J.J. Johnson was an incredible jazz trombonist, a gifted band leader, and an excellent composer/arranger for his bands and other musicians not to mention movies and television. That’s all you need to know about J.J. before listening to KUVO on Wednesday evening at 8, as Night Beat host Doug Crane (that would be me) highlights some of J.J.’s best recordings from his six-decade career. End of promo…

Not really. A quick synopsis of J.J.’s life and career tells us he was born in Indianapolis, Indiana on January 22, 1924 and attended Crispus Attacks High School in the same city.  (Noteworthy musicians that attended the same high school include Wes Montgomery, David Baker, and Freddie Hubbard) By the age of 19, he was a member of the Benny Carter big band and played with the Count Basie band throughout the mid to late 1940s before venturing to New York City where his musical career began to take off.

He, along with fellow trombonist Kai Winding, was on board for what we now refer to as the “Birth of the Cool” sessions by Miles Davis in the late 1940s. J.J. and Kai Winding began their two trombone band at roughly the same time, a group that worked and recorded off and on through the late 1960s.

After a number of recordings featuring J.J. as either a sideman or leader for Blue Note in the early 1950s, J.J. signed with Columbia Records in 1955.  Over the next six years, he recorded roughly ten albums as a leader for the label and a handful of others with Kai Winding.  Dropped by Columbia in 1961, J.J.’s albums were soon out of print and other than finding them in used record shops, impossible to purchase until Mosaic Records issued a limited edition multi-CD set of them in 1996. (These little-heard Columbia recordings will make up the bulk of what is featured on my KUVO program)

Personally, I think Columbia did J.J. no favors by keeping his recordings locked up in a vault, especially during the time CDs first appeared on the scene in the mid-1980s.  Columbia issued bits and pieces of them on a couple of compilation CDs but little other than that. As you’ll hear when you tune in, the album “Blue Trombone” is on par with the very best of Columbia’s jazz albums of the day: Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” and Dave Brubeck’s “Time Out” for example.

J.J.’s appearances as a sideman on recordings from the latter 1950s include albums by Sonny Rollins, Coleman Hawkins and on a JATP recording with Stan Getz as a co-leader.  In the mid-1960s he was featured on three tracks included as part of Horace Silver’s “Cape Verdean Blues”.

Assisted by Quincy Jones and Earle Hagen, J.J. was ushered into the world of Hollywood television and film scoring.  Hagen, who was himself a trombonist, wrote the well-known “Harlem Nocturne” as an homage to Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges. (Additionally, Hagen wrote the theme songs for The Andy Griffith Show—he also was the whistler, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mod Squad and many others). After Hagen showed J.J. “the ropes” of the film biz, J.J. helped orchestrate the score for Isaac Hayes’ “Shaft” as well as TV shows such as “Starsky and Hutch”, “Get Christie Love”, “The Six-Million Dollar Man”, “The Bionic Woman” and “Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer”.

His film scores include “Across 110th St.” (1972), “Man and Boy” (1972), “Willie Dynamite” (1973) and “Cleopatra Jones” (1973).  Roscoe Orman, who starred as Willie Dynamite, is likely better known as the actor who played Gordon Robinson on PBS’s “Sesame Street” from 1974 to 2016.

If it seems we’re suggesting that J.J.’s trombone took a back seat to his TV and film scoring work for quite some time, you would be correct.  His recordings as either a leader or sideman during the 1970s include fewer than a dozen appearances. But with changing tastes in movies and their film scores (read as grandiose scores by John Williams and the use of hit songs from decades earlier in movies such as “The Big Chill” became the norm), the phone which had been ringing off the hook for J.J. suddenly rang no more. Thus began the return of J.J. the jazz performer.

Shortly after a reunion concert with Stan Getz (their 1957 JATP album was noted briefly above) in the fall of 1988 and during a time J.J. was making his reappearance on the jazz scene, J.J. received word that his wife Vivian suffered a massive stroke. J.J. canceled all of his upcoming concerts for the next couple of years to return to Indianapolis and to assist in the care of her. After her passing in 1991, J.J. slowly returned to the jazz scene including an appearance at the UNC Greeley Jazz Festival (in 1992 as I recall). (J.J. had been booked to play the festival in 1989 but was replaced at the last minute by Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers which, from what I was told at the time was a once-in-a-lifetime concert by Art and company)

Fortunately for both jazz fans and jazz musicians in the early 1990s, Verve Records was staffed by fellow lovers of jazz. In addition to releasing recordings by a number of up-and-coming jazz neophytes, the label signed legendary jazz musicians such as tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson, vocalist Abbey Lincoln, pianist Herbie Hancock, and (need I say) J.J. Johnson.

Of J.J.’s four recordings issued for Verve in the 1990s, I’m partial to “The Brass Orchestra”, an all-brass big band recording that dispenses entirely of all woodwind instruments save for an occasional saxophone solo. I read once upon a time that an unissued session remained in the Verve vaults after his passing in 2001 but if so, it was likely lost in the massive June 1, 2008 fire on the Universal Studio Lot in Hollywood, an inferno of such epic proportion that given the number of priceless recordings destroyed is now referred to by many as “The Day the Music Died”.

Tune in to The Night Beat with Doug Crane on Wednesday, January 24 at 8 pm as we note and celebrate the centenary of the birth of J.J. Johnson. And be forewarned: if we run out of time for what I hope to play this week we’ll include it during my show on January 31.

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