J.J. Johnson 1924-2001

This is my personal Tribute page to J.J. Johnson.


My personal tribute/obituary I wrote in Feb 2001
Analysis of JJ's composition "Canonn for Bela"
Discussion of some selected JJ Tunes


I first became aware of JJ Johnson's music when I saw him perform live at William Paterson College in November 1996.  I went into the concert not knowing what to expect and I was blown away.  Later, I learned about his renown as a third stream, and film composer, and I became more intrigued.  I noticed that he and I were born on the same day (44 years apart), and he had a lot of the same titles on his record shelf - 'Mathis Der Maler", "The Miraculous Mandarin", "Ein Heldenleiben".... I knew I had to find out more about this man.  I started to figure out some of his songs on my Warr Guitar... and I started to analyze what I heard... 

The thing that struck me about his music was how well thought out the compositions seemed, compared to a lot of other post-bop I was listening to.  While JJ did record some 'blowing' recording sessions, where he was alone on the frontline backed up by a rhythm section (check out "Proof Positive"), for the most part he recorded with other horns, and wrote interesting arrangements for the horn sections he employed.  Harmony and counterpoint are well developed.  Complex and lengthy introductions and interludes are the norm, rather than the exception.   In this fashion, JJ's songs had the spontenaity of bebop with some of the structure seen in big band music.  Of course, there are others who did these things, but JJ did it in his own way.  I think that a lot of the music he wrote deserves to be played more by other jazzmen, though only one of his songs "Lament" was placed in the old (illegal) "Real Book", and none are in the New (legal) "Real Book".

The album "JJ Inc." shows off his talents well because it is a sextet that had been playing for a year before they recorded. Also, his work with fellow slide-man Kai Winding shows a great deal of thought that was given to the 'problem' of having a combo fronted by two trombone players with a rhythm section (no other horns, sax, trumpet, etc.).  He used the strengths of the trombone, and of two players, to the extreme.  He knew that he could make it work because he used interplay, counterpoint, etc. - plus the fact that both he and Kai had smooth, musical tone on their instruments that blended well in harmony like two baritone singiers' voices.  He had a great tone on his instrument, one of the best ever, liberating it from being in the back of the bandstand, or, worse yet, status as a freakshow instrument for special effects.

Later, in 1988, he recorded a CD called "Quintergy, Live at the Village Vanguard" that is an excellent summary of his life's work to that point.  Covering everything from Dixieland to atonal composition and improvisation, it is loaded with his best compositions and striking arrangements of standards.  Buy this CD if you see it, as it is now out of print.  Even as great as this is, he would compose some of his most striking compositions later still,  in the 1990's on such CD's as "Let's Hang Out" and "The Brass Orchestra".

I don't play trombone, I wanted to study his music from a purist point of view - pure music without any particular instrument bias.  I hope that more non-trombone playing musicians will start to study the music of JJ.

This is the tribute that I wrote for the tap guitar mailing list shortly after JJ Died in February 2001:

Normally I do not post seriously off topic stuff, but there has been,
like, no traffic on this list so I'll break with tradition to rememebr
the great jazz musician JJ Johnson who passed away last week.

JJ was undisputably the greatest Jazz trombonist of the 1900's.
Unfortuantely, he was not a househod name, and really not even very
famous among musicians.  Trombone players treated him like the god that
he was, becasue he elevated the instrument.  he played slide trombone
with precision, no swoops or plops or special effects, he had the golden
tone reminiscent of a french horn.  he was the first to play bebop with
authority on the 'bone, with such precision that at first many thought
he was plying a valve trombone, rather than a slide trombone.

So here is the first thing that we tappianatos can learn from him:
avoid the cliches and play your music true, and you shall elevate even
an obscure or misunderstood instrument to the highest ranks of

The real reason why that all musicians should sit up and take notice of
JJ is that he was a great composer, and I don't use that word composer
lightly.  He was more than a jazz songwriter, he composed works that
were complex and cerebral while still being jazz and still having a
mainstram sound.  He never did really 'outside' free jazz stuff, but he
wrote songs with detailed arrangements that were just a little bit
different than the going rate of the 50's and 60's.  He was also
involved with the so called "third stream" music which was clasical/jazz
fusion, in the 1960's.

Whether the average American realizes it or not, JJ did have an effect
on the everyman, during the 70's.  it was during this time that he left
the Jazz band stand for a time and worked in Hollywood writing film and
TV music.  He did music for a lot of the classic funky cop shows of the
70's lke Starsky and Hutch, the Mod Squad, and the movie 'Shaft'.  I think
he also worked on the Six Million Dollar Man, so maybe that was when the
subliminal seed of JJ Johnson fan-dom was planted in the brain of this
young listener!

Like I said, he was not real famous to the general public, but in 1996 a
trombone playing friend dragged me out to see a show he was doing at
William Paterson College here in NJ.  He was 72 at the time, but his
playing with his 5 piece band  he sounded (including pianist Renee
Rosnes and bassist Rufus Reid) vibrant and fresh, and let me say it was
much better than a lot of other old jazz geezers I have seen touring in
the twilight of their careers.  JJ was totally on his game, 100% that
night, and as I later learned, it was one of his very last concerts.

That day I was just blown away by the depth of his compositional
prowess.  he was also a true class act when he addressed his audience.

I was saddend to hear of his passing, but It inspired me to arrange one
of his tunes "Aquarius" for my band to play.  Since it is hard to find
his stuff in print, you pretty much have to do it by ear, but it is
worth the effort.  See his excellent web page for far more info than I
could provide:


I would recommend "JJ Inc." ans a good CD to star with.  On that disc he
gets a huge sound out of a six piece band.  All original compositions
and well thought out solos from JJ.


Canonn for Bela

Canon for Bela is a composition dating from 1996 that was featured on one of JJ's final albums "The Brass Orchestra".  As you might  guess, the piece is written for a brass orchestra, which also includes piano, bass, drums, and harp.  This canon (curiously spelled "canonn") is one of the more modern pieces on the record.

The first 1:14 of the recorded track consists of splashes for brass, with writing for harp and solos on piano.  The actual contrapunctial canon proper begins at 1:15.  I will focus my discussion on that part of the song, which runs from 1:15 to the end of the song, about 2 minutes later.  This part of the piece is scored for brass and drums only, with some piano at the end.  

The canon theme is first stated in trumpets.  It is a theme, in its first presentation 14 bars long, that lacks a clear tonal center.  While not a tone row by Schoenberg's strictest definition, the melody does use all 12 tones of the chromatic scale and repeats very few of them, hinting strongly at serialism and providing a theme with no clear tonal center.  Parts of the theme have a melodic contour similar to a theme from the first movement of Bartok's "Concerto for Orchestra" - hence the Bela Bartok reference in the title.

The theme does swing, though, and is in my opinion an interetsing and lyric theme because of the jazz context.  During the whole canon, there is accompanament by drums, keeping time on hi hat even where there are pauses in the rest of the music.  This also gives this piece some cohesiveness that makes it less challenging listening than atonal music usually is.

The theme is first stated beginning on the note E (since there is no tonality, I'll use the first note of the sequence to keep track of how he uses modulation in this piece). There is no counterpoint at this point.  The theme is next repeated verbatim, but exactly a major sixth lower, beginning on G, in the lower brass instruments.  JJ plays with this strict statement, in counterpoint on solo trombone, a line which sounds like it is improvised (I do not know for sure).

The theme is played a third time, again in trumpets, this time beginning on A# (minor third below what the trumpets did the first time).  At this point the structured counterpoint begins.  Staggered one measure behind the statement of the A# theme is an answer in the lower brass beginning on C# - a major sixth lower.  A pattern is emerging here, he has presneted this atonal theme but always starting on one of these four notes a minor third apart, C# E G A# - forming a diminished seventh chord, dividing the octave by four.  So the geometry is regular.  At this point it is interesting to hear an atonal theme (that swings) in counterpoint repeated a measure behind, a major sixth lower.  8 bars into this, high trumpets come in playing the theme, an octave higher, also starting at the A#.  The theme is a beat staggared behind the downbeat (an effect like what is common in Shona music from Zimbabwe), adding more of an interesting polyrhythmic texture to the sound.  Finally, 5 bars later, the bass instruments enter, playing an augmented version of the theme (each note is twice as long as before, so a quarter note becomes a half note, etc) but curiously, the theme here begins on C, which is not part of the tonal scheme used thus far.

At this point the themes themselves have become longer, giving us more worked out material to hear.  Things finally come to a head when the whole orchestra plays a very funky, tonal G minor riff in unison.  After that there is a brief coda, with some interesting piano lines in the bass register.

So, all in all, this is not that complex a piece, actually, you could almost write it out given the theme itself and the description I have provided here.  I'd recommend getting the CD "The Brass Orchestra" and follow along at home.

Discussion about some of my favorite JJ Tunes

These songs were written over a period of from 55 years (1941-1996).  Most jazzmen are lucky to live that long!  I have figured out some of these, and I enjoy playing them.  I wish more were published.  It is interesting to see how he was involved with almost every movement in jazz from the 40's on - swing, bebop, post bop, modal jazz, fusion, and jazz that incorporates ideas from European composers like Bartok and Hindemith.  In many ways JJ's career parallels that of Miles Davis.  He also wrote music for film and TV.  Some of the music is more memorable than the films themselves.

Aquarius from  "JJ Inc." (1960)

This tune is built on an interesting counterpoint between the triplet theme carried in the tenor and piano, and the main tune carried by the trombone, with trumpet an octave higher.  It is a modified 12 bar blues, with some interesting changes.  JJ uses several different composed interludes inbetween the solos.  I enjoy playing this tune solo on Warr Guitar, usually without the triplet line, unless I have a second player around with me.  JJ's solo is transcribed in Scott Reeves' book "Creative Jazz Improvisation".

Better Days from "Heroes" (1996)

This slow meditative blues was originally composed in the early 70's for some sessions with Joe Pass that were never released.  I think he also recorded it later, during the "Pinnacles" sessions, but that was unreleased also.  I know it from the 90's recording he made, as a duet with pianist Renee Rosnes.  In that recording, JJ plays the tune while Renee improvises an elaborate accompaniment around it.  This song is great because of its simplicity and understatement.

Canonn for Bela from "The Brass Orchestra" (1996)

see the lengthy discussion above

Carolyn from "Heroes" (1996)

A gentle opening and closing number from the 1996 CD.  It has something of a modal qulaity, for instance the Gm7 chord being held for the whole first half of the tune - in the recording Reneee Rosnes takes advantage of this with some interesting substitutions.

Commutation from "First Place" (1957)

This bebop tune appeared on the Quintergy live album, in a rendition that is much more exiting than the original version.  It is a 32 bar song built on the chords from Charlie Parker's "Confirmation" (though a little dfifferent). It is interesting how the melody of this song resembles Coltrane's "Giant Steps"  - but this tune precedes 'Trane's by 3 years.

Doc Was Here from "Quintergy" (1988)

A lengthy meditative atonal introduction leads into a nice jazz waltz with modal changes.  In some ways it makes this a quintessential Johnson song, with some traditional jazz elements blended with modern compositional ideas.

Elora (1949)

This is a bebop tune named after JJ's first wife's middle Name (Vivian Elora Johnson).  It is a really nice feel good tune, I don't know if the changes come from a previously existing pop song (they sound like they might).

Enigma (1953)

This is a song with some interesting chord changes.  It is a very dark ballad, approprite for Miles Davis, who recorded it first on his album "Miles Davis Volume 2" for Blue Note.  This could almost be seen as a portrait of Miles.  A very different arrangement was later recorded on "The Brass Orchestra".

Harlem Love Theme from the film "Across 110th Street" (1972)

Of all the film music JJ wrote, that I have been able to get my hands on, this is the most easily adapted to performance for me on Warr Guitar.  I was able to pick the tune and the changes off of the record.  It is a nice ballad, as good as any that you'd find mid way through a film.

In Walked Horace from "JJ Inc." (1960)

Classic tune from a clasic group, the early 60's sextet.  The basic tune is built over the chords E flat 7 - E dim7  but when it gets into the solo section it becomes a rhythm changes tune.

Judy from "The Great Kai and JJ" (1960)

This is my personal favorite JJ song.  It is kind of obscure, but it should be better known.  Nice original chord changes, and a very sweet, ever-developing melody.  I often play it as a ballad.  On the original recording, JJ and Kai blend oh so well in harmony.  JJ takes the first solo, Kai the second (muted trombone) and Bill Evans also takes a solo.

Kemptone unpublished (1941)

This tune exists as a big band arrangement that JJ wrote when he was still a student in Indianapolis.  It is surely one of his earliest efforts, but it is a great little song with interesting changes.  I like to play it in a stripped down 32 bar song form, but, the interested JJ scholar can find a complete arrangement in the book "The Musical World of JJ Johnson", an arrangement that includes the intro, head, solo section, and coda, with all the horn parts written out.  It is still pre-bebop in it's language, and is reminiscent of other big band swing tunes of the 40's.

Kenya from "Letís Hang Out" (1992)

This tune is a lot of fun to play, and it's very easy to pick out the tune from the record.  It follows a 1-6-2-5 progression in b flat minor.  I think this would be a fun tune for a rock or fusion band to play.  Though it is not compositionally complex, the exiting performance on the CD "Let's Hang Out" made it the standout track on that disc.  Stanley Cowell's piano work on the track is dynamite.

Lament from "Jay and Kai" (1954)

This is a great, complex, heartfelt ballad that he recorded several times.  I lke the original best, but the version he recorded with Milt Jackson is also very moving.  The chord changes listed in "The Real Book" are not quite right (though they sound fine).  I saw the manuscript version in "The Musical World of JJ Johnson" and I base my performances of the tune from that, as well as some of the recorded versions I have analyzed.

Mohawk from "JJ Inc." (1960)

This is one of the more interesting 12 bar's that he wrote.  I  kind of like it because I onced lived along the Mohawk River in Schenectady, NY.

Minor Mist from "JJ Inc." (1960)

This is a really cool (as in cooool Jazz) tune from 1960.  I's not hard to figure out, it is really a one chord song (Dm7) once you get past the intro.  Of course, being a one chord song, you really have to finesse it to make it work in performance.  That is exactly what JJ does on the record, with an intricate horn arrangement in the bridge, and some all around cool soloing.  Clifford Jordan's tenor solo is very memorable.  I have never performed this tune - I don't think it would work as a solo piano or guitar piece for reasons mentioned above - but if I ever assembled a few like minded musicians it would be cool to come up with an arrangement.

Quintergy from "Quintergy" (1988)

This is just a great tune, a combination of composed sophistication and all out blowing.  Modern intro (recycled from "Why Not"), followed by a churning interlude, then it settles into a 5/4 jam (with a 3/4+4/4+5/4 section).  I am not sure how much of that horn soloing over the 5/4 bassline is improv and how much is composed.  I'd have to check some bootleg tapes (of which I have none).  I think this is one tune every aspiring fusion band should cover, and it's not that hard to figure out from the record.

Shutterbug from "JJ Inc." (1960)

A nice fast blues tune with interesting rhythm.  Supposedly named from the time JJ was in Sweeden and he took a lot of pictures of the scenery.

Ten-85 from "Heroes" (1996)

Nice tune for several trombones.  He overdubbed on the record, and it is reminiscent of his work with Kai.

Turnpike from the album "The Eminent, JJ Johnson Vol. 1" (1953)

This tune was also recorded later for the JJ Inc. sessions.  I think I like the later version better, without the intro.  If you like the quartal harmonies in the introduction, a transcript of it appears in "The Musical World of JJ Johnson".

Why Indianapolis -  Why Not Indianapolis? from the album "Quintergy" (1988)
This is a neat modal tune.  It is reminiscent of "So What" and "Impressions" but it is a 40 bar tune, with 8 bars of C dorian inserted into the familiar form.  The melody itself is a repeating riff, with a chordal bridge.  I like the later version, recorded with the brass orchestra, where he varies the motif a little so that it does not sound as repetitive.  However, the repetition can be a good thing, propelling the jam forward.

Why Not from the "Yokohama Concert" live album (1977)

This upbeat tune, which was recycled a decade later (with a small change) as the intro to "Quintergy", serves as a vehicle for the "So What" or "Impressions" jam.  "Why Not" is a composed motif, played at the beginning, between solos, and at the end, of the 32 bar dorian mode form (16 bars d, 8 bars e flat, 8 bars d).


JJ Johnson.org
Chris Wiley's Excellent JJ Tribute

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