Jazz Trombonist J.J. Johnson Dead

James Louis "J.J." Johnson, an influential jazz trombonist who later forged a career arranging and recording scores for motion pictures and television, died Sunday. He was 77.

Johnson, who had been ill in recent months, committed suicide at his home Sunday morning, according to a report from the Marion County Sheriff's Department.

The Indianapolis native, who began playing piano at age 11, was a perennial winner of Down Beat magazine's reader's poll as best trombonist.

While he was praised by jazz aficionados, Johnson also made his mark in popular culture, writing and arranging music for such television shows as Starsky and Hutch, Mayberry, R.F.D. and That Girl.

His film music credits included Cleopatra Jones and Shaft.

During his long career, he performed with such jazz greats as Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie.

“He was mesmerizing,” said Alonzo “Pookie” Johnson, an Indianapolis saxophonist who played with Johnson. “He was the most influential trombone player.”

Johnson started playing the piano when he was 11, then turned to the trombone three years later when friends needed a horn for their band. As his talent grew, Johnson left Indianapolis and headed to the jazz mecca of New York.

While touring with jazz bands during the heyday of those ensembles, he played with the Clarence Love and Snookum Russell bands. He got his first big break with the Benny Carter band in 1942.

Along with Wes Montgomery and Freddie Hubbard, Johnson was one of Indianapolis' greatest gifts to the jazz world.

Johnson retired to his Indianapolis home a dozen years ago.

According to J.J. Johnson's Homepage, these are the recordings that Johnson considered his best:

  • J.J. Inc.
  • J.J.!
  • The Total J.J.
  • A Touch of Satin
  • The Eminent J.J. Johnson, Vols. 1 & 2
  • Perceptions*
  • Stan Getz and J.J. Johnson Live at the Opera House
  • Jay and Kai
  • Jay and Kai +6
  • Say When
*Not a J.J. Johnson performance. Instead, Dizzy Gillepsie performs Perceptions, a piece composed by Johnson.

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