J. J. Johnson (22 January 1924 – 4 February 2001) was an American jazz trombonist, composer and arranger. Born James Louis Johnson, he was sometimes credited as Jay Jay Johnson.
Johnson was one of the first trombonists to embrace bebop music and has long been regarded as one of the leading trombonists of the post-swing era.
After studying piano from the age of nine, Johnson switched to trombone when he was 14. He began his professional career with the bands of Clarence Love and Snookum Russell in 1941–1942, and then spent 1942–1945 with Benny Carter’s big band. He made his first recordings in 1942 under Carter’s leadership, recording his first solo (on ‘Love for Sale’) in October 1943.
In 1944, he played in the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert, presented in Los Angeles and organized by Norman Granz. He joined Count Basie’s big band in 1945, touring and recording with him until 1946.
After leaving Basie, he played with all of the top bop musicians, including Charlie Parker (with whom he recorded in 1947), the Dizzy Gillespie big band, Illinois Jacquet, and the Miles Davis Birth of the Cool Nonet. His own recordings from the era included such sidemen as Bud Powell and Sonny Rollins.
In 1952, Johnson took a day job as a blueprint inspector, before teaming up with fellow trombonist Kai Winding in August 1954 and returning to music full-time. Their two-trombone quintet – Jay and Kai – was quite popular and after their amicable split two years later, they reunited on several occasions, including for a UK tour in 1958, an Impulse! studio album in 1960, and two albums for CTI/A&M Records in the late 1960s.
In 1957, Johnson recorded the classic quartet albums First Place and Blue Trombone with Tommy Flanagan, Paul Chambers and Max Roach. From this period, Johnson began to concentrate more on composition, and he became an active contributor to the Third Stream movement in jazz music.
Johnson worked with Miles Davis during part of 1961–1962 and led some more small groups of his own. These groups ranged from quartets to sextets and included tenor saxophonists Bobby Jaspar and Clifford Jordan, cornetist Nat Adderley, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, pianists Tommy Flanagan and Cedar Walton, and drummers Elvin Jones, Albert ‘Tootie’ Heath and Max Roach.
The 1970s mainly saw Johnson writing television and film scores, but he was performing again by the end of the decade. In the early 1980s, Jai and Kai reunited for some jazz festival appearances in Japan, the last shortly before Winding died in May 1983. Also in the 1980s, Johnson led a quintet that often featured Ralph Moore. He continued to play until the mid-1990s, but by the end of the decade he had fallen ill. He died in 2001.
Johnson was so famous and highly regarded in the jazz world that in the 1970s he kept winning Downbeat polls – even though he was not playing at all.
In this 1961 footage, J. J. Johnson plays ‘Like Someone in Love’ with Pierre Michelot on bass and Kenny Clark on drums.