With the advent of bebop the trombone might have suffered the same relative decline as the clarinet but for two virtuosos – J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding. Their early recordings showed how well they overcame the difficulties of adapting the unwieldy trombone with its seven slide positions to the demands of the agile new music coming out of New York. The two later formed a very successful trombone partnership but their early years as lone ‘bones shouldn’t be overlooked.
J.J. Johnson was born in Indianapolis on 22 January 1924 and took up the trombone at the age of 14. Fred Beckett was an important early influence with his 1940 solos on Harlan Leonard’s My Gal Sal, Skee and A La Bridges (Classics 670 CD) – “He was the first trombonist I ever heard play in a manner other than the usual sliding, slurring, lip trilling or ‘gut-bucket’ style. He made a lasting impression on me.”
Johnson toured briefly with the Clarence Love and Isaac Russell bands before joining Benny Carter’s orchestra in 1942 until 1945. Talking about Carter, J.J. said “It was a continuous education in music”. His first recorded solo took place with the band in 1943 on Love For Sale (Definitive DRCSD 1129) and the following year he was invited to appear at the first JATP concert in Los Angeles before an excited audience of more than 2000. His extrovert contributions to Lester Leaps In, Body And Soul, Tea For Two and Blues with Illinois Jacquet, Jack McVea, Nat King Cole and Les Paul would probably fool many on a blindfold test (Properbox (E) 82CD). He left Carter for Count Basie and is heard on three 1946 solos with the band – The King, Stay Cool (both on Classics (F) 934CD) and Rambo (Neatwork RP2062CD). He wrote and arranged Rambo and Jon Hendricks added lyrics to it for Manhattan Transfer’s 1985 Vocalise album.
In 1946 he received the New Star award from the critics of Esquire magazine and his swiftly articulated solo with the all-star band on Indiana Winter (based on How High The Moon) caused many to speculate wrongly that he was playing a valve trombone (Definitive DRCD 11293). On one occasion his amazing facility prompted a Philadelphia club owner to post a sign outside advertising “The Fastest Trombone Player Alive”. That was the year he settled in New York and started sitting in at the clubs on 52nd Street. For a time he had a quartet at the Spotlite with Bud Powell and later he worked there with Allen Eager. He also played at the Three Deuces in a sextet with Fats Navarro and Stan Getz. His first date as a leader took place in June 1946 with Cecil Payne, Bud Powell, Leonard Gaskin and Max Roach when Coppin’ The Bop, Jay Jay, Jay-Bird and Mad Bebop were recorded for Savoy (SVO 151CD).
In late 1947, after his hit with Robbins’ Nest, Illinois Jacquet formed a new band with J.J., Leo Parker, Sir Charles Thompson, Fats Navarro and Joe Newman, providing a high-octane mix of jazz with rhythm & blues overtones which proved to be hugely popular. John Lewis replaced Thompson for a while and said “We had to play Flying Home about three times a night (but) I’ve never seen so much money”. Johnson solos on Riffin’ With Jacquet, Destination Moon, For Truly, King Jacquet, Embryo and Mutton Leg (Mosaic MR6-165). When he wasn’t on the road with Jacquet he became the trombonist-of-choice on many bop recordings in the late 40s with Charlie Parker, Tadd Dameron, Dizzy Gillespie Howard McGhee, Babs Gonzales, Leo Parker and Coleman Hawkins.
J.J. performed on eight of the 12 titles recorded by the Miles Davis nonet in 1949/50 and solos on Deception. Kai Winding was on the other four and was featured on Godchild (Capitol 7243 5 30117 2 7). There were two other trombonists involved in the project because Eddie Bert rehearsed with the group at Nola’s studios on several occasions and Mike Zwerin played on their live performances at the Royal Roost. Peter Pullman’s book (Wail – The Life Of Bud Powell) mentions that on one occasion Powell performed with the nonet at Birdland. The last number of the set was Move and Bud received a standing ovation. He was a little bemused by the audience reaction so Gerry Mulligan very gently led him off the bandstand with the applause still ringing in his ears. An early portent of Johnson’s later highly successful collaboration with Winding took place on a Chubby Jackson date in 1950 when they were featured together on Tiny Kahn’s Flying The Coop (Original Jazz Classics CD 711-2). He was briefly with Woody Herman at this time and Conte Candoli said “He was real good on the lead book”.
In early 1951 he occasionally worked at Birdland in a small Dizzy Gillespie group with Milt Jackson and Budd Johnson or John Coltrane and in April that year he was on the 78 rpm disc that introduced Dizzy’s The Champ (Savoy SV-0170CD). Between May and August 1952 he was part of a Symphony Sid package that included Miles Davis, Jackie McLean, Zoot Sims, Milt Jackson, Max Roach, Percy Heath and John Lewis that toured New Haven, Montreal, Toronto, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Atlantic City before concluding at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre. They did not record, unfortunately, but there is a fine series of photographs in Ken Vail’s book Miles’ Diary from the Apollo booking. Ira Gitler, in his Jazz Masters Of The 40s, says “When this group broke up, the trombonist became discouraged with the music business”. He briefly withdrew from the jazz scene because of the lack of regular work. He also had the problem of having to renew his cabaret card every six months because of an earlier misdemeanour in 1946. His permanent cabaret card was not reinstated until 1959.
He began working in the defence industry as a blueprint inspector on Long Island but he kept practising and making occasional recording dates. One of these took place in 1953 in Brooklyn at a Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop session with three other trombonists – Bennie Green, Willie Dennis and Kai Winding (Properbox (E) 77CD). In April 1954 he was one of the Miles Davis All Stars along with Lucky Thompson and Horace Silver who created the classic Walkin’ and Blue ’n’ Boogie for Prestige (PRCD 7076-2). It’s worth pointing out again that Walkin’ started out as Gravy on a 1950 Gene Ammons date. It was written by Jimmy Mundy until it was appropriated by the infamous Richard Carpenter who got a composer credit on the Davis date.
J.J.’s temporary retirement ended four months later when Ozzie Cadena wanted to team him with Eddie Bert in a two-trombone album for Savoy. Eddie was unavailable as he was contracted to Discovery. Bennie Green would have been selected but he was busy thanks to his 1953 Blow Your Horn hit which had become something of a juke-box favourite. Producer Teddy Reig suggested Kai Winding. This led to a happy two-year partnership that was successful both commercially and musically and was marketed under the title Jay and Kai.