Friday, 15 May 2009

Jay-Jay Johnson, The Trombone Master


ALMOST all the relevant jazz instruments have advanced over the years, most of them even serving as vehicles for avant-garde, but the trombone has refused to progress beyond Jay-Jay Johnson who is the undisputed king of the instrument. He too has not moved beyond the artistic level he attained in the ‘60s, and yet his performance is so far the most progressive and technical on the instrument.
Critics have attributed this situation to the queer nature of the instrument, claiming that it is difficult to find the notes from the slide trombone. To a great extent, these critics are right, considering the fact that the valve trombone was played with a lot of ease by Bob Brook Meyer in those days; and the notes came out easily and profusely, with machine-gun precision, except that Bob was sounding more like the trumpet than anything else. The unique tone of the trombone was missing from both his solo lines and the contributions he made to themes in terms of ensemble sound.
Besides, the problem with Bob at the time was that as a white musician, his playing was devoid of the soul feeling and he sounded so pedestrian that his approach and performance did not in anyway inspire anybody. There was nothing to learn from a tonal conception that was the combination of the trumpet and other sounds. Bob was not definitive in his approach and so failed to make any impact.
Otherwise, the valve trombone should have been adopted today as a replacement for the slide version, which usually takes the hands and imagination of geniuses to sort out the notes.
Several other trombonists emerged who could not continue for reasons that are obvious, but it was the likes of Curtis Fuller who made an effort to challenge the ability of JJ Johnson. He also made the effort to sound original and individualistic, structuring his improvisational design with a geometric symmetry that became the envy of other trombonists as well as the Blue Note recording stable, which enlisted his services for studio recording purposes.
However, his technique still fell below that of J.J Johnson who felt at the time that any improvisational accomplishment had to be economical, serving the needs of the compositional framework rather than the demands of egocentric players or hero-worshipping fans.

The trombone used to an integral part of highlife instrumentation. Almost all the bands across Nigeria and Ghana had trombonists sliding the instrument in their various outfits, but except for a few of them, none really stuck out like the sore thumb.
However, credits must be given to Omoba Johnson, a Nigerian from Benin City who was trained in the police band but played with several highlife outfits in Nigeria and Ghana where he made the greatest impact. Omoba Johnson’s influence and hero was J.J. Johnson himself whose records he listened to way back 1954. It was thought that he took the name from his mentor, but the truth is that his father’s real name was Johnson. The similarity with J.J. was a mere coincidence.
There was also Adlib Young, a trombonist with the ideal tone who led the Stargazers of Ghana for a brief period. His solos were impressive even though thematic. He was obviously influenced by Omoba Johnson who also served as a great source of inspiration to Raimi, a trombonist of note, a bandleader whom I met in London last February.
Unknown to many, one of the instruments that added true orchestral flavouring to Roy Chicago’s ensemble sound was the trombone played at the time by a sideman of Benin City extraction called Osayande. His good tone blended very well with the band’s harmonies along with the alto saxophone of Olu Idienuma whose solos also added to the brilliance and unique sound identity of the Rhythm Dandies. Incidentally however, all these musicians owe their inspiration to the eminent Jay-Jay Johnson, a composer, arranger, who played bop and hard bop.
Considered by many to be the first jazz trombonist of all time, J.J Johnson some how transferred the innovation of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to his more awkward instrument, playing with such speed and deceptive ease that at one time some listeners assumed he was playing valve (rather than slide) trombone. Johnson toured with the territory bands of Clarence Love and Snookum Russell during 1941-1942 and then spent the intervening three years with Benny Carters’ big band.

He made his recording debut with Carter, taking a solo on Love For Sale in 1943. And played at the Jazz at the Philarmonic (JATP) concert in 1944. Johnson also had plenty of solo space during his stay with Count Basies’s Orchestra from 1945 to 1946.
During 1946-1950, Johnson played with all the top jazz musicians of that period, including Charlie Parker, with whom he recorded in 1947; the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band; Illinois Jaquet and the Miles Davis ‘Birth of the Cool’ Nonet.
His own recordings of this era included such sidemen as pianist Bud Powell and a young Sonny Rollins who is now 79 years. J.J. who also recorded with the Metronome All Stars, played with Oscar Pettiford in 1951 and Miles Davis in 1952 but then, he was outside of music, working as a blueprint inspector for two years.
His fortunes changed when, in 1954, he formed a two-trombone quintet with Kai winding and became known as Jay and Kai. The band became quite popular during its two years of existence. A number of albums were recorded at the time, prominent among which was Trombone for two where the two contributed their own compositions, in addition to standards, taking solos in a special order.
After the two went their separate ways, they would later have a few reunions. One of them was Four Trombones, which featured Jay-Jay Johnson and Kai Winding together with such trombonists as Bennie Green and Willie Dennis. The rhythm section featured Charlie Mingus, an outstanding bass player, strong enough just as a player to have made his reputation on that talent alone; Arthur Taylor, a drummer of the most modern concepts and remarkably precise time; and John Lewis, musical director and pianist with the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ).
J.J. Johnson has numerous reissues in the market, most notably The Eminent J.J. Johnson, Early Bones, Four Trombones, Trombone for two, J.J. Inc. Jay and Kai, Say When, Trombone Master, The Finest Of, Trombone For Three, Yokohama Concert, Concepts in Blue, among many others.
The trombone has had a long and honoured history in jazz, dating back to its perpetual presence in the marching and dance hall bands of early New Orleans, whence came the tag “tailgate” because the trombone player sat in the back of the wagon and let the side of the horn reach over the tailgate of the wagon.
Honore Dutrey, Frankie Dusen, Kid Ory, Zue Robertson, Roy Palmer – those were some of the names of the early giants. Then came Jack Teagarden, J.C. Higginbotham, Jimmy Harrison, Sam Nanten and Lawrence Brown.
With the revolution of modern jazz, it seemed as if every instrument developed automatically a virtuoso player who took it past the point of greatest development, enhanced its capabilities and extended its horizon of operations.
For the trombone, Jay-Jay Johnson performed that function, breaking through the barrier of performance and possibility to give the horn a new dimension. It was Jay-Jay’s presence in Four Trombones that stamped the album with the authenticity it deserved.

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