BUNK JOHNSON Early New Orleans trumpet player . . .
. . . with commentary from Harold Drob, sponsor of the so-called "Last Testament" sessions
. . . and consideration of Bunk's year in San Francisco.
The rediscovery and re-emergence of early New Orleans trumpet player Bunk Johnson caused quite a stir in jazz during the early 1940s. His re-entry into professional music reshaped the course of jazz, and helped launch the New Orleans jazz revival.
Johnson's music and testimony supplied invaluable eyewitness accounts of early New Orleans. He extended the horizon of our view back to the origins of New Orleans music in a vivid way. Discovery of Bunk Johnson launched a cottage industry of scholarship, collection, criticism, writing, and legend building.
Johnson’s rediscovery was a major event that energized the New Orleans jazz revival movement. His music launched controversies lasting to this day. Nonetheless its safe to say there is consensus about his significance: * He had an
instantly recognizable style: despite critical detractors over the
years, Johnson was a superb musician -- once discounted for
alcohol-related shortcomings. * His reemergence served as a focal point, launching in earnest the revival of New Orleans jazz in the early 1940s. * Johnson was a genuine living link to and artifact of early New Orleans music, all the way back to Bolden’s era. * Bunk overemphasized his relation to Bolden, influence on Louis Armstong, and role in turn-of-century New Orleans. Nonetheless, his recordings are probably the most authentic representation of Buddy Bolden’s trumpet style that will ever be recovered.
Bunk Johnson’s musical style became a lodestone for
revivalist trumpet players -- launching a school of followers dedicated
to his archaic, at times primitive, sound.
Scott Yanow provides a useful summary of Bunk’s career in The Trumpet Kings, Backbeat Books, 2001, excerpted here:
What is known is that Bunk played in New Orleans from 1910 on (including with Billy Marrero’s Superior Orchestra and Frankie Dusen’s Eagle Band) and that he was known for having a pretty tone in his early days. In 1941 Bunk began freelancing throughout the South, and he worked in Texas, Kansas City (with Sammy Price around 1930), and many rural areas. Lack of work and problems with his teeth resulted in Johnson’s no longer playing by 1934. He worked as a field labourer and a truck driver and appeared to be lost forever to jazz.
But a semi-miracle happened. In 1937 Bunk was rediscovered by Bill Russell and Fred Ramsey, writers who used him as a source of information for their book Jazzmen. When that important work was published in 1939, it generated a great deal of interest in the long lost pioneer. Money was raised to buy Bunk a set of teeth and a new trumpet. He worked as a music teacher during 1940-41 and began seriously playing again in 1941.
Johnson’s first recordings were in June 1942, and they show him to be a struggling player but one whose style was a throwback to the pre-1920 period. Getting stronger as a musician during the next year, Johnson spent time in San Francisco in 1943, including recording one of his finest sets with the wartime version of the Yerba Buena Jazz Band.
Bunk recorded frequently during 1944-47 and was both hailed and damned by listeners. Some of his recordings (particularly his final set and the session with Yerba Buena Jazz Band) show him as a vital link to early jazz, while others (especially ones made when was drunk) have Bunk sounding quite incompetent and amateurish. Strangely enough, Johnson did not completely satisfy the more purist New Orleans fans, because his playing was not unaffected by the style of Louis Armstrong and other later players, and he often preferred to play current pop songs and jazzed versions of rages rather than the blues and early standards favored by some of his supporters.
His rediscovery triggered a search for deeper understanding of jazz origins by scholars and researchers.
Re-discovering Bunk Johnson These three programs are based, in part, on an in-depth interview with the late Harold Drob who dedicated his life to research and advocacy of Bunk’s legacy. Drob authored a 1992 biography, A Gentle Man and his Music (now out-of-print). He befriended Johnson, knew him well, and sponsored recordings that have come be known as the “Last Testament” sessions heard in Pt. 3. According to Drob, they were the only recordings where choice of music and personnel were entirely Johnson’s.
Pt. 1 - The rediscovery of Bunk Johnson.
BUNK_JOHNSON 1A.mp3 ONE SWEET LETTER FROM YOU -- Bunk Johnson and his New Orleans Band, 1946 FRANKLIN STREET BLUES -- Bunk Johnson’s Jazz Band, 1942 LORD LET ME IN THE LIFEBOAT -- Bunk Johnson - Sidney Bechet and Orch, 1945 SWEET GEORGIA BROWN -- Bunk Johnson duet with Bertha Gonsoulin piano, 1943 DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE -- Bunk Johnson’s Original Superior Band, 1942 DARKTOWN STRUTTERS BALL -- Bunk Johnson duet with Bertha Gonsoulin piano, 1943
BUNK_JOHNSON 1B.mp3 BUNK’S BLUES -- Bunk Johnson’s Original Superior Band, 1942 SOBBIN’ BLUES #2 -- Bunk Johnson’s Jazz Band, 1942 DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE -- Bunk Johnson and the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, 1944 THE GIRLS GO CRAZY ‘BOUT THE WAY I WALK -- Bunk Johnson and the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, 1944
Louis Armstrong and Bunk Johnson
One of the major controversies arising in the wake of Bunk’s celebrity was his claim to have mentored the young Louis back in the day. Armstrong, who in fact helped jazz enthusiasts locate the living legend, initially acknowledged Bunk as one of his exemplars and teachers. But Louis soon retracted his endorsement for unclear reasons, reiterating that he was a King Oliver man. It seems to have bothered Bunk, and has been grist for his critics.
Harold Drob relates: One time in New York I was with Bunk and we went to hear Sidney Bechet at Jimmy Ryan’s. And afterwards we went out to have some coffee and we’re sitting and talking.
Bunk was complaining to Sidney about Louis Armstrong denying that Bunk had taught him. And Sidney said, “I saw you teach the boy. But if he wants to deny you, there’s nothing you can do about it.”
At that point that kind of settled it for me. Here was somebody claiming to be an eyewitness.
Among Drob's intriguing perspectives on Bunk, was his analogy to baseball pitchers: Louis Armstrong always brought his killer fastball. But Bunk was like pitcher Satchel Paige: he had a sack full of tricks, and you never knew what he would throw next.
Pt. 2 Bunk's musical encounter with Sidney Bechet, and wider influence.
BUNK_JOHNSON 2A.mp3 DUSTY RAG -- Bunk Johnson’s Jazz Band, 1942 SPICY ADVICE -- Bunk Johnson’s V-Disc Veterans, World Transcriptions, 1944 WALK THROUGH THE STREETS OF THE CITY -- Bunk Johnson’s Band, 1944 PORTO RICO -- Bunk Johnson - Sidney Bechet and Orch, 1945 SISTER KATE -- Bunk Johnson - Sidney Bechet and Orch, 1945 BASIN STREET BLUES -- Bunk Johnson - Sidney Bechet and Orch, 1945
BUNK_JOHNSON 2B.mp3 SOBBIN’ BLUES -- The New York Jazz Ensemble, 1993 SING ON -- Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen, 1954 SNAG IT -- Bunk Johnson and his New Orleans Band, 1946 I CAN’T ESCAPE FROM YOU -- Bunk Johnson & his New Orleans Band, 1946 YOU’VE GOT TO SEE MAMA EVERY NIGHT -- Bunk Johnson Trio, 1946 DAYS BEYOND RECALL -- Bunk Johnson - Sidney Bechet and their Orchestra, 1945
Bunk and Bechet
Harold Drob and Bunk Johnson
Harold Drob approached Bunk with a very different attitude from the other New Orleans music enthusiasts. For one he wanted to avoid the situation he’d observed where well-meaning enthusiasts contracted bands, gigs, sessions or personnel for Bunk, but failed to respect his wishes:
The way Bunk expessed it to me was, ‘I didn’t hire them, so I couldn’t fire them.’ He was the leader in name only. Everybody told him who they wanted him to play with.
By the time I got involved with him I had decided that he was my . . . I guest the word is, favorite musician. And if I were to hear him at his best he had to be in control of the circumstances. I wanted him to be relaxed and feel right about what he was doing.
So when I approached him . . . he said, “With whom would you like for me to play?’ This was the usual circumstance that he was confronted with. Everybody told him who they wanted him to play with.
I said, “No, you’re the leader. You don’t even have to tell me. We’ll just arrange when you start and you bring your band with you. Well, he seemed to like that. But I had no idea who the band was to be until they appeared.
Drob on Johnson’s individualistic approach to soloing:
There’s an up and down quality. Other trumpet players think you start low and keep building up to a crescendo, and you always end up with a crescendo. But what Bunk does is take you up and down. He’s leading you on some kind of a trip which is going up and down, in and out of different places. And that’s part of the fun of listening to him . . .
Pt. 3 - Johnson's so-called "Last Testament" recordings* with Bunk's selection of personnel and tunes; assessing his connection to Armstrong; and the mixed validity of his Bolden claims.
BUNK_JOHNSON 3A.mp3 ALL THE WHORES -- Bunk Johnson’s Dance Band, New Orleans, 1945 CHLOE (excerpt) -- Bunk Johnson and his Band, 1947* SOME OF THESE DAYS (excerpt) -- Bunk Johnson and his Band, 1947* HILARITY RAG -- Bunk Johnson and his Band, 1947* THE MINSTREL MAN (excerpt) -- Bunk Johnson and his Band, 1947* ALL THE WHORES LIKE THE WAY I RIDE -- The New York Jazz Ensemble, 1993 RED LIGHT BLUES -- The New York Jazz Ensemble, 1993
BUNK_JOHNSON 3B.mp3 827 BLUES -- Bunk Johnson’s Dance Band, New Orleans, 1945 FRANKLIN STREET BLUES -- Bunk Johnson duet with Bertha Gonsoulin piano, 1943 BOLDEN MEDLEY [Pallet on the Floor] -- Bunk Johnson duet with piano, 1943 BASIN STREET BLUES -- w/ Louis Armstrong and his Jazz Foundation Six, New Orleans, 1945 NEW IBERIA BLUES (excerpt) -- Bunk Johnson’s Dance Band, New Orleans 1945 MILENBURG JOYS -- Bunk Johnson - Sidney Bechet and Orch, 1945
Bunk jamming with members of the wartime Yerba Buena band at Big Bear Inn, Oakland, CA
Bunk Johnson on the West Coast 1943-44
early in Bunk’s re-emergence he spent about a year in San Francisco.
Exposure of West Coast jazz audiences to genuine New Orleans music
played by one of its progenitors was a galvanizing event. Johnson was
well received by fans and musicians.
Jazz enthusiasts and
supporters organized several notable high-profile concerts and recording
sessions both commercial and historic. His May 9, 1943 appearance at
the Geary Theater with members of Kid Ory’s ensemble was a revelation to
fans, musicians and music critics alike, and a triumph for Bunk.
series of Sunday night concerts followed presenting Johnson with members
of Yerba Buena band at the CIO Union Hall, sans Lu Watters who was serving in the US Navy. Bunk roomed with local pianist Bert Bales, and mostly charmed everyone.
Chris Hillman’s book, Bunk Johnson: His Life and Times (Universe Books, 1988) outlined the highlights of Johnson’s year in San Francisco:
“Mutual admiration between Bunk and the members of the [YBJB] was not complete; they were puzzled by his determination to play . . . popular tunes . . . and by his tendency to teach them how to play New Orleans music when they considered themselves experts on the subject. Bunk seems to have played as he wanted regardless of what the band was doing, but eventually his example told and the sidemen fell into place behind him. Sometimes Bunk’s drinking became a problem and he failed to turn up, but generally he made a good impression.”
“Careless Love” and “Down by the Riverside” were the best results of Bunk’s several recording sessions with Yerba Buena. Sessions which, “stretched the relationship between Bunk and the band to the breaking point.”
In these exclusive clips, trombone player Bill
Bardin recalls playing with Bunk Johnson in San Francisco at the CIO
Hall, 1943-44. Writer, photographer and clarinet player Bill Carter assisted in the 1993 interview.
Bardin played trombone with Bunk frequently as a
placeholder for the often unavailable Turk Murphy, who had a day job
with the US Navy at the time. Bill's keen observations and sharp memory
brought alive details from a half century earlier. In retrospect, Bardin could not reconcile the charming and skilled musician he’d known in San Francisco, with descriptions he later readt in books. He noted that such prestigious swing musicians as Count Basie, Jack Teagarden and Duke Ellington dropped in, “just to hear what Bunk sounded like.” Bill said he never saw him drunk on stage, but that Bunk often missed important gigs due to drinking.
After a few more jobs Johnson left San Francisco in mid-1944 headed back to Louisiana. But he stopped briefly in Los Angeles where he made notable transcriptions and broadcasts:
“The music shows Bunk in better-organized surroundings than before . . . and presents well his quite delicate, thoughtful way of making music. By this time he had his technique well under control, and was able to play his elaborate variations on the lead smoothly and precisely. He is the dominant figure, while the others play efficiently but without much fire.
Particularly interesting is the dixieland standard “I Ain’t Gonna Give Nobody None of My Jelly Roll,” popular at that time because Tommy Ladnier had also recorded it five years earlier; comparison between the two versions shows that the trumpeters’ playing had something basic in common.” (Hillman, Bunk Johnson)
Bunk Johnson made a big impression on the West Coast, though controversy
continues to this day. Among the West Coast trad jazz tumpeters
influenced by Bunk were Ray Ronnei, P.T. Stanton and Jerry Blumberg.
Bunk Johnson's V-Disc Veterans Los Angeles, 7.11.44 Bunk Johnson (trumpet) Floyd O'Brien (trombone) Wade Whaley (clarinet) Fred Washington (piano) Frank Pasley (guitar) Red Callendar (bass) Lee Young (drums)