James Louis Johnson, 22 January 1924, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, d. 4 February 2001, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA. Johnson originally studied piano and baritone saxophone, before taking up the trombone at the age of 14. By the time he was 18 years old, he had performed professionally with various territory bands, before joining the band of the great swing altoist Benny Carter. Johnson was with Carter for three years during which period he also worked with Jazz At The Philharmonic. In the mid-40s he was briefly with Count Basie and Illinois Jacquet, and for the rest of the decade was active in small bebop groups in New York. His astonishing slide technique soon attracted attention, with many listeners convinced he was playing a valve trombone. In the early 50s Johnson joined Oscar Pettiford but then was forced to earn a living outside music as a blueprint inspector for Sperry Gyroscope. In 1954 he returned to the jazz scene and immediately attracted widespread attention through the band he co-led with Kai Winding. This band, Jay And Kai, remained together for two years, by which time Johnson was re-established and now both leading small jazz groups and composing extended works that encompassed jazz and classical forms.
In the early 60s Johnson played with Miles Davis and toured with his own groups, and at the end of the decade was also involved in studio work. The 70s saw Johnson relocate to Los Angeles to write for films and television, but also finding time to play in a variety of settings. In the 80s he began to devote more of his time to playing, demonstrating in the process that his ability had not diminished in the slightest. Tours of Japan with JATP groups led to a brief association on record with another trombone player, Al Grey. Johnson retired from live performance in 1997, and despite suffering from prostate cancer continued to compose. He committed suicide in February 2001.
A major figure in jazz trombone, Johnson was one of very few players of that instrument to succeed in bebop and was central to the reinvention of its role in jazz. In his earlier years, especially when playing in bebop groups with artists such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro and Max Roach, his extraordinary technique often dominated the content of his solos; however, in later years the content matured and expanded while his technique showed no signs of faltering. Johnson was one of the major trombonists in modern mainstream jazz.
Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.