Wednesday, January 6, 2021

J.J. JOHNSON AND KAI WINDING QUINTET: The Early Years by Gordon Jack

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Gordon Jack is a frequent contributor to the Jazz Journal and a very generous friend in allowing JazzProfiles to re-publish his insightful and discerning writings on various topics about Jazz and its makers.

Gordon is the author of Fifties Jazz Talk An Oral Retrospective and he also developed the Gerry Mulligan discography in Raymond Horricks’ book Gerry Mulligan’s Ark.

The following article was published in the December 15 & 20, 2020 edition of Jazz Journal. 

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© -Gordon Jack/JazzJournal, copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with the author’s permission.

“With the advent of bebop the trombone might have suffered the same relative decline as the clarinet but for two virtuosos - J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding. Their early recordings showed how well they overcame the difficulties of adapting the unwieldy trombone with its seven slide positions to the demands of the new music. 

J.J. Johnson was born in Indianapolis on 22 January 1924 and took up the trombone at the age of 14. Fred Beckett was an important early influence with his 1940 solos on Harlan Leonard’s My Gal Sal, Skee and A La Bridges (Classics 670 CD)  – “He was the first trombonist I ever heard play in a manner other than the usual sliding, slurring, lip trilling or ‘gut-bucket ’style. He made a lasting impression on me.”  He toured briefly with the Clarence Love and Isaac Russell bands before joining Benny Carter’s orchestra in 1942 until 1945. Talking about Carter J.J. said, “It was a continuous education in music”. His first recorded solo took place with the band in 1943 on Love For Sale (Definitive DRCSD 1129) and the following year he was invited to appear at the first JATP concert in Los Angeles before an excited audience of more than 2000. His extrovert contributions to Lester Leaps In, Body And Soul, Tea For Two and Blues with Illinois Jacquet, Jack McVea, Nat King Cole and Les Paul would probably fool many on a blindfold test (Properbox (E) 82CD). He left Carter for Count Basie and is heard on three 1946 solos with the band – The King, Stay Cool (both on Classics (F) 934CD) and Rambo (Neatwork RP2062CD). He wrote and arranged Rambo and Jon Hendricks added lyrics to it for Manhattan Transfer’s 1985 Vocalese album. 

In 1946  he received the New Star award from the critics of Esquire magazine and his swiftly articulated solo with the all-star band on Indiana Winter (based on How High The Moon) caused many to speculate wrongly that he was playing a valve-trombone (Definitive DRCD 11293). On one occasion his amazing facility prompted a Philadelphia club owner to post a sign outside advertising, “The Fastest Trombone Player Alive”. That was the year he settled in New York and started sitting-in at the clubs on 52nd. Street. For a time he had a quartet at the Spotlite with Bud Powell and later he worked there with Allen Eager. He also played at the Three Deuces in a sextet with Fats Navarro and Stan Getz. His first date as a leader took place in June 1946 with Cecil Payne, Bud Powell, Leonard Gaskin and Max Roach when Coppin’ The Bop, Jay Jay, Jay-Bird and Mad Bebop were recorded for Savoy (SVO 151CD).

In late 1947 after his hit with Robbins Nest Illinois Jacquet formed a new band with J.J., Leo Parker, Sir Charles Thompson, Fats Navarro and Joe Newman providing a high octane mix of jazz with rhythm’n’blues overtones which proved to be hugely popular.  John Lewis replaced Thompson for a while and he said, “We had to play Flying Home about three times a night (but) I’ve never seen so much money”. Johnson solos on Riffin’ With Jacquet, Destination Moon, For Truly, King Jacquet, Embryo and Mutton Leg (Mosaic MR6-165). When he wasn’t on the road with Jacquet he became the trombonist-of-choice on many bop recordings in the late forties with Charlie Parker, Tadd Dameron, Dizzy Gillespie, Howard McGhee, Babs Gonzales, Leo Parker and Coleman Hawkins.

He performed on eight of the twelve titles recorded by the Miles Davis nonet in 1949/50 and solos on Deception. Kai Winding was on the other four and was featured on Godchild (Capitol 7243 5 30117 2 7). There were two other trombonists involved in the project because Eddie Bert rehearsed with the group at Nola’s studios on several occasions and Mike Zwerin played on their live performances at the Royal Roost. Peter Pullman’s book (Wail - The Life Of Bud Powell) mentions that on one occasion Powell performed with the nonet at Birdland. The last number of the set was Move and Bud received a standing ovation. He was a little bemused by the audience reaction so Gerry Mulligan very gently led him off the bandstand with the applause still ringing in his ears. An early portent of  Johnson’s later highly successful collaboration with Kai Winding took place on a Chubby Jackson date in 1950 when they were featured together on Tiny Kahn’s Flying The Coop (Original Jazz Classics CD 711-2). He was briefly with Woody Herman at this time and Conte Candoli said, “He was really good on the lead book”.

In early 1951 he occasionally worked at Birdland in a small Dizzy Gillespie group with Milt Jackson and Budd Johnson or John Coltrane and in April that year he was on the 78 rpm disc that introduced Dizzy’s The Champ (Savoy SV-0170CD). Between May and August 1952 he was part of a Symphony Sid package that included Miles Davis, Jackie McLean, Zoot Sims, Milt Jackson, Max Roach, Percy Heath and John Lewis that toured New Haven, Montreal, Toronto, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Atlantic City before concluding at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre. They did not record unfortunately but there is a fine series of photographs in Ken Vail’s book Miles’ Diary from the Apollo booking. Ira Gitler in his Jazz Masters of the 40s says, “When this group broke up, the trombonist became discouraged with the music business”. He briefly withdrew from the jazz scene because of the lack of regular work. He also had the problem of having to renew his cabaret card every six months because of an earlier misdemeanour in 1946. His permanent cabaret card was not reinstated until 1959.

He began working in the defence industry as a blueprint inspector out at Long Island but he kept practicing and making occasional recording dates. One of which took place in 1953 in Brooklyn at a Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop session with three other trombonists – Bennie Green, Willie Dennis and Kai Winding (Properbox  (E) 77CD). In April 1954 he was one of the Miles Davis All Stars along with Lucky Thompson and Horace Silver who created the classic Walkin’ and Blue’n’ Boogie for Prestige (PRCD 7076-2). It’s worth pointing out again that Walkin’ started out as Gravy on a Gene Ammons 1950 date. It was written by Jimmy Mundy until it was appropriated by the infamous Richard Carpenter who got a composer credit on the Davis date.

His temporary retirement ended four months later when Ozzie Cadena wanted to team him with Eddie Bert in a two-trombone album for Savoy. Eddie was unavailable as he was contracted to Discovery. Bennie Green would have been selected but he was busy thanks to his 1953 Blow Your Horn hit which had become something of a juke-box favourite. Producer Teddy Reig suggested Kai Winding which led to a happy two year partnership that was successful both commercially and musically and was marketed under the title Jay and Kai.   

Kai Winding was born in Aarhus, Denmark on 18 May 1922 and emigrated with his family to the U.S.A in 1934. He was largely self-taught and began his professional career with the Sonny Dunham and Alvino Rey bands before spending three years with the US Coast Guard from 1942. His debut as a leader took place in December 1945 with Shorty Rogers, Stan Getz and Shelly Manne when they recorded four titles for Savoy under the title Kai’s Cats (Masters Of Jazz MJCD117). One of the tracks – Loaded – was by an obscure Washington D.C. pianist called Bernie Miller (1919-1945). A year earlier Boyd Raeburn’s orchestra had recorded another of his originals – Bobby Socks - which became better known as Bernie’s Tune

In February 1946 he joined Stan Kenton’s orchestra who had been selected as the Band of the Year by Look magazine and were breaking records everywhere they played. His first solos four months later were on Rika Jika Jack (a forgettable June Christy feature) and Artistry In Boogie (Mosaic MQ10-163). Even though he was only with Kenton for about a year his influence was immense. He created a distinctive section sound by persuading his colleagues to produce a lip instead of a slide vibrato. Milt Bernhart said, “Kai Winding was the lead trombone and without question the most important player in the band at that time”. Kenton agreed - “Kai changed the whole God-damn conception of the band and my whole way of thinking”.  He brings something special to his features with the band on Capitol Punishment, Artistry In Bolero, Yesterdays, Ecuador, I’d Be Lost Without You, Collaboration and Machito (Mosaic MQ10-163). When they were appearing at the Paramount in NYC he heard J.J. Johnson for the first time at the Famous Door with Charlie Parker. He told Milt Bernhart that J.J. left him “Speechless”.

Leaving Kenton he worked with Charlie Ventura for a while in 1947 and they were recorded at the Hotel Sherman, Chicago with singer Buddy Stewart. The popular East Of Suez was introduced on the booking and Winding thrives in what was a forerunner to Ventura’s Bop For The People ensemble (Properbox 41CD). In the late forties he had a group that included Brew Moore, Gerry Mulligan and George Wallington that often worked at the Royal Roost and Bop City. They recorded 14 titles on obscure labels which are difficult to obtain now but would make a very welcome reissue from Fresh Sound perhaps. In the early fifties he combined radio and television studio work with occasional bookings at Birdland with Red Rodney, Zoot Sims, Brew Moore and Bill Harris. He was also briefly with Woody Herman in 1953 and he can be heard on the memorable Four Others by Jimmy Giuffre, a feature for the trombone section which included Urbie Green, Frank Rehak and Vern Friley (Discovery DSCD 944).

Joining J.J.Johnson in 1954 was a chance to escape the routine of studio work and return to full-time jazz. Together they created stimulating small-group performances with tightly arranged ensembles usually voiced in unison or thirds. A variety of mutes sometimes came into play for extra colour on It’s Alright With Me, I Concentrate On You, Just For A Thrill and especially The Whiffenpoof Song. Producer George Avakian was particularly impressed with their studio performance on Whiffenpoof, “It’s a wild sight to see them each keeping pace with the lightning routine of mute up, mute in, blow, mute out, mute down, new mute up, mute in, blow and so on. Never once did they fluff a phrase” (Lonehill Jazz LHJ 10179). After two years together they felt that all the possibilities of a two trombone line-up had been exhausted so they decided to call it a day in 1956 but not before one of their last albums where six other trombones were added to the mix with particularly notable performances on Night In Tunisia, The Surrey With The Fringe On Top and The Peanut Vendor. (Columbia COLCD 480990).

Years later J.J. had this to say, “I have a very fond recall of the Jay and Kai cycle. Kai was a super jazz trombonist who always performed with wit, killer chops, quasi reckless abandon yet with intelligent sophistication. He was a complete musician and total artist plus a fun, fun dude to be with or to work with”.

1956 of course was the year Leonard Feather invited 100 leading musicians from Louis Armstrong to Lester Young to nominate their favourite instrumentalists. J.J.Johnson came top in the trombone section followed by Bill Harris, Jack Teagarden, Bob Brookmeyer, Tommy Dorsey, Lawrence Brown, Jack Jenney, Vic Dickenson, Kai Winding, Trummy Young, Jimmy Harrison, Frank Rosolino and Earl Swope.”

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