J.J. Johnson, the undisputed father of the modern jazz trombone, committed suicide Sunday (February 4) at his home in Indianapolis, Indiana. He was 77.
According to his wife, Carolyn, Johnson had been experiencing constant back pain as the result of spinal stenosis and committed suicide Sunday morning. He had successfully battled prostate cancer, but suffered a stroke last year. Although he retired from public performance in 1997, he continued to compose and, prior to his back problems, had started playing trombone again.
Born in Indianapolis in 1924, Johnson worked in various territorial bands as a teenager. He joined Benny Carter's band in 1942 and remained with the alto/trumpet great until 1945, when he joined Count Basie's band. He remained in Basie's band, playing alongside one of his influences, Dickie Wells, until 1946, when he began working around New York with his own groups. He recorded under his own name and with the Esquire All-Stars. His lightning-fast articulation and clear, precise sound (which he always credited to the influence of little-known but exceptional trombonist Fred Beckett) was ideal for bebop's rapid-fire chord changes. Johnson played with Illinois Jacquet's band from 1947 to 1949, and short stints with Dizzy Gillespie in 1949 and 1951, before joining Oscar Pettiford's band later that year.
Johnson retired from public performance from 1952 to 1954, except for occasional recordings. He worked as a blueprint inspector, then returned to the scene to form his legendary trombone tandem with Kai Winding, which they co-led from 1954 to 1956. They reunited for a 1958 tour and again to record in 1960 and 1968. He worked with his own quintet/sextet from 1956 to 1960 and accompanied Miles Davis, Sonny Stitt and Clark Terry during the '60s.
Johnson's reputation as a composer began to flourish in 1959 with the performances two large-scale works, El Camino Real and Sketch for Trombone and Orchestra by the Monterey Jazz Festival Workshop Orchestra. In 1961 his six-part Perceptions was commissioned by Dizzy Gillespie and recorded by Verve Records with a large orchestra conducted by Gunther Schuller.
In 1970 Johnson moved to Los Angeles to concentrate on composing, arranging and conducting. For the rest of that decade, and for most of the '80s, he scored for film and television, providing the music for films such as "Cleopatra Jones," "Top of the Heap" and "Willie Dynamite," and TV shows such as "The Mod Squad," "The Six Million Dollar Man," "Starsky and Hutch" and the "Danny Thomas Show."
In 1987 he moved back to Indianapolis and resumed playing. He continued to lead his own groups and remained a major and influential voice on the instrument until retiring in 1997.