J. J. Johnson: El Camino Real

J.J. Johnson (1924-2001) may as well have invented the slide trombone, because I don't know many that even hold a candle to what that man was able to make it do.  He spanned a career of over 50 years and was widely known as a performer, composer and a proprietor of bebop.

Following the swing era of the 1930's came a fast, uptempo solo-laden style known as bebop.  Artists like Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker were busy making jazz so insanely fast so as to force their audience to stop dancing and start listening.  They played piano, trumpet, and saxophone respectively- all instruments that lend themselves to having fast fingers.

Alas, the trombone was kind of that odd kid on the block in the bebop club.  You know, the one who you rode the bus to school with in the 6th grade?  He always had messy hair and your friend swears he saw him eat a bug one time.  The trombone was like driving a Cadillac through a car wash when it came to the total technicality with which these beboppers bopped their bees.

That is, of course, until J.J. Johnson stepped up to bat.

Mr. Johnson had an ear and a technical ability that has been equaled only rarely.  While he was playing with the Count Basie Orchestra, Dizzy Gillespie himself had this to say, "I've always known that the trombone could be played different, that somebody'd catch on one of these days. Man, you're elected." Eventually, Johnson moved on and began performing with combos across the globe and in 1954 setup with trombonist Kai Winding to form a combo that would produce a lot of trombone fruit goodies.

And totally BA album covers.
Johnson then sidestepped into composition, citing the challenges of being a black musician and the inequities offered to performers of different races.  He collaborated with Quincy Jones in California and began writing for soundtracks to various movies and television shows, falling into the style of the time with the studio orchestra sound that is ubiquitous with the 1970's.  Basically, adopting the tenets of West Coast Jazz and applying his own brand of arranging to the mix.

Johnson would return to performing in the late 80's but his health began to deteriorate through the 90's following a diagnosis of prostate cancer.  In 2001, he took his own life.

I have a theory about those among us who don't live in the same plane of existence as the general cattle herd.  Artists, geniuses, those that go above the curve to create a new art or reality that didn't exist before must constantly be in the moment of their craft. It's what essentially sustains them, and I suspect it's perceived both as a blessing and a curse.

This week's listening comes from a collaboration album from the tail end of his career where he arranged some of his favorite pieces into elaborate, lush and widely accompanied tapestries reflective of his time as a film composer.  It sounds like you're stepping into a 1970's sound stage with Starsky and Hutch at the wheel.  The Brass Orchestra in some ways represents the culmination of J.J. Johnson's gift to not only the trombone side of the world, but music in general.  

J.J. Johnson stopped performing in the mid-90's because he felt unable to present the talent level that he had grown accustomed to.  On his worst day, I'm positive he'd still outplay the hell out of trombone ants such as myself, but so consumed by his work he must have been that to produce an inferior product was unacceptable, if not heartbreaking.  It broke my heart to see it end the way it did, but I can't imagine the pain of fighting the disease coupled with the pain of losing something so precious.

Trombone had to be in the man's DNA.

See you next Friday.