Personalities | Bunk Johnson | Early Years | Jazz & Blues

(Trumpet, 1889–1949)

William Geary ‘Bunk’ Johnson, a New Orleans trumpeter with good reading and improvising skills, said that he played in Buddy Bolden’s pioneer band before 1900. He was certainly associated with Frankie Duson and other Bolden cohorts, and was famous as a showy, lyrical soloist. Johnson’s nickname rose from his loquacity, and he was an inveterate self-promoter (he claimed to have mentored Louis Armstrong, among others). He played with Adam Olivier’s orchestra in the city and then worked mainly in western Louisiana, and on the road with tent shows and other itinerant outfits. Johnson left music in 1933 after an affray in which bandleader Evan Thomas was murdered. He was rediscovered in New Iberia, Louisiana by William Russell and his co-authors of the influential Jazzmen (among the first serious jazz histories) in the late 1930s.

After correspondence, in which Johnson claimed he could play again if he were equipped with false teeth and a trumpet, Russell and friends rehabilitated Johnson and set him on the path to a new career with other New Orleans jazz veterans. In the early 1940s, Johnson led bands, recorded steadily for Russell’s American Music label and toured, with a long stand in New York City from 1945–46. The band he led continued for decades under the leadership of clarinetist George Lewis, exerting a worldwide impact on the jazz revival.

Johnson generated controversy, epitomizing the acrimony between early jazz advocates (‘Mouldy Figs’) and zealots for the emerging modern jazz (‘Modernists’). His example inspired the jazz revival of ensuing decades, and he joined the pantheon of New Orleans trumpet stars that included Bolden, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong and others. Struggling with alcoholism, Johnson declined in the late 1940s, leaving one final recording session with a hand-picked band of New York musicians which shows his personal concept of hot jazz.

Styles & Forms | Early Years | Jazz & Blues
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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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