The Musical World of J. J. Johnson.
J. J. Johnson has been the most influential jazz trombonist of the modern jazz era. Born in 1924 in Indianapolis, he arrived in New York in 1945, precisely the right time to absorb the new musical language--bebop--being forged by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and others. Johnson's influence on jazz trombone playing in the second half of the century stemmed from his ability to adapt to trombone technique the angular lines, harmonic complexities, and breakneck tempos of the bop trumpet and saxophone players.
It is surprising that the long and fruitful career of this artist has not previously attracted the serious attention of jazz historians. While a number of short articles have dealt with aspects of Johnson's music, the present book, number 35 in the valuable series Studies in Jazz sponsored by the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, is the first substantial biography and extended study of his musical development. Joshua Barrett is the primary author; Louis G. Bourgois III contributed a comprehensive discography, filmography, and catalog of compositions.
Berrett makes effective use of oral history, including numerous interviews with both musicians and nonmusicians. The first chapter, "Early Years in Indianapolis, 1924-42," reveals that trombone was not Johnson's first choice of instrument; the baritone saxophone he played in school was in such bad condition that he was given a trombone instead. In chapter 2, "From Central Avenue to 52nd Street," Berrett details Johnson's early days as a sideman in swing bands, including the Benny Carter Orchestra, with which he made his first recordings in 1942. The chapters titled "In the Inner Circle of Boppers" and "Once That Record Started Happening..." focus on the maturing of Johnson's hop-style improvisation, with many music examples. It was during this period, 1946-58, that Johnson's serious interest in composition developed; his Poem for Brass of 1956 was included that same year in the landmark recording of "third stream" works by the Brass Ensemble of the Jazz and Classical Music Society.
In the late fifties, Johnson played a significant role in lawyer Maxwell Cohen's push for reform of the New York Police Department's policies on licensing cabaret performers and employees. Johnson, composer Johnny Richards, and pianist Bill Rubenstein served as plaintiffs in a suit against the NYPD; their testimony before the New York State Supreme Court in 1959 led to reform of longstanding civil rights abuses and misuse of funds within the department. Berrett's account of this episode in Johnson's career provides insight into the context in which jazz was created and heard in the forties and fifties in New York.
Berrett examines many other facets of Johnson's varied career, including his involvement with the Lenox School of Jazz in 1960 and his three years on the staff of MBA Music writing and arranging music for radio and television advertisements. It was Johnson's hope that this experience. would lead to work in film scoring, and indeed, he did spend the next seventeen years (1970-87) in Hollywood writing for film and television, all the while continuing to perform as a studio musician. Ultimately, the Hollywood experience was a great disappointment for him, as he found himself a small player in a very big business where profits--not aesthetics--ruled; many of the films with which he was associated were violent, stereotyped genre pieces ("blaxploitation").
This book will appeal to a variety of readers. Well documented and coherently presented, it is a work the historian can trust, with a wealth of material that establishes a cultural context for the events it describes. At the same time, there are enough fascinating anecdotes and colorful interviews to make a good read for both the Johnson fan and the general jazz enthusiast. The many music analyses provide a useful starting point for understanding Johnson's complex musical contribution, although much remains to be done in this area.
By itself, Bourgois's annotated discography, listing all of Johnson's recorded performances (issued and unissued) as both group leader and section musician, makes the volume an important scholarly contribution. The 312 entries are arranged chronologically from 1942 to 1997, when Johnson retired from active performance. The entries provide the date of recording, location, leader and group, type of recording (studio, broadcast, etc.), personnel and instrumentation, recording matrix number, song titles, and domestic release data. In the commentary, Bourgois corrects many errors in previous discographies. Useful as well is the catalog of compositions; for those who know Johnson only as a jazz trombonist, this list of 190 works, as well as the filmography, will reveal the breadth of his accomplishments.
There are several minor shortcomings that do not lessen the book's value but make it more difficult to use. The index is not as thorough as it might be; the entry for Johnny Richards, for example, refers the reader to page 121 only, whereas Richards is also mentioned on pages 122-23 and pictured on page 126. A title index to the discography would have enhanced its usefulness as a reference tool; without it, the reader seeking recordings of a specific tune must search through each of the 312 entries. The transcriptions of jazz solos, while welcome in any form, would have been even more useful if they had included information about articulation and rhythm. Lewis Porter's transcription of Johnson's improvisation of "Moritat" (based on "Mack the Knife") in The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz (2 vols. [London: Macmillan, 1988], 1:622]) illustrates a more insightful form of transcription, with its symbols for "terminal lip trill," "rapid upward glissando," "note slightly delayed," and "fall off."
Berrett and Bourgois have filled a significant gap in jazz studies. Like any ambitious project, their book answers many questions and raises others. Nonetheless, with its thorough documentation and balanced coverage of all aspects of Johnson's long and distinguished career, it will be the logical starting point for future studies of this creative American musician.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2000|
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