James Louis “J. J.” Johnson died on February 4, 2001 at the age of 77; he was an American jazz trombonist, composer and arranger. Born on January 22, 1924, in 1941, he started his professional career with Clarence Love, and then played with Snookum Russell in 1942.
In Russell’s band he met the trumpeter Fats Navarro, who influenced him to play in the style of the tenor saxophonist Lester Young. Johnson played in Benny Carter’s orchestra between 1942 and 1945, and made his first recordings in 1942 under Carter’s leadership, recording his first solo (on Love for Sale) in October, 1943.
In 1951, with bassist Oscar Pettiford and trumpeter Howard McGhee, Johnson toured the military camps of Japan and Korea before returning to the United States and taking a day job as a blueprint inspector.
Johnson admitted later he was still thinking of nothing but music during that time, and indeed, his classic Blue Note recordings as both a leader and with Miles Davis date from this period.
Following the mid-1950s collaboration with Winding, J. J. Johnson began leading his own touring small groups for about 3 years, covering the United States, United Kingdom and Scandinavia.
These groups (ranging from quartets to sextets) included tenor saxophonists Bobby Jaspar and Clifford Jordan, cornetist Nat Adderley, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, pianists Tommy Flanagan and Cedar Walton, and drummers Elvin Jones, Albert “Tootie” Heath, and Roach.
In 1957, he recorded the quartet albums First Place and Blue Trombone, with Flanagan, Paul Chambers and Roach. He also toured with the Jazz at the Philharmonic show in 1957 and 1960, the first tour yielding a live album featuring Johnson and tenor saxophonist Stan Getz.
In 1958–59 Johnson was one of three plaintiffs in a court case which hastened the abolition of the cabaret card system.
Johnson worked with Miles Davis during part of 1961-1962, led some more small groups of his own, and by the late ’60s was kept busy writing television and film scores.
J.J. Johnson was so famous in the jazz world that he kept on winning Downbeat polls in the 1970s, even though he was not playing at all.However, starting with a Japanese tour in 1977, Johnson gradually returned to a busy performance schedule, leading a quintet in the 1980s that often featured Ralph Moore.
In 1979, he recorded an album called Pinnacles, using electronic instruments, coupled with a heavyweight line up of pianist Tommy Flanagan, bassist Ron Carter, drummer Billy Higgins, saxophonist Joe Henderson, Oscar Brashear on trumpet, and Kenneth Nash on percussion.
Johnson also participated in the seventieth birthday celebration for Dizzy Gillespie at the Wolf Trap National Park near Washington, D.C.. It was there that he met with another Indianapolis native, trombonist Slide Hampton, and the pair discussed Johnson’s career direction
In 1991, he recorded the album Vivian for Concord Records, and Renee Rosnes followed Stanley Cowell as the quintets pianist after 1992. Returning to work for Verve, Johnsons quintet recorded the album Lets Hang Out in 1992, and Heroes in 1996, which included “Carolyn (In the Morning), a tribute to his new wife, Carolyn Reid.
He and Reid were married on September 11, 1992, after Johnsons reported confession to her that he had contemplated suicide after losing so many family members in a close span.