Jazz Institute of Chicago

J.J. Johnson 1924-2001

J.J. Johnson 1924-2001

Several years ago, Erik Moseholm (THE guy in Danish Jazz) and I were having dinner and, somehow, the subject of "who is still here" came up. After compiling a frighteningly short list, he looked at me and said "there aren't many left."

No, there aren't and it seems that each passing month ushers yet another friend and compatriot off to the next level, which has GOT to surpass what the human race has made of this planet. It also seems, as my generation ages, that some of us get closer and feel a need for reaching out as the years chew away at our mortality. I wish that it happened more often with the "survivors" and I think we would benefit from being able to tell someone that we loved them and need them. I have that relationship with Bill Finegan, an absolute hero and a personal delight. I came to have something similar with J.J. Johnson over the past 10 years.

We knew each other right away. In New York, if you could play OK, you were "in the club" and you said hello to people like Basie, Duke, Monk, Dizzy, Miles and JJ. You were, in general, accepted, albeit on one of the lower rungs of the ladder, but mighty glad to be on the ladder, for—God willing—(faith of your choice)—that ladder led UPWARDS, and that meant you got to play with better and better people.

I will never forget the night in Birdland (ca.'56) that JJ came over and said, "Miles and I were talking about you today!" Something to do with the way my legs bent when I was in the throes of the Rhythm Queen. Man, that was elevating, I got to tell you. JJ was a very correct and businesslike man then and, though there was evident humanity and warmth, he would slide by me with a resounding "BROOKmeyer"—accent on the Brook and I see him as clearly now as I did then, backstage, as he whizzed by, looking in my dressing room and, with a big smile, loudly greeting me—BROOKmeyer! Consequently, since by this time (with Mulligan) I was getting a rep also, I decided to "Johnson!" him back, so we had our greetings established.

I was one of the 10 East Coast trombones assembled by him for some East-West trombone battle, and he wrote and conducted the recording. You can plainly tell me from the rest and I think this maybe pleased JJ a little, since—like Bird—almost everyone sounded like him, or certainly was deeply influenced by him.

Of course, being "PROFESSIONALS" we didn't actually crack much and say overtly warm things to one another—more subtle and understated. "Not bad!" was a big compliment. One's twenties, thirties, and forties are dangerous and, in retrospect, emotionally wasteful years in some ways. We were not young enough outside of our egos to be in awe and not old enough to know that we would not be around forever, although when my particular bunch reached 30, we were quite surprised, never having planned on doing anything to get that far. Just the opposite, in fact.

Johnson had been through all that shit early and when he TURNED around, that man TURNED! A favored phrase—also embedded in my memory bank—was "got to get that squared away"—transport, contracts, music, whatever—had to be "squared away." He usually seemed to be in a directed hurry, focussed and deliberate and from my often hazy perch, I felt, saw and respected that very much.

I was not a JJ fan early (aside from "The King," w. Basie), being both emotionally and sonically drawn to Bill Harris, who I often resembled more than was necessary, both in liquid and solid form. However, I became drawn to JJ because, for one thing, he seemed everything I was not. He was "calm, cool & collected" and that could never have been said, sadly, about me. He also was a precise and economical improviser, saying just what needed to be said and no more. Once again, my polar opposite. I cite "he and I" because the differences did not alter our unspoken regard for each other. That became apparent later, when we were old enough to express feelings openly, with words.

There are two JJ stories that are my favorites and oddly enough both involve alcohol, although he was by no means a successful or frequent imbiber. When Wife #3 (Margo, the good person) and I decided to give our first party in our new high-rise lower 5th Avenue apartment, we assembled a guest list—Art Farmer (our first dinner guest and another funny story), Tom McIntosh, JJ and Viv and. . .one of us said— "Jesus, think we ought to invite some white people?" So we had three or four just to leaven the evening.

I was a notorious bartender, firmly believing that quantity was the guiding principle in easing the guest from uncomfortable sobriety into a more relaxed and social frame of mind. Translated, that meant you often left my house drunk! Well, at least weaving comfortably. JJ and I got into a deep discussion (about what neither of us could have recalled) and, consequently, he was the last to leave, around 6 a.m. Afterwards, I was ushered into the bathroom to view his final pee in the apartment. He missed EVERYTHING but the walls and the floors! Absolutely hysterical. This from such a hero and TOGETHER gentleman. For some reason, I treasure that memory.

Number two comes maybe in 1967. Clark Terry was on the Tonight Show, I was going nuts with Merv Griffin and JJ had just taken a Broadway show. Jazz business needed a little help in those days. Jim and Andy's was the church we all attended regularly and, as I approached our haven in late afternoon (on my two hour break before the embarrassment went on the air) I was collared by Clark, with EMERGENCY writ large on his countenance. "JJ is inside, drinking martinis—you GOT to make sure he eats something before he goes back for the evening show—promise?" "OK," I said and wandered in, grabbing a stool next to our "newcomer to the living hell that commercial work can be," and he was in SHOCK!

It happened to me also and after the first TV show with that Griffin idiot, I went next door and TRIED to get falling down drunk. Couldn't make it, but I was also in SHOCK, having thought I had left the childish world of jazz and entered the grown-up world of mortgages, stocks and bonds, etc., only to find it populated by angry, untalented and humorless failures.

SO—when I say JJ was in shock, that is accurate. He had NO idea how bad it could get when it had seemed like a good idea from outside the store. I gentled him as best I could, and—with Jim's help—got some food into him, snuck an espresso also and walked him back to the theater. We did stuff like that then, for each other, knowing that the world-at-large was still our foe and we needed to stay close, in case of attack.

Next, we were in LA—JJ cracking the Movie/TV scene with a pencil and occasional playing on recording sessions where we would meet. But I was headed downhill, and I think Jay was trying to make sense out of a life that—given his genius—didn't make sense. After I moved back to the sunlight in 1978 I heard that JJ was considering a move back to Indianapolis. Hmmm! Well, it sounded OK. I don't know precisely when [his wife] Vivian became ill, but by the late 1980s she was in trouble. The word "mensch" always comes to mind when I think of Johnson and this terrible period in his life.

We were in contact and I often told him what a MAN he was, giving everything up to care for a sick, then dying, partner. It was hard beyond my understanding. He still took time to listen to stuff I would send, being at that time determined to leave jazz behind and become a classical composer, determined to inflict confusion and pain. When I told him I was going to quit playing, he railed at me—"You are a monster player, don't you dare quit!" Well, I consider the source whether it's good or bad news and from JAY, that was an ORDER! I still play and am doing better than ever—thank you, Johnson!

Having heard that he had happily remarried, I was delighted, having found out myself with Jan what a good marriage can do for a REAL life. Then, oddly around the same time, we both came down with prostate cancer (my second cancer trip) and the conversations became more frequent. I now found that he, too, had it beat and that was not the compelling force to depart. Again, during this time, I sent him two large ensemble CDs and, after I thought he had forgotten, I received a big letterhead piece of paper with a few glowing words for my work. THAT gets framed now, as I planned "someday." Someday is too often NOW!

To get words of praise from a giant is beyond compare. He was kindness, civilization, warmth, music, and exuded a life force that still cannot be imagined as gone away. So, Johnson, if I can't believe that you really had to go and we didn't live next door to each other, I guess—in this house, anyway—you are stuck with the mortal coil for a while, at least until I have to split. From a "long distance" call, sing, soar and rejoice in the millions of hearts you have touched and the lives you have made richer and ears you have delighted. I am honored beyond words to be your friend—forever.

—BROOKmeyer

This piece first appeared on Bob Brookmeyer's website at www.bobbrookmeyer.com.

Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.

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