Bunk Johnson Biography

William Geary Johnson, 27 December 1889, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, d. 7 July 1949, New Iberia, Louisiana, USA. Johnson’s early career has only recently been unravelled, and then only partly, thanks to his own, often inaccurate testimony. Until his enforced retirement from music in 1934 Johnson was certainly an active musician, playing in numerous New Orleans-based bands. He claimed to have worked with Buddy Bolden and Jelly Roll Morton; however as has been determined by recent researchers such as Christopher Hillman, these associations were unlikely given Johnson’s age (he had, for years, claimed to be 10 years older than he was). He certainly played in some of the best New Orleans brass and marching bands, including the Superior and the Eagle bands. Johnson also claimed to have been an important influence upon and teacher of Louis Armstrong, but this assertion too should be treated with caution. Undoubtedly, Johnson was an important musician in New Orleans during the early years of jazz; yet he was a somewhat wayward character, whose presence in a band was not always a guarantee of musical excellence.

Around 1914 Johnson moved to Alexandria, Louisiana and, from then until the late 20s, he played in scores of bands in many towns and cities of the deep south. By the early 30s, however, Johnson’s career was in disarray and the loss of his front teeth had made playing difficult to the point of impossibility. In 1938 research by jazz writers Frederic Ramsey Jnr. and Charles Edward Smith located Johnson, who was then living in New Iberia, Louisiana. During correspondence with the writers Johnson insisted that, if he could be given money with which to buy false teeth and a trumpet, he could play again. The money was raised and Johnson duly returned to active performing. His return to the jazz public’s consciousness came in 1940 and from that point until his death he made a tremendous impact upon that area of the early jazz scene currently enjoying a resurgence of interest. Johnson toured, playing concerts and making broadcasts, and made several records; all the while enhancing his new-found and self-perpetuated reputation as one of the originators of jazz.

The quality of the playing which Johnson demonstrated on the records he made in these years shows him to have been a good player of the blues and suggests that in his hey-day he must have been a better-than-average trumpeter. There are also strong hints that he possessed a measure of musical sophistication which, had his career not foundered when he was approaching his prime, would have made him an important figure in the mainstream. As it was, Johnson’s reappearance on the jazz scene, which helped to cement the Revival Movement of the early 40s, tied him firmly to a musical style that, as his biographer Hillman observes, he had probably outgrown. Instead, Johnson, together with his near contemporary George Lewis, was responsible for resurrecting an interest in early jazz that has remained strong until the present day.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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