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Indianapolis Native J.J. Johnson, Shining Star on the Slide Trombone

Born in 1924 in Indianapolis, J.J. Johnson was a leading jazz and bebop proponent hailed by most as one of the top trombonists of his era. Also a composer and a bandleader during the prodigious height of jazz and bebop coming out of the United States, J.J. Johnson’s name will remain on the list of famous people from Indianapolis, as one of the finest and most influential musicians in the genres of jazz and bebop of his time.

With Freddie Hubbard and Wes Montgomery, also from Indy, J.J. Johnson completes the trio of jazz musicians considered most influential for the trumpet, guitar and trombone. Not only was Johnson a player with virtually no limits on his chosen instrument, he was also an excellent composer and arranger. Among his most ambitious compositions are Perceptions, a six-movement suite that featured soloist Dizzy Gillespie, and Poem for Brass, a work from 1957 that became a fixture in the Third Stream jazz movement.

Johnson played his astonishing stylings for the likes of Count Basie, Charlie Parker and Dizie Gillespie, to name just a few. Leaving Indiana for New York, he performed in a popular combo called the Jay and Kai Quintet, in which he bandied riffs with Kai Winding, another vastly talented trombonist.

Video of the famous “Jay and Kai” duo performing “It’s All Right with Me”

 

Hollywood called in 1970, and Johnson found himself there, composing scores for television series like Mike Hammer, The Six Million Dollar Man and Starsky & Hutch, and movies such as Cleopatra Jones and Top of the Heap.

For about two decades, J.J. Johnson bowed out of the limelight before a comeback in 1987. This was followed by a short blizt of activity including recordings and tours, national and international. From 1988 until 1991, Johnson again retreated into his home life, this time to care for his ailing wife. He made a second comeback in 1992, after her death, and was a sought-after performer and recording sideman until opting to retreat to his native home in the Circle City. There he continued to compose and arrange on the computer.

J.J. Johnson plays with the famous Jamey Abersold in this short video clip.

 

J.J. Johnson was otherwise active in bebop and jazz music for over a half-century. His career spanned over 1942 until 1996, a few years before his death in 2001. His influence in the sphere of slide trombone performance in those styles has been fairly compared to the enormous influence exerted over future saxophonists by the great Charlie Parker.

In 2001, J.J. Johnson shot himself as a form of euthanasia due to prostate cancer. He left a musical legacy that will long be passed down to musicians, and is forever a part of the history of bebop and jazz music.

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