There are a handful of musicians in jazz history whose names are synonymous with the development of their instrument, and J.J. Johnson is one of them. When Johnson first picked up the trombone as a teenager in Indianapolis during the late 1930s, the horn was linked to the stomping syncopation of Southern Dixieland music. While the trombone enjoyed a prominent position in the big band ensembles of the swing era, the instrument had fallen out of favor by the dawn of bebop. Some thought the trombone was incapable of articulating the intricate rapid fire solos of bop music, but Johnson’s supreme musical genius and technical mastery proved otherwise.
In addition to being a trailblazing instrumentalist, Johnson also distinguished himself as a top-notch composer, arranger, and bandleader. As a leader, Johnson cut a score of classic discs for a wide range of labels, including Savoy, Columbia, Blue Note, and Impulse. As a sideman Johnson contributed to an impressive selection of jazz classics, from Miles Davis’ Birth of Cool sessions, to Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin.
J.J. Johnson’s extraordinary career came to end on February 4, 2001, when the trombonist died at the age of 77. On January 24, a quintet of Indianapolis musicians will gather at the Jazz Kitchen to pay tribute to Johnson’s historic legacy. The group will be led by Naptown trombone hero Phil Ranelin. Currently based in California, Ranelin will fly back to Indy specifically for this tribute. Don’t miss this rare opportunity to see an important jazz legend pay tribute to a fellow Indy jazz great.
Check out my recent conversation with Ranelin below to learn more about his connection to Johnson’s music.
Kyle Long: The first time we spoke, you told me your initial encounter with J.J. Johnson’s music happened while you were a student at Arsenal Tech High School in the mid 1950s. You told me you found a copy of a Johnson record called Coffee Pot in the band room at Tech. Can you remember what exactly you heard in Johnson’s music that moved you?
Phil Ranelin: It was the technical ability, the precision, the clarity, and just the sound. It was really just the sound itself, from the very first note. It was mind-boggling to a 15-year-old that played the same instrument. One of my classmates was standing there, and I said, “You mean to tell me a trombone can sound like that?” So that was the beginning of my journey actually. His music meant a lot to me coming up as a trombone player in Indianapolis. In my opinion, he was the epitome of jazz trombone.
Kyle: Did you ever have a chance to play with J.J. Johnson?
Phil: I never really had a chance to play with him. There was one time he called me to do a tribute to Kai Winding, but I was out of town. But I remember, and I can almost call this a lesson, I went over to his house to pick up some horns from him. At that point he had pretty much retired from playing in public, so he was getting rid of some of his horns. I ended up with two of his horns, which were in pristine condition, and three slides. Anyway, he watched me warm up and he was pointing out some things.
He was a very precise kind of person. I believe a lot of that came from the fact that he was in the military. He approached things very systematically. That’s why his sound was so flawless on that horn. I remember hearing a live performance once where he played a great solo on the blues, he did not miss a note.
Kyle: I’m curious if you have favorite a J.J. Johnson record that’s stuck with you through the years.
Phil: It may be Proof Positive. Blue Trombone is also spectacular. It’s hard for me to pick one over another.
Kyle: I spoke with Harold Mabern last week. He played on Johnson’s Proof Positive album. During our conversation, Mabern called Johnson the “king of the trombone.” You just said Johnson was the “epitome of jazz trombone.” Beyond his importance as an instrumentalist, Johnson also excelled as a composer and arranger. I’m curious where you see his overall legacy in the hierarchy of jazz history?
The trombone is such a difficult instrument it tends to lead you into figuring things out musically. A lot of trombone players end up being pretty good writers, and arrangers also. I think that's part of the nature of the instrument.
Phil: He would have to be at the top of the list. If you want to make a list, he has to be in all those categories you just mentioned. I’m proud to be from the city that produced J.J. Johnson, and so many other musicians who were at the very top of their category. J.J. would have to be at the top of the list of triple threats, in composing, arranging and performing.
Kyle: Tell me about the tribute you’ve put together for J.J. Johnson at the Jazz Kitchen.
Phil: I’m very blessed to have a great band awaiting me there, [including] Rob Dixon, Kevin Anker, Kenny Phelps and Nick Tucker. I’m looking forward to playing with all those guys. I’ll be playing a lot of J.J.’s compositions, and there’s some music I wrote in tribute to J.J. that we’ll be playing also. I have a piece called ”One For Johnson” so that’s where the title of the show came from.
I’m really excited to come back home to do this tribute to J.J., who meant so much to everyone who ever picked up this instrument called the trombone. It’s an honor to come back and do this at the Jazz Kitchen. A lot of people take that club for granted in Indianapolis, but it’s a world class club.
On January 26, Resonance will release its fifth Montgomery-focused project, a full concert from March 27, 1965 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, during what would be the guitarist’s first and only European tour.
Kyle: Finally I wanted to ask if you had any thoughts on Indiana’s unique contribution to the history of jazz trombone. In addition to J.J. Johnson, central Indiana has produced several important jazz trombonists, including you, Wilbur de Paris, David Baker and Slide Hampton. That’s an extraordinary list of musicians.
Phil: I don’t see any other city that could make that claim, in terms of quality and international recognition. It’s kind of unusual, I used to say, “Maybe it’s in the water.” It’s something the city of Indianapolis should be proud of.