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Sliding On Back to His Beginnings

Modern jazz trombone began with J.J. Johnson, and for a while it looked like it might end with him. But now he's returned to the horn--and the hometown--he loves.

June 09, 1996|Don Heckman

When J.J. Johnson stands up to play, people listen.

His warm, furry tone and crisp improvisations are among the most identifiable sounds in all of jazz. An admired and influential jazz player for nearly five decades, he was one of the first to master the tricky rhythms and complex harmonies of bebop in the mid-'40s.

And, amazingly, he's done it all on an instrument that seems in recent years to have been relegated to the nether reaches of jazz: the trombone.

"Some people," says the veteran musician, trim and youthful-looking at 72, "still see us as the guys who sit in the back of the bus and make funny noises."

But not Dizzy Gillespie, who told a young Johnson in the '40s, "I knew the trombone could be played

in a different way, that someone would manage it one of these days. You're going to be the one."

And Johnson, who makes a rare local appearance with his quintet next Sunday at the Playboy Jazz Festival, was "the one," almost single-handedly bringing the instrument into the modern jazz era.

The arrival of rock, fusion and so-called contemporary jazz, however, diminished the trombone's visibility. With the exception of jazz-based groups such as Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago, it was seldom heard in rock music, and the synthesizer and guitar sounds of '70s and '80s jazz found little use for the instrument.

"Even the brilliant trombonists haven't seemed to be marketable," Johnson says in a phone conversation from his Indianapolis home. "They haven't become leaders the way saxophone players do. Every saxophone player's a leader; every trumpet player's a leader.

"There are a bunch of trombone players who could be leaders right now, but they're not. So we're ignored to a degree; we're not brought to the forefront."

It was not always so. The role of the trombone in the early New Orleans groups of the teens and '20s was clear and vital, pumping out powerful counterlines and propulsive tailgate rhythms. In the '30s and '40s, during the Swing Era, the trombone played a starring, big-band role as a solo instrument, elegant in such pieces as Tommy Dorsey's theme song, "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You."

And when the Stan Kenton Orchestra emerged in the '40s and '50s, the trombone was favored by a piano-playing leader who loved the instrument's strength and versatility, consistently showcasing it in ensemble and solo settings in the hands of, among others, Milt Bernhardt, Frank Rosolino and Eddie Bert.


So what's the problem here? With a history filled with such achievements, why the recent indifference? Is it a lack of interest in the instrument itself, or is it a reflection of the overall condition of jazz?

A little of both, in fact.

First, there is the failure of the trombone to generate an array of unique, individual players. Few would dispute that Johnson was effective in finding his own voice. But the younger trombonists who followed in his path, with rare exceptions, simply did not match his originality, with many simply attempting to clone his innovations into their own work. Most significantly of all, there have been no Johnson successors who have approached the accomplishment level of such post-Charlie Parker saxophonists as Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane.

Second, the trombone's recent obscurity is also a reflection of factors in the broader jazz picture.

One of the most notable has been the gradual depletion of the senior generation of jazz greats--the master artists whose very presence tends to attract young players to the same instruments. Johnson's Playboy Festival performance will mark his first Southland appearance with his own group in years. And, although the festival's headliners are the pop-oriented Tony Bennett and Gladys Knight, Johnson provides the event with its only unquestioned jazz hall of famer--an indication of how sparse the pickings have become at the very top of the jazz field.

The problem was exacerbated for the jazz trombone by Johnson's absence from the jazz scene for nearly 20 years in the '70s and '80s. His departure came after a string of musical successes. The two-trombone textures of his mid-'50s collaboration with former Stan Kenton trombonist Kai Winding in the Jay and Kai Quintet had elicited instantly agreeable responses from the jazz fans of the time.

"We were blessed that our styles were different," Johnson recalls, "but the difference was what made it work so well. Had we both been on the same wavelength, it wouldn't have worked the way it did. Funny thing is, despite those differences, people still come up to me and say, 'Hey, do you remember when you and J.J. worked together?!' "

For the next 10 or 15 years, he toured extensively, led a variety of his own groups, performed with Miles Davis and composed "Perceptions," a large-scale orchestral piece for Dizzy Gillespie. But he was drawn to other interests.

In the mid-'60s, when jazz was under assault from rock music on the right and avant-garde sounds on the left, Johnson turned to television and film scoring.

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