Saturday Night Tunes: The Eminent Jay Jay Johnson, Volume 1

J. J. Johnson (or Jay Jay, if you like) may not be as widely known as Miles Davis or John Coltrane, but he’s quietly one of the most influential musicians in the development of bebop and post-bebop jazz, because he as much as anybody can be credited with bringing the trombone back. Anybody who’s heard Dixieland music, one of jazz’s immediate ancestors, knows that it makes heavy use of the trombone, usually playing long slide rips and countermelodies while the trumpet (or more likely cornet if you really want to be authentic) plays the melody and the clarinet improvises runs over the top of that. Take, for example, this version of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” by the Dukes of Dixieland, a revival group that was formed in the 1940s:

You also hear a tuba playing the bass line for at least part of the number. Dixieland was often a marching music, and you can’t march very easily with a string bass, so tubas often had the job that basses would take over once jazz became a more stationary thing. Unlike the trombone, the tuba never really made a big comeback in modern jazz.

Most big bands and swing groups made heavy use of the trombone, but when bebop started developing it was thought that the trombone’s slide action would never translate into the quick chord changes and fast improv that characterized the new style. Saxophones and trumpets lent themselves to fast lines much more readily than the trombone. That’s what a lot of people thought, anyway. But Johnson, who’d already broken in as a big band trombonist with famous band leaders like Benny Carter and Count Basie, wanted to play the new style too, and according to his biographers, Joshua Berrett and Louis G. Bourgois III, he was encouraged by none other than Dizzy Gillespie, who one day in 1946 heard Johnson noodling around on his horn and told him, “I’ve always known that the trombone could be played different, that somebody’d catch on one of these days. Man, you’re elected.”

The Eminent Jay Jay Johnson is a 2 volume work, released in 1955, that compiles three sessions Johnson recorded for Blue Note Records. I’m just doing the first volume this evening, which covers one of the three sessions, a 1953 recording of the Jay Jay Johnson Sextet. Featured along with Johnson are Clifford Brown on trumpet, Jimmy Heath on tenor and baritone saxophone, John Lewis on piano, Percy Heath on bass, and Kenny Clarke on drums. Johnson is in fine form, but as this Allmusic review notes, Brown really steals the show. That’s no knock on Johnson, as Brown was really one of the most transcendent talents in all of jazz history.

“Capri,” written by saxophonist Gigi Gryce, is a pretty straight ahead bebop tune with great solos from both Johnson and Brown:

“Lover Man,” written by Ram Ramirez, Jimmy Davis and James Sherman:

This tune was pretty popular at the time, having been written for Billie Holliday, whose 1945 treatment is rightly considered a classic:

and then it was covered by Charlie Parker in 1946:

Anyway, back to the album in question.

“Turnpike,” written by Johnson, is another bebeop/hard bop number that makes good use of the three horns in the opening melody. Brown is amazing. Jimmy Heath is on baritone saxophone for the melody but switches to tenor for his solo, which seems like kind of a cheat but having played both I understand why he did it:

“Sketch 1,” by Lewis, slows things down and again takes advantage of having the three horns. Each of them takes turns soloing while the other two play lines in the background, which has the effect of making each solo sound stylistically unique:

Last but not least is the Harold Arlen/Ted Koehler standard “Get Happy,” which gets a great uptempo rendition and a nice tenor solo from Jimmy Heath:

For my money, this beats Judy Garland by a mile, but feel free to disagree even though it makes you wrong:

I couldn’t find a YouTube of the sixth tune on the album, a cover of the Johnny Burke/James Van Heusen song “It Could Happen to You,” and frankly I don’t feel like uploading my own, so you’re missing that.


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