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Saturday, October 06, 2012

A Trombone Memory - J.J. Johnson

The Jazz Showcase is a venerable jazz club in Chicago.  Joe Segal opened the place in 1947, and it is allegedly the second oldest continuously operating jazz venue in the world, after the Village Vanguard in New York.  Joe is still active at the Showcase, making his sardonic introductions before the sets begin.  He is about 86 years young.  His son does much of the heavy lifting these days, but Joe remains one of those non-musician heroes of jazz, laboring mightily to keep the music alive in the City of the Big Shoulders.

The Jazz Showcase has moved from location to location through the decades.  It currently is in the South Loop, in Dearborn Station.  Between 1982 and 1996, it was housed in the Blackstone Hotel just off Michigan Avenue.  That is the venue I visited most often.

I think it was in 1991.  J.J. Johnson, the legendary trombonist, was coming to Chicago and was booked at the Jazz Showcase.  There is no semi-serious trombonist on the planet that hasn't been amazed and deeply impacted by J.J.  He was the guy that changed everything, turned the old slush-pump from a jazz novelty , a source of "gut-bucket" musical comedy, to the same level as the tenor sax and the trumpet as a vehicle for beautiful, complex music.  The jazz critic Whitney Balliett once said that listening to a trombonist attempting to play fast jazz phrases was "like watching a fat man run uphill."  J.J. changed that forever.  His technique was miles ahead of every other trombonist; no one thought it was possible to make a slide trombone do the things that J.J. did.  His discipline was beyond belief; he practiced like a madman.  J.J was also a gifted bandleader and composer - he barely recorded from 1967 though the 1970's because he was so busy scoring movies and television shows.

I used to be a teenage trombonist.  I worshiped J.J. Johnson.

So in the winter of 1991, I got tickets and headed to the Blackstone Hotel to see J.J. for my first and only time.  He had moved from LA back to his home town of Indianapolis; his wife, Vivian, became quite ill after a stroke in 1988 and he stopped performing for a couple of years.  The Jazz Showcase gig marked a comeback of sorts for J.J.  Before his first tune, he leaned into the microphone and said, softly, "Once again, Joe Segal has rescued old J.J. from oblivion."

I can remember quite a bit of the set.  He played "Misty" and that brought tears to my eyes. He played a version of Lou Donaldson's "Blues Walk" that was swinging and fun.  He did Cole Porter's "It's All Right With Me," which was articulate and full of gentle phrases.  His musical lines were ravishing, he played very softly, his tone was lush and warm.  He did not play a single unnecessary note. J.J. was almost 67 years old on that night; he had not lost any of his skills, and in fact, had improved as he aged. It was a religious experience for me.

At the break, J.J. put his horn on his trombone stand and strolled over to the bar.  He was relaxed and approachable; many fans spoke to him.  My wife of 16 months turned to me and said, "Aren't you going to introduce yourself to J.J.?"  I said "Of course not - I can't speak to him!  He is J.J. Johnson!!"  Well, my wife said "Bullshit."  She walked over to J.J. and said "Mr. Johnson, my husband plays trombone and he really loves you."  My God, I was horrified!  But she dragged me over, and soon I was shaking his hand, and looking into his smiling face.  His eyes were quite melancholy, as I recall.  It was one of those "I'm not worthy" moments. When I think about it, I still feel anxious and small.

J.J.'s wife passed away later in 1991, a very difficult time for J.J., I am sure.  He issued a recording in her honor, simply entitled "Vivian," in 1992.  J.J. re-married, and performed again starting in 1992.  By 1997, he felt his skills as a trombonist deteriorating, so he quit.  While J.J. kept composing, his horn fell silent.

Things got tough for J.J. at the end.  He battled prostate cancer.  In 2000, his biograpy, "The Musical World of J.J. Johnson," was published.

On February 4, 2001, J.J. Johnson died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.  He was 77 years old.  Apparently, he found his escalating health problems to be intolerable.  I still feel his loss, I listen to his music frequently.

If there was a Mount Rushmore of jazz horn players, J.J would be carved into it along with Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis.