Tuesday, 31 May 2011

6. Bunk Johnson: Last Testament Of A Great New Orleans Jazzman

The best words to describe Geary Bunk Johnson, in my opinion, would be "a character". Here is a man who claimed to have entertained Queen Victoria whilst working with a travelling circus in England in the late 19th century. He also claimed to have played with the, now almost mythical, Buddy Bolden in New Orleans at the turn of the 20th. He embellished his age, gaining ten years, when asked how old he was by a couple of jazz enthusiasts, perhaps to gain more recognition for this role in the birth of jazz. And herein lies the problem with Bunk Johnson. Many critics, especially those around the time that he recorded in the 1940's, were split as to his influence. The answer is probably somewhere in the middle. What is indisputable though is how good this LP from that time is.

Johnson was a highly regarded cornet player from the early days of New Orleans Jazz. He played in parades and funerals and quite possibly with Bolden somewhere along the way. Having left New Orleans in 1915, he wasn't to actually record until the 1940's when he was rediscovered by the above mentioned enthusiasts who had interviewed Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, both of whom mentioned Johnson in glowing terms. There were two problems however in getting him to record when they located him in New Iberia, Louisiana. Johnson had no trumpet and no teeth, having lost both in a particularly vicious fight following a gig around ten years earlier. Both problems were quickly solved and Johnson embarked on a remarkable revival.

His first recordings were very much in the early ensemble polyphonic New Orleans style, for which it seemed, perhaps surprisingly, Johnson had little time for. This album, recorded in 1947, comprises a mix of New Orleans and New York session musicians, chosen by Johnson himself. The result is music that allowed the musicians to breath, giving space for solos and expression, but without losing the spirit of the early material they were playing. Johnson's solos are perfectly pitched without being flashy or over the top and displayed his superior musicianship.

1. The Entertainer
2. Someday (You'll Want Me To Want You)
3. Chloe (Song Of The Swamp)
4. The Minstrel Man
5. Till We Meet Again
6. You're Driving Me Crazy (What Did I Do)
7. Kinklets
8. Maria Elena
9. Some Of These Days
10. Hilarity Rag
11. Out Of Nowhere
12. The Teasin' Rag

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