James Louis Johnson


Honorary Degree (1988)
Doctor of Music
Location: Bloomington
Presenter: Thomas Ehrlich


J. J. Johnson is considered the founder of the modern generation of jazz trombonists. His career spans several periods in the history of jazz, and his performance and compositions have profoundly influenced the development of this musical form and the technical scope of the trombone.

Mr. Johnson was born at Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1924. He began studying piano at the age of nine, and took up the trombone when he was fourteen. Following graduation from Crispus Attucks High School in 1941, he toured with Clarence Love and Isaac "Snookum" Russell. In 1942 he began an important engagement with the Benny Carter Orchestra, touring the country, writing arrangements, and making numerous radio broadcasts and transcriptions. His first recorded solo was Love for Sale (1943), and he appeared at the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in 1944.

Early in 1945 Johnson began playing with the Count Basie Orchestra in New York. Over the next several years he was a member of many jazz groups, playing with Bud Powell, Max Roach, Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and others, and in 1951 toured Korea, Japan, and the South Pacific for USO with Oscar Pettiford. During the 1950s Johnson formed his own trombone duo with Kai Winding. He later led several larger groups, touring the United States and Europe and composing major works such as EI Camino Real, Sketch for Trombone and Band, and Perceptions, written for Dizzy Gillespie. Throughout the 1960s Johnson continued to combine careers in performance and composition, and by 1967 he was staff composer and conductor for MBA Music in New York. Since moving to Los Angeles in 1970 he has written numerous scores for television and film. His recordings, with his own and other jazz groups, appear on all the major American recording labels.

Johnson's extraordinary technical facility and creative talent allowed him to restructure the harmonic vocabulary of the trombone to be consistent with the demands of modern music, freeing the instrument from the restrictions of tradition and placing it technically on a par with the trumpet and saxophone. The sound that he evolved through the exploration of virtually every aspect of trombone playing has set the standard for the modern trombonist. Through this and through his innovative compositions, J. J. Johnson has brought enduring new dimensions to American jazz.