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A Night In Berlin

When the world’s pre eminent jazz trombonist Jay Jay Johnson passed away in the spring of 2001 it came as a shock. The great modern jazz pioneer had been an inspiration to me from the day a jazz fan gave the young neighbor next door a small red and silver label Savoy recording of Jay Jay and Kai Winding playing Lament and Bernies Tune. After hearing that 10 inch piece of vinyl my journey on the trombone became clear and Mr. Johnson, a man I met only once very briefly 3 decades later, became a personal hero.

His was a genius that went beyond mastery of the trombone into a realm rarely attainable by the rest of us mere mortals. Even thought he insisted that sound came first Jay Jay’s unmatched technical facility was also an important part of his message and his solos were an extensive catalogue of right choices played flawlessly with a prodigious technique. In addition Mr. Johnson was at home in a variety of musical settings.His catholic musical tastes roamed beyond the jazz world to great 20th century composers such as Stravinsky, Berg and Hindemith and his work reflected their sophistication and by extension drew trombone performance to a new plateau. Jay Jay’s death leaves a big black hole right in the middle of the trombone universe.

I met Jay Jay once a few years ago after attending a performance he gave with his quintet at the Berlin Philharmonic just before he retired from playing professionally. On the same program was the younger virtuoso Ray Anderson and his group Heavy Metal. Now in my opinion Ray is an extraordinary trombonist and he played well that night but Mr. Anderson might forgive me if I say that he was no match for the Septuagenarian on the bill that evening. Mr. Johnson stood well back from his microphone on stage but his sound filled the hall as strong wind might fill the sails of a ship at sea, ringing over the rest of us in that huge auditorium. It was a magical sound and coming from a man in his seventies it seemed nothing short of miraculous. It was if the entire building vibrated in sympathy with Jay Jay’s trombone that night. I was very impressed.

But Mr. Johnson did not seem happy at the end of the evening. I was near enough to the front to be able to say a few words as he was getting offstage but he was clearly not in a good mood and quickly retreated to his dressing room. Perhaps the sound that night was not to his liking or maybe there were other problems but looking back on the performance I’d guess that his equipment might have been one of the things that was bothering him. At the time Jay Jay was playing a larger bore trombone and brass players know what can happen when you try to play bebop with a huge sound on a large instrument – its like trying to throw a large truck around. And if extraordinary flexibility and technique are expected as part of an artist’s signature then the burden can be a heavy one if he happens to experience an off night. Of course being past your prime doesn’t help when your style is built around a complete command of the trombone.

I did get another chance to meet Jay Jay that night. The tuba player Howard Johnson (no relation I think) was also at the concert, knew Jay Jay and invited me backstage. Despite the intimidating earlier encounter I took the the plung a second time. Mr. Johnson was polite but distant. Of course I told him how honored I was to meet him and actually got a short, rueful smile when I mentioned Lennie Tristano saying to me that he remembered Jay Jay as never really warming up much but simply playing a few notes before stepping out on stage. Howard managed to say some kind things about my own playing but I retreated as gracefully as I could. The last image I remember of the world’s pre-eminent jazz trombonist was the sight of a thin, delicate man carrying his case out a back exit alone and looking very fragile.

Mr Johnson’s legacy is irreplaceable and as a teenager his music permitted me to regard the trombone seriously in a way that I didn’t think possible before. The simple piece of plumbing I was stuggling with was indeed capable of all that disciplined passion, logic and irresistible sound. Thanks to my neighbor on Long Island I knew the way to go – Mr. Johnson was showing all of us the way and it was as clear as the lauquer on a new King 3B. Goodbye Jay Jay. I wish I had been able to really tell you that night in Berlin how much your music meant to me. Maybe now, along with a lot of other stuff, you know. .

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