J.J. Johnson is a name of legendary proportions because he was the definitive trombonist of the golden bebop era. Just as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie set standards that had to be dealt with by every subsequent saxophonist or trumpet player in jazz, J.J. created a breathtaking vocabulary of heretofore untouched expressiveness on the trombone.
Pinnacles is J.J.’s first album as a leader in over a decade. Produced by Ed Michel, it is an extraordinary all-star session that features J.J. with Joe Henderson, Tommy Flanagan, Ron Carter, Billy Higgins, Oscar Brashear, and Kenneth Nash.
Johnson has spent the last ten years primarily as a composer and arranger for Hollywood movies and television shows. But he took a full three months out from his busy schedule in order to prepare the music for Pinnacles—so seriously did he regard the project.
“The only other thing I’ve worked so intensively on recently was an arrangement for ‘Night in Tunisia’ that Dizzy Gillespie asked me to write for a symphony orchestra. It’s a seven-minute arrangement for 100 pieces.”
J.J. (he’s made it his legal name) began playing piano at age 11 and picked up the trombone at 14. For a brief time, inspired by the playing of Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, he also played baritone saxophone.
In 1941, he joined a “territory” band led by Snookum Russell, which also featured the great trumpeter Fats Navarro. A year later, Johnson was a member of Benny Carter’s big band, and in 1945 he joined the Count Basie Orchestra. It was about this time that he came under the innovative influence of Gillespie and Parker; soon, J.J. was a fixture on 52nd Street and had adapted the trombone beautifully to the revolutionary harmonic and rhythmic intricacies of bebop. He completed the conversion of the trombone from what was thought of as a rather lumbering instrument to one that could be played with the same agility as a saxophone, trumpet, or piano.
For 20 years, J.J. was the recognized king of the trombone, having played with virtually every great jazz musician, winning countless polls, and recording a host of LPs for Columbia, Savoy, Verve, Prestige, Riverside, and so on.
As J.J. tells it, “I’ve been away from the everyday jazz beat for about 12 years now. I was on the periphery of film scoring in the Sixties, and since 1970, when I moved from New York to Los Angeles, that’s just about all I’ve been doing.”
Johnson has composed and arranged the music for several feature-length films. “I’d rather not mention all the names, although my first, Man and Boy, which Bill Cosby produced, was a good picture, and Cleopatra Jones, a spy picture, got pretty good notice.
“I still get constant invitations to play clubs and festivals, but I just can’t do both. I got out of the jazz scene to compose. It had nothing to do with money—this was just another dimension, new, different, challenging, rewarding. A whole new set of ground rules. It’s very demanding and competitive work.”
The majority of J.J.’s working life is devoted to composing for television. Currently, he’s one of four rotating composers for Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. He’s done isolated episodes for The Rookies, Mod Squad, The Bold Ones, and several others, including two and a half years as exclusive continuing composer for The Six-Million Dollar Man.
Johnson hasn’t been able to divorce himself entirely from a jazz world hungry for his gifts. Over the past few years his activities have included an all-star session for Pablo Records with talents such as Joe Turner, Count Basie, and Lockjaw Davis; a tour of Japan coleading a quintet with Nat Adderley, and an LP for Pablo titled The Yokohama Concert.
“I wanted to do the Pinnacles project to satisfy myself. That’s why I spent so long writing the music and arrangements, and that’s why I wanted to choose very special musicians for the session—a fantastic group, the best. And I must say I’m very pleased with the re-sults.”
J.J. Johnson died February 4, 2001.