny Thomas Show,' 'That Girl,'
and 'The Mod Squad.' His movie credits (either orchestrating or writing the
music) include 'Man and Boy,' 'Top of the Heap,' 'Across 110th Street,' 'Cleopatra
Jones,' and 'Shaft.'
In the late '80s and early '90s, J.J. toured again but in '97, decided to
retire from playing full-time. He died at his home in Indianapolis on February 4, 2001.