James Louis “J. J.” Johnson, the father of modern jazz trombone, died at home in Indianapolis Saturday of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Johnson, who had been suffering from prostate cancer, was 77.
Johnson reinvented the role of the trombone in jazz from a gut-bucket accompanying voice to a facile and mellifluous front-line solo instrument. He also arranged, composed, and scored films and television shows, including “Shaft,” “The Mod Squad,” and “The Danny Thomas Show.” He won a Grammy for 1999’s “Heroes” (Verve) and was nominated for several others.
Throughout his career, the artist played with some of jazz’s most legendary names, including Count Basie, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker. In the 1960s — after recording albums for Savoy, Blue Note, Prestige, Bethlehem, and other labels — he began to earn accolades as a leader and as co-leader — with trombonist Kai Winding — on the popular “Jay & Kai” albums, released by Columbia.
“In [the early] days the trombone was a slow instrument, but that didn’t matter to J.J.,” bandleader and Johnson’s high school classmate Jimmy Coe told the Indianapolis Star. “He opened a new field for trombonists. He was unlimited.”