Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Johnson, Bill (William Manuel)

Bassist Bill Johnson did more before 1917 to promote the New Orleans sound to a nationwide audience than virtually any other musician or organizer. By 1903, fourteen years before the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s first recordings, Johnson and his "Creole" bands brought New Orleans’ varied and popular musical styles to points as far flung as Los Angeles and Boston, and many points in between.

As an instrumentalist, Johnson's skills rivalled those of Pops Foster and Wellman Braud. This is quite a feat, considering he did not commit to the instrument until he was twenty-six years old. While Johnson’s beat might not have been as propulsive as Foster’s or Braud’s, he was easily the most adventurous and creative player of the three. Over the course of a single recording, Johnson could shift seamlessly between bowing, plucking and slapping his bass. His excellent bowing technique allowed him to create all the power and sustain of a tuba, while his slapping style – a style some credit him with inventing – elicited a percussive sound and speed. Johnson was peerless in his ability to always employ the perfect technique for any musical moment.

William Manuel Johnson was born August 10th, 1874 in Talladega, Alabama. In interviews, Johnson asserted that his mother was Hattie Johnson, a “quadroon” or person of three-quarter European and one-quarter African decent, and that his father was a well-known and respected white man, though he never identified his father by name.

Little is known about Johnson’s earliest musical experiences. All indications show that he was primarily a guitarist and mandolin player before the turn of the century. By 1900, Johnson was playing bass regularly at the New Orleans hotspot Tom Anderson’s Annex. Shortly after, Johnson joined the Big Four String Band as a mandolin player; by 1903, the group was carrying the New Orleans sound to Hattiesburg and Biloxi, Mississippi.

Johnson first tried his hand as a bandleader by putting the Creole Band together sometime around 1908. Following a 1911 tour of the Southwest, Johnson and his band settled in Los Angeles, a city he would call home for the next three years. The Creole Band continued to perform while out West under many names, including the most unwieldy moniker “Johnson’s Imperial Band of Los Angeles and New Orleans.”

Whatever the preferred name, the band was offered a place on a prime vaudeville touring circuit in 1914, spreading its primordial version of jazz nationwide for the better part of the next three years. During this time, Johnson made a respected move in picking up cornetist Freddie Keppard for the group. He also made a bad move in turning down a recording opportunity for the Original Creole Orchestra (as it was also known). The group would have been the first ever jazz band to lay down a recording. Ironically, that decision is often credited to Keppard, as he was thought to be the leader of the group.

In the early 1920s, Johnson joined forces with cornetist Joe “King” Oliver, becoming a key member of the King Oliver Creole Jazz Band when it opened Chicago’s Lincoln Gardens in June of 1922. A veritable who’s-who of New Orleans musicians, the band featured Oliver, brothers Johnny Dodds and Baby Dodds, and pianist Lil Hardin. On August 8th, 1922, during the band's extended run at Lincoln Gardens, a twenty-one year-old cornetist named Louis Armstrong joined the band in his first-ever Chicago engagement.

Early the following year, the King Oliver group recorded a series of sides for Gennett Records historian Bruce Boyd Raeburn has called the “definitive statement of the New Orleans ensemble.” As the recording technology of the time could not pick up the sound of the string bass over the brass instruments, Johnson played banjo for the sessions and provides the vocal break, “Oh play that thing,” on the classic recording of “Dippermouth Blues.”

The 1920s were Johnson’s most productive period by far. By the onset of that decade, Johnson, at forty-six years old, was the oldest and most experienced member of the burgeoning Chicago jazz community. His skills were in high demand and by the end of the decade, he appeared to be the bass player of choice on Chicago-based recordings. Often working as a sideman he recorded only two singles as a leader. Both of these came from a session on March 20th, 1929 under the name Bill Johnson’s Louisiana Jug Band.

Johnson was very creative rhythmically. Among the extensive collection of Chicago records on which Johnson played, there is rarely a section in which he played with the typical Dixieland two-beat feel. Instead, his playing is rich with alternating two-beat and four-beat feels, eight-note and triplet figures, and syncopations.

Prime examples of his creativity and variety are on display in selections from the Victor recording sessions, dated July 5th and 6th, 1928, that he did with Johnny Dodds, most notably “Blue Clarinet Stomp” and “Bull Fiddle Blues.” “Blue Clarinet Stomp,” a trio performance which featured Dodds on clarinet, Charlie Alexander on piano, and Johnson on bass is uncluttered and well-recorded, allowing Johnson’s full arsenal of rhythmic and technical devices to ring through. “Bull Fiddle Blues” features the first jazz bass solo ever committed to vinyl. While the eight-bar break taken by Johnson is historic in its primacy, careful listening reveals that most everything else Johnson plays on the record is at least if not much more interesting than the solo.

Johnson remained active in the Chicago scene throughout the 1930s but was not nearly as in demand as he was the previous decade. Johnson’s career continued on a slow decline for many years before he finally retired in the early 1950s, by then nearly eighty years old. Johnson moved to Texas for the remaining years of his life and passed away on December 2nd, 1972.

Known as a gregarious and resourceful manager as well as a pioneer bass player, Bill Johnson demonstrated an inventiveness in his performances that would not be commonplace again until the rise of Jimmy Blanton and Charles Mingus.

Select Discography

King Oliver, Volume One, 1923 to 1929 (BBC RPCD787)

Johnny Dodds Blue Clarinet Stomp (RCA Bluebird RB-2293-2)

Louis Armstrong with King Oliver (Decca (E)LF2001)

Jazz Classics in Digital Stereo, Vol. 2 (ABC 836 181-2)

Jazz, the first half-century, Vol. 1 (RCA Bluebird 66085-2)

Frankie ‘Half-Pint” Jaxson, Vol. 1 (Document DOCD5258)

Contributor: Sean Lorre