The Instrumentalist

Articles August September 2022

J.J. Johnson, Expanding the Envelope



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This gem from our archives originally appeared in the April 1990 issue of The Instrumentalist.


This gem from our archives originally appeared in the April 1990 issue of The Instrumentalist.

    Establishing himself as the definitive bop-era trombonist while still in his 20s, J.J. Johnson has inspired and influenced generations of jazzmen. He performed with, among others, Count Basie, Illinois Jacquet, and Miles Davis, and formed the much recorded trombone duo with rhythm, Jay and Kai. Later he pursued a career writing music for films and television.



Many aspiring jazz players don’t understand the role of practice. They think that a jazz artist appears on stage and simply emotes. How do you feel about this?
    I’ve found that out just with my limited experience with clinics. I’ve tried to drive the point home to young players that they have got to practice. You always have to practice. There won’t come a time when you won’t have to practice anymore. As long as you are going to perform, you’ve got to practice.
    One of the most dramatic examples of the importance of practice is once many years ago when Miles Davis played at one of the clubs in the Village with his quintet: Miles, Coltrane, Red Garland, Philly Joe, and Paul Chambers. They played their normal set, which was exciting to say the least, then they’d take a 35 or 45-minute intermission, at which point John Coltrane would always go down to the basement and practice until it was time to go back on the bandstand again. This meant that he played all night long without letup. I don’t know of any more dramatic example  of the fact that you’ve got to practice. We all know what that did for Coltrane; he became the ultimate improviser.

That’s inspiring for young students or older players who need to get back on track again. I can’t imagine that ever happening to you.
    I think getting off the track happens to most jazz musicians. You go through cycles of frustration and cycles of exploration. You need to take stock of what you are doing. Maybe that’s good. I like to think that these periods are indicative of growth. You don’t reach a certain status where there’s nothing else to do, nothing else to gain. There’s always more to learn; you never really master an instrument. Sometimes I think that I’m a slave to the trombone; in a sense I am. Ted Nash, a studio man in LA, finally gave up playing because he said that the hassle of keeping his chops up and keeping his playing mechanism in tip-top form got to the point where there was no joy in it. He said that when it got to be a drag he knew that it was time to get out.
    I can relate to what he said about the hassle of having to keep up. It takes dedication and discipline, especially when there is no gig in sight. That’s difficult; I know that for a fact. We all know how intensely we practice when the gig is approaching, but when there is no work in sight, you just have to practice as hard, and you always look for a little edge, a little something extra: another dimension, another tone color, or something.

That’s always been something that I liked about your playing. In the 1940s you had already established a style that set the standard for every trombone player that’s come after you, but you didn’t stop there.
    One of the things that I try to pass along to younger players is the fact that jazz by its very nature is a restless music. It won’t stay still; it won’t behave. You can’t just put it over here and say, “Now be quiet and don’t say anything.” It won’t allow that. It must evolve; it must reach out and explore. When Dizzy and Bird came on the scene there was a hue and cry, “What is this crazy music with flatted fifths called bebop?” Obviously, it prevailed. I think it will always be that way. When something new comes along there will be resistance to it at first. When Miles recorded Bitches Brew there was a great hue and cry, from the critics, the media, everybody but especially his adoring fans. They raised a big ruckus about it. “He can’t desert us like this and go off into another world like that,” they said; but that’s what he did.

It’s difficult for kids coming up now because they don’t have the opportunities to play with older musicians as you did with the Basie Band. Who are some of the players who influenced you?
    One of my favorite stories that I pass along to young students is about my time with Basie, sitting next to Dickie Wells who was the lead trombonist and the featured trombonist of the band at that time. He was a tall, rangy, hand­some man who could have been a movie star. Somehow, when he stood up to play his solos, he seemed to tower over the orchestra. Of course, this is magnified by the fact that I was in awe of him. I was a kid from Indianapolis sitting next to this monster trombone player who did not play a lot of notes, did not play pyrotechnics or play into the stratosphere. He just played a few well-chosen notes with great feeling and great depth of emotion. He played very few notes but it was the inflection that he put on those notes that made his playing so outstanding. Kids nowadays are obsessed with a thousand notes and playing faster and higher, so to find out that I was in awe of someone who didn’t play a lot of notes gives them something to think about.
    Another favorite story is about the first trombonist I heard play in a manner other than the way trombonists played up to that point. His name was Fred Beckett. He never was well known and never reached a high profile status in the classic sense. He was with a territory band called Harlan Leonard’s Rockets. I happened to hear a recording where he played a 16-bar solo, and I was just amazed. He was the first trombonist I heard play in a linear style. He would play lines that were beautiful. Unfor­tunately, he passed away in his 30s; he was with Lionel Hampton at the time. He would have been a force to be reckoned with had he continued in jazz.

I’ve often noticed that when you’re on the stand you have the sets planned out as to which tunes you will call and who will play on what. It seems that often everybody plays on every tune, and after a while that gets old to the audience.
    I’ve seen the edge you need to be a good performer fall off because things were not well thought out and were falling apart at the seams. I’ve seen the reverse where people had their act together and planned in advance. Seeing both sides of the coin, I hope something good has rubbed off on me.

People often talk about a certain level of spontaneity in this music that is necessary for a good performance.
    No question about it. Normally Miles is a featured act on a show that has three or four acts. Usually, the featured act plays last, that’s common practice, but not Miles. Miles plays first. You know why? Ever have the experience where you wait and wait, and by the time you play, you’ve lost that edge? That will never happen to Miles. Miles plays when he’s fresh and spontaneous; he gets out and is gone by the time the last act plays. You’ll never hear Miles who waited through three acts and has lost his sharp, very fine, well-honed edge. Nobody in the audience wants to know that he’s been waiting around and has lost his edge. If they paid $20 or $30 a ticket, they want blood. You can’t blame them. They deserve the best performance you are capable of.

When you were learning to improvise as a young player, what kinds of stages did you go through?
    I’m sure that all of us first begin by emulating the people who we idolize. I guess personalizing my playing began during practicing. At first you practice the customary scales and long tones and arpeggios. Somewhere along the line you begin to incorporate some of yourself in this routine.
    One of the reasons I ask is that you are the person who brought the instrument into the modern era. You did things that no one had thought of before, and you looked at the trombone in a way that people had never looked at it before. It fascinates me that you could do this when there really wasn’t a precedent to follow. How did you do it?
    Two or three words come to mind: naive, reckless, and a little crazy. The other words that come to mind are practice, practice, practice. I had encouragement from people like Dizzy when I was struggling with lines of bebop tunes. I recall Dizzy planting seeds, saying, “J.J., try it this way.” I was amazed when it worked out because Dizzy is not a trombone player and nobody realized that he knew anything about trombone technique, but he did. He’d show me little tricks with the slide and sure enough, it would be easier. It wasn’t only Dizzy, though. People planted little seeds here and there that paid off dividends later in a big way. One who really helped me was Illinois Jacquet. I played in his band for a while. We called it the Little Big Band: two trumpets, trombone, tenor sax, baritone sax, and a rhythm section. Jacquet was a great source of encouragement, although most people don’t associate him with bebop. Jacquet was a wonderful bebopper, but he would do it offstage, over in the corner somewhere when he practiced. He played marvelous bebop, but then he went onstage and played the show he was famous for, honking and screaming. “C’mon, J.J., let’s play this line in unison,” he’d say, and then he’d tell me that I could do it. He was always a source of encouragement, and after a while I began to believe him. I was lucky to be exposed to such people.

The thing that is the most exciting about your playing is that you take chances.
    Test pilots have a term called the envelope for when a pilot goes to a certain speed, after which he no longer has control. Up to that point, the plane is under his control. That fine line between being in control and out of control is the edge of the envelope. Once you cross that line, anything can happen. In playing we have our envelope. When I take chances, I’m trying to expand my envelope. The challenge of life is like that; we try to expand our envelopes by expanding our capabilities. Many times we go past the envelope with disastrous results.

Do you think that playing every night makes a big difference?
    I have an old saying, “You have to play to play.” Playing frequently and playing hard makes you play better. Unfortunately, there is no substitute.
    Many people think that you quit playing for an extended period of time because you became so active as a writer.
    I never stopped playing entirely. I did some studio work and infrequently played jazz festivals. I practiced a little almost every day.

Are you getting to work as much as you want to?
    The thing I’m concerned about is if there are enough venues left to play in.
    It’s tough. As I test the waters and do some research, I’ve found that players today have to supplement their income by taking on activities such as clinics. You have to be versatile; it’s not like the old days.

What are your thoughts on clinics?
    For a long time I shied away from that area. It felt awkward to stand before a bunch of intelligent, aspiring musicians and paint a rosy picture of the music business when we all know how rosy it is not. As I addressed the students at a clinic at the University of North Texas, I couldn’t help but think of what would happen to all these wonderful musicians once they left school; schools like Indiana University and Eastman. Once they leave schools that have high-powered jazz programs, what will these gifted, talented musicians do with their lives? They can’t all be Stan Getz, Miles Davis, or John Coltrane. Some of them will be sidemen somewhere and some will wind up in education, but overall, what are we going to do with all these musicians? It’s a little disturbing to think about.

What do you like to listen to and do you have particular favorites?
    When I just listen for fun my selections fall into all kinds of crazy categories: classical, jazz, non-jazz, but my favorite is Stravinsky. I must have five versions of Le Sacre, three or four different versions of The Firebird Suite, several versions of Petrouchka, and a gem of a piece called Fireworks. Of course, I have several recordings of L’Histoire, which is classic Stravinsky. I love Hindemith’s orchestral works, but one of my favorite pieces is his Kleine Kammermusik. It’s wonderful, and I never tire of hearing it. It’s loaded with goodies. I also like to listen to the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra as well as his piano concertos. One of my favorite Bartók  pieces is The Miraculous  Mandarin. I tend toward the classical modernists. I’m big on Ravel, especially Le Tombeau de Couperin.
    When I get into a real orchestration frame of mind, I go big into Richard Strauss: Ein Heldenleben, Til Eulenspiegel, Salome, those are my favorites. I’m big on Tomita; he’s a Japanese synthesizer composer. He’s recorded Le Sacre on synthesizer; it’s incredible programming. He made a big splash a few years ago with a record called Snowflakes Are Dancing. It’s a marvelous work. That’s the kind of listening I do. Of the film composers I enjoy listening to, Jerry Goldsmith is at the top of the list. He has a grip on the art, technique and craft of film composition. Film composition doesn’t get a lot of attention; it’s frowned upon in some circles. It is subservient to the film but by its nature it has to be. The film is first and the music is part of the film, but there is a certain know-how that only some guys have and Jerry Goldsmith is one of them. John Williams is another. James Horner is one of the newer guys, and he’s really coming along; he’s quite talented.

Writing for films is another ball game.
    It’s another world.

I read somewhere that Quincy ]ones was responsible for getting you started in film writing.
    He had heard some stuff I had done that led him to believe I should take a stab at film composition. He· told me to come out to California to have a go at it.

Had you though about doing something like that before?
    Not seriously. The thought had crossed my mind but I never paid any attention to it; finally I did.

Did you go through an apprenticeship out there? I understand that you worked a good deal with Earle Hagen.
    Well, you’re not going to be ready for this but the apprenticeship began in New York two or three years prior to moving to California. M.B.A. Music offered me a position as staff composer and arranger to produce music for television and radio commercials. I worked there for three years and learned the mathematics of film composition. It all begins with the premise that 35mm film (the industry standard) runs through a projector at the rate of a foot and a half of film per second. Earle Hagen put out a book called Three Equals Two (three feet of film equals two seconds). That is the basis for all film mathematics. It gets quite complicated after that, but it begins with that simple premise. Fifty percent of your work in film composition has to do with the mathematics.
    Sometimes you wonder if you’ll ever get to putting notes down on a page because you are so preoccupied with numbers, footage, film counts, and synchronization points; but that’s where writing for films has to begin because the picture is first and the music is second. People look down on film composition for that reason. Years ago an enterprising film producer said to Igor Stravinsky, “We would love for you to write the music for our film.” Igor agreed and the producer told him how it would work. “We’ll shoot the picture. We’ll edit the picture. We’ll re-edit the picture, and after all that’s done we’ll show you the picture. Then we’ll discuss what we would like to have in the way of music for the picture, and then you write it.” Stravinsky said, “Oh no, it can’t be that way. The way it will have to be if I write it is first I will write the music, then you will produce the picture according to the music I have written.” I love that story.

I’m sure that when you first view a movie, you often have a different idea about what music should be written for it than the movie’s producer.
    A number of film composers have had their scores thrown out and have been paid very high fees in full, the most famous being 2001: A Space Odyssey. The original score was written by Alex North, who is one of the granddaddies of film composition. Everybody who has his right mind knows that he wrote a marvelous score for that movie; he’s incapable of writing a bad picture score. Nonetheless, it was thrown out because it was not what Kubrick had in mind. He was paid in full and they threw it out. This happens frequently and it has become a status symbol. Anyone who hasn’t had a film score thrown out on him ought not to be in the business.

Was writing for television similar to writing for films?
    Yes, it’s the same math although they don’t have to use only 35mm anymore. The basic premise of film production remains.

What are some of your current projects?
    I’ve got a couple of things on the back burner that could get off the ground floor someday. When I first got interested in clinics, one consideration was a clinic book or clinic library. I began to entertain all kinds of crazy, grandiose ideas of what the instrumentation ought to be. I was naive enough to think I could write a book for six or seven woodwinds, five or six trumpets, three or four French horns, tuba, and harp. I began to talk to people who were active in the clinic scene and they quickly brought me down to planet Earth. What would happen is that I’d write all this music but it would never get played anywhere. Nobody has that kind of setup. I got a grip on reality: four trumpets, four trombones, five saxes.
    At one clinic I related this grandiose, naive dream of mine to some of the directors present. They got a big laugh out of it as I had hoped they would. There was one high school band director who said, “J.J., I for one hope that you never give up those ideas. Someday go after that dream, write for three French horns and harp. Some of us will see to it that it gets played because we want to hear it.” I loved that guy for saying that. The others applauded him.

    That’s my arranger/orchestrator mentality asserting itself. I like the colors and textures. There is nothing like French horns. There is nothing like harp, and I’m not talking about the cliche harp glissandos, I’m talking about harp writing. Listen to Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes.
    Another thing I’d like to try is to interface my trombone with synthesizers. I have had some experience with this. When I worked for M.B.A. in New York, they bought one of the first Moog synthesizers. They dispatched me to Trumansburg, New York where the Moog factory was at that time, to take a cram course in Moog synthesizer programming and patching. That’s where I got hooked on synthesizers, and I’ve been hooked ever since. I went through a phase during my film composing career in California where I owned quite an elaborate array of analog synthesizers. I had two Arp 2600s, which are big, modular synthesizers, and I had a lot of sequencers and phase shifters. I used all this stuff in my film writing. Unlike the synthesizer scores that are going around now, I wrote for acoustic instruments as well. I’ve always felt that the best synthesizer colorations were synthesizers used in conjunction with acoustic instruments. I learned a lot from Earle Hagen about incorporating the synthesizer into the orchestration or giving it another color. If you put a synthesizer on a flute line or a unison trumpet line it gives it another texture, another timbre; it can be very effective. Of course, we’re all concerned with the threat of synthesizers putting musicians out of work. The threat is real and we can’t shove it aside or ignore it because it won’t go away. I am concerned with the fact that there are synthesizer scores where the entire score is performed without acoustic instruments; this is putting musicians out of work. This is a real threat that we will have to deal with, and I don’t know the answer. Nonetheless, there are interesting things going on in synthesizer technology.
    One of the things I learned was to interface and trigger the synthesizer with the sound of the trombone. I found a small company in California that made a pitch-to-voltage converter, and I had one of my mouthpieces wired so that when I played the trombone it would trigger the synthesizer. I tried this in a recording session and it worked well. If you listen to the cut called “Mr. Clean” on the Fantasy album, Tentacles, you will hear the trombone with three other voices parallel with it. What’s happening is that the trombone triggers an Oberheim synthesizer expander module in parallel so that you hear three lines instead of one. The next time you listen to it you’ll notice that it’s a trombone with two synthesizer voices stacked in fourths. There is nothing new about this but I would like to further explore that area.

 

Lida Belt Baker


    Lida Belt Baker is a music researcher and lecturer at Indiana University and a free-lance musician and writer whose areas of specialization include jazz history and performance, ethnomusicology, oral history, and the creative process in music. She is the co-author of The Black Composer Speaks and has written a number of articles on contemporary composers and musicians.

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