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jeffcrom

The Bunk Johnson Corner

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There doesn't seem to be a thread devoted to New Orleans trumpeter Bunk Johnson - so here we go. A controversial figure and inconsistent musician, his best work is accomplished and moving. Speaking personally, he is one of the few jazz musicians whose (nearly) complete recorded output rests on my shelves.

Bunk didn't help his own case by lying to interviewers about his birth date in order to falsely inject himself into Buddy Bolden's band. He also claimed to have taught Louis Armstrong - a claim which Louis was too polite to refute until Bunk was dead. Johnson also repeatedly sabotaged recordings and gigs - showing up drunk, not showing up, or playing badly - when he felt he wasn't being treated fairly, or when he was put with musicians he considered inferior, or when he just felt contrary.

But at his best, he played with an eloquence and imagination unlike any other New Orleans trumpet man. I remember the first time I heard "Careless Love," from the American Music CD King of the Blues. I was floored by Bunk's solo - lyrical and abounding with unusual note choices. Another highlight from that album is "Midnight Blues" - a ten-minute improvisation suggested by the exasperated producer Bill Russell at the end of one of those evenings Johnson had largely sabotaged.

Max Harrison, in his excellent essay on Johnson in A Jazz Retrospect, wrote about an aspect of Johnson's music which it took me some time to really grasp. Johnson and other New Orleans musicians had, by the 1940s, developed a style of collective improvisation very different from the carefully defined roles of the instruments in bands like King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band. Roles were continually and spontaneously varied: trumpet, clarinet, or trombone might take the lead at any time, and the other "horns" could fall into second or third parts - and all of this could change from chorus to chorus.

If you want to hear Johnson at his best, here are three places to start:

King of the Blues (American Music). Some of the best recordings with what's considered the definitive Bunk Johnson band (although Bunk didn't much like them) - George Lewis, Big Jim Robinson, Baby Dodds, etc.

The Bunk Johnson/Sidney Bechet Blue Note session. I've got this on the Bechet Mosaic big box, but I don't know what's the best way to get these five tracks now. But they are masterpieces of collective improvisation, and great examples of the subtle, spontaneous changes of texture and instrumental roles Max Harrison pointed out.

Last Testament (Delmark). Bunk's last recordings, issued first by Columbia and now on a Delmark CD. This was one of the few times on record that Johnson picked the band and the material. It's somewhat different from the American Music stuff - there are some straightforward readings of rags from the famous Red Back Book, and loose versions of pop tunes. Bunk's solo on "Some of these Days" is as good as anything he recorded.

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Edited by jeffcrom

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Good choices all.  You picked some of my favorites.  

There's something majestic about his Blue Note sides with Bechet.  "Lord Let Me in the Lifeboat" springs to mind.  

With Bunk, my recommendation is to take him for what he was, not what he claimed to be.  What he was is compelling enough.

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I have the Last Testament on the Columbia LP and was very pleasantly surprised on first listen how good it was.

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The Delmark CD adds alternate takes of "Out of Nowhere" and "Chloe" that were not on the original Columbia LP.  

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Jeff turned me on to Bunk Johnson's music. (I had listened to him on four of the sides with Sidney Bechet, but I have to admit that most of my attention was drawn to Bechet. Bechet had a way of doing that.)
The things that grabbed me when I finally heard Bunk Johnson were the purity of his sound and the strength of his playing. I didn't expect either the latter the former or the latter. 
A lesson that I hope I've learned:  Don't have expectations when I'm unfamiliar with a musician's playing.

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Yes, King of the Blues is pretty wonderful.  Along with the inventive horns, there's the Baby Dodds interplay, so hyperactive and colorful all the time  -  he's not just accompanying, he's really engaged with the horns.  Bunk is such a beauty.  Even on some other American Music CDs, when Bunk is not tip-top, George Lewis and Dodds keep the music lively.  But yes, some of the post-1945 albums are disappointing.  

His eight sides with the Yerba Buena band are special favorites, partly because the band seems so reckless  next to the lovely trumpet melodies.  I like Sister Lottie Peavey's singing, never did enjoy Clancy Hayes' singing.

Last Testament was the first Bunk Johnson I ever heard, many decades ago.  "Kinklets" and the lilting trumpet in "Out of  Nowhere" won me over.  Jeff, thanks for remembering Bunk Johnson.

 

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Found a like new copy on amazon for five bucks and ordered - I love Baby Dodds!

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Edited by mikeweil

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