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Johnson, Bunklocked

(27 December 1889?–07 July 1949)
  • Ronald P. Dufour

Bunk Johnson

© William P. Gottlieb; used by permission. William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress (LC-GLB13-0457 DLC).

Johnson, Bunk (27 December 1889?–07 July 1949), trumpeter, was born William Geary Johnson in New Orleans, Louisiana, the son of William Johnson and Theresa (maiden name unknown), a cook, both former slaves. Though his early life remains shrouded in obscurity, Johnson claimed that he learned to play the cornet from Professor Wallace Cutchey, a music teacher at New Orleans University. His mother bought him an inexpensive cornet when he was about fourteen, and he played his first job with Adam Olivier’s band in 1904 or 1905. Johnson also claimed that he played with Buddy Bolden during this period, but this seems unlikely. He did play with the popular Eagle Band in parades, and in 1908 Pops Foster heard him playing with the Superior Orchestra, a ragtime band.

Johnson’s tenure with the Superior Orchestra was cut short by the excessive drinking habits that plagued him his entire life. Over the next few years he played with several groups in New Orleans, and he may even have taught or influenced a very young Louis Armstrong. He was recognized as one of the best players in New Orleans during this decade, praised for his beautiful tone and evocative blues playing. But Johnson left the city sometime around 1915, apparently burned out. He wandered around the region for several years, playing in sporting houses and similar venues in small towns west of New Orleans, including New Iberia. He seems to have spent some time in 1918 touring with circuses and minstrel shows, a common enough course for musicians at the time. In 1922 he was in Texas with a traveling carnival show. Sometime in the early 1920s he established his base in New Iberia and married Maude Fontenette, his second wife (there are no extant details concerning his first marriage, and he apparently had no children). During the 1920s he often played with a territory group called the Banner Band and traveled as a soloist as far afield as Houston, Texas, and, in 1931, Kansas City. He also played regularly with the Black Eagles, and he was present when the Eagles’ leader was stabbed to death at a dance. In the melee that followed, Johnson’s horn was destroyed. Already in some discomfort because of missing teeth, he put his musical career on the back burner, playing only occasional gigs with the Banner Band and retiring in 1932 to the life of a farmer in New Iberia.

For the next several years, Johnson essentially abandoned the jazz world. He occasionally taught children music under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration program and appeared as a whistler at local carnivals, but for the most part he worked as a laborer and truck driver. Then, in 1938 Frederic Ramsey, Jr., and Bill Russell, interviewing Chicago and New York musicians for a book on early jazz, “discovered” Johnson. They paid dentist Leonard Bechet (Sidney’s brother) to make him a new set of teeth, and the members of the revivalist Lu Watters band raised enough money for him to buy a used trumpet and cornet.

In February 1942 an RCA employee interviewed Johnson and recorded him playing solo on a portable disc recorder. After Eugene Williams, record producer and editor of a new magazine called Jazz Information, heard the recordings, he and some enthusiasts from Los Angeles arranged to record Johnson in New Orleans for the Jazz Man label. These June 1942 sessions were the trumpeter’s first commercial recordings; he was to make over 100 others during the next three years. Johnson played with apparently undiminished skill and authority in a group that included the legendary, but then relatively unknown clarinetist George Lewis. On various blues and tunes like “Moose March,” Johnson’s “lead is splendid in its supple invention of variations, his attack is direct and full of urgency” (Hillman, p. 51). Essential for their historic value, the sessions also show that Johnson was no New Orleans purist; he always preferred to play a wide variety of tunes, including popular songs.

Johnson recorded again in October, this time at the San Jacinto Hall in New Orleans; the session included ragtime numbers, a Hawaiian song, a piece by Louis Armstrong, and traditional blues and spirituals. These sides were picked up and distributed by Commodore records. But though these recordings made him an instant celebrity among the rising number of jazz revivalists, Johnson returned to New Iberia, unaware of his growing fame.

In early 1943 jazz historian Rudi Blesh gave a series of lectures on New Orleans jazz at the Museum of Art in San Francisco, and he arranged for Johnson to illustrate his talks. While there, Johnson made a series of recordings in May with pianist Bertha Gonsoulin, later released on the American Music label. In pieces like “Pallet on the Floor,” he revealed his continued mastery of the trumpet, with clean attacks and “a formal, almost precise, sense of variation” in his playing (Harrison, p. 36). Later in the year, prompted by the San Francisco Hot Jazz Society, he played a series of dates with Lu Watters’s Yerba Buena Jazz Band, one of the best known of the many groups promoting traditional jazz. From the beginning, Johnson’s own musical diversity and difficult personality created considerable tension among the players; his drinking habits caused him frequently to miss dates. However, he did record with members of the group in early 1944, playing with freshness and intensity on pieces like “Careless Love.” He also recorded some traditional hymns in duets with gospel singer Sister Lottie Peavey. By the middle of the year he had his fill of life in the big city and returned to New Iberia, stopping off in Los Angeles to record some pieces for the World Transcription Service with a band that included Red Callender on bass and Lee Young on drums; he also played superlatively in a broadcast session with the Kid Ory band.

In late July Johnson traveled again to New Orleans to take part in a week-long recording session at the San Jacinto Hall. These have become known as the “American Music” recordings (after the company that first released them on LP), and they are some of the very best music of the revival years. A three-horn front line (including Lewis) produced astonishingly flexible ensemble playing, the lead shifting constantly and unpredictably. Johnson shines, both in the ensembles and in solos, in pieces like “Careless Love” and “Sugarfoot Stomp.”

In January 1945 Johnson was back in New Orleans, playing in a concert at New Orleans Municipal Auditorium in a group headed by Armstrong that included Sidney Bechet, J. C. Higginbotham, James P. Johnson, and other luminaries. Johnson played well enough to arouse Bechet’s interest, and before they left, the two agreed to play together in an engagement at the Savoy Cafe in Boston. After another less satisfying session with the “American Music” group, Johnson went first to New York City, recording a session for Blue Note Records with Bechet. The subsequent Boston meeting was, however, a failure, undermined by Johnson’s drinking and uneven playing.

After returning to New Iberia he traveled again to New Orleans in May 1945 to make a series of recordings over three nights at George Lewis’s house. He also recorded a session with a nine-piece band that produced a reasonable facsimile of a New Orleans marching band.

Meanwhile, in New York City Eugene Williams had decided to promote Johnson with a hand-picked band. The group included Lewis on clarinet and Baby Dodds on drums. The engagement began less than propitiously; Johnson arrived a day late, and tension existed between him and the other musicians from the beginning. As always, he favored a wide variety of songs, while Lewis and the others played a more limited range of New Orleans traditional standards. At their first public session, on a Friday night in September 1945 at the Stuyvesant Casino, the hall was filled with 400 fans, many of them musicians who subsequently told others of the exciting, “pure” New Orleans jazz they had heard. While the style was hardly pure, the impact of the music was indeed dramatic; few had ever heard such music played by its original practitioners. Record companies were just as interested, and the group recorded four sides for Decca and eight for Victor. Though the results were uneven, the performances on tunes like “One Sweet Letter” and “Franklin Street Blues” were excellent. The band was also featured in a New Year’s Day concert at Town Hall, part of a celebration emceed by Orson Welles. They made their final appearance at the Casino on 12 January. A second New York engagement in May, with somewhat different personnel, was less productive. Lewis and the others were frustrated by Johnson’s condescending attitude and lack of professionalism, and only a single recording session came from this later stay.

Johnson’s day on center stage was all but over, and he returned to New Iberia. He appeared in a 1946 concert at Orchestra Hall in Chicago in a group that included guitarist Lonnie Johnson, but he played poorly. A concert at the University of Minnesota in the summer of 1947 was recorded, with Johnson playing strongly, and he subsequently toured the Midwest and played at a variety of dances and concerts. In September 1947 he played at the opening concert of the New York Jazz Club in New York City, with a group that included Edmond Hall, Omer Simeon, and Dannie Barker. While there, he returned to the Stuyvesant Casino with a small group that included Barker, and the recorded results show Johnson playing with drive and confidence, for once satisfied with the skills of his fellow band members. But the dances attracted little attention and were dropped after five shows. Johnson recorded only once more, at Carnegie Recital Hall in December 1947. Shortly thereafter he returned to New Iberia. He tried to get gigs in the North for the remainder of his life without success. He apparently died of a stroke in New Iberia.

Johnson was by all accounts a difficult person, opportunistic and often professionally irresponsible. Musically, his last recordings are perhaps the best representation of his art. They are not as adventurous or as sophisticated as the American Music efforts, but they clearly present him as a transitional figure, rooted in turn-of-the-century styles but willing to experiment with form and approach. His playing may have lacked the emotional magnetism of the early jazz stars, but he was an impressive, confident stylist and was more adventurous than most in incorporating a variety of tunes and styles in his repertoire. In the end, he remains most important as the central figure in the revival of New Orleans style jazz during the 1940s and early 1950s.

Bibliography

Christopher Hillman, Bunk Johnson (1988), does an excellent job of sorting out the confusing details of Johnson’s early life and of perceptively assessing the quality of his later career. Max Harrison et al., The Essential Jazz Records, vol. 1, Ragtime to Swing (1984), has numerous perceptive comments on Johnson’s recordings. Two texts have excellent, brief overviews of his significance: Frank Tirro, Jazz: A History (1993), and Lewis Porter and Michael Ullman, with Edward Hazell, Jazz: From Its Origins to the Present (1993). Also see A. M. Sonnier, Jr., William Geary “Bunk” Johnson: The New Iberia Years (1977). An obituary is in the New York Times, 9 July 1949.