Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Johnson, Bunk (William Geary)

The sounds coming from William Geary "Bunk" Johnson's cornet were always forthright and honest, but his recollections were anything but: he created a labyrinth of misinformation around his early career, the fruit of his fertile imagination and canny self-promotion.

What is true is that in the 1940s he became a key figure in the revival of New Orleans music, and made memorable recordings in his brief second career. Johnson's flexible, singing horn style was very much in contrast to the more familiar declamatory sound of his most famous student, Joe "King" Oliver, and this offers listeners a fascinating sonic glimpse into the vanished world of early jazz.

Whoever was responsible for bestowing the nickname “Bunk” on young William Geary was an observant individual: even the year of his birth is debatable. Johnson claimed to have been born on December 27, 1879, although a 1910 photograph of him certainly does not appear to be of a thirty-one year old man. It is more likely that he invented that date by backing up his true birth year of 1889 in order to place him more firmly in the forefront of the first generation of Jazz musicians in New Orleans.

Whatever the year might have been, Bunk Johnson was born in New Orleans and began to absorb the musical culture of that city immediately. His family (although large) seemed to have had the means to provide him with a musical education. He was given cornet lessons and learned to read music much better than was usual for an African-American during that time. At some point he also acquired some piano skills as well as a working knowledge of other instruments. While Johnson’s interviews over the years detailed study with a college professor and a concert cornetist , he may have learned most of what he knew from Adam Olivier, who led a local band in which the teenaged Johnson played. By 1906 he had graduated to more professional bands, including the Superior Orchestra led by violinist Peter Bocage. This group played high class engagements and was known primarily as a dance band using ragtime-influenced arrangement. When not playing with this orchestra, Johnson was part of the Eagle Band, which had grown out of the remnants of Buddy Bolden’s group and catered to the more “barrelhouse” music of the poor black community.

Emerging from Johnson’s fabulous imagination in later reminiscences were tales that he spent the 1890’s and early 1900’s playing in the top bands in New Orleans (including playing second cornet to Bolden), touring the world in various minstrel bands (eventually reaching China, Australia and London where he did a command performance for Queen Victoria) and playing in a military band during the Spanish-American War. While probably none of this was true, he did leave New Orleans in 1914 to go on the road. Fifteen years of barnstorming ensued, with Johnson playing in minstrel groups for a succession of tent shows and circuses throughout the south. By 1931 he had settled in New Iberia, Louisiana and was playing second cornet regularly with the Black Eagle Jazz Band. In 1932 the Black Eagles were involved in a series of altercations during gigs which ultimately left their leader, trumpeter Evan Thomas dead and Johnson with a broken horn. Compounding these issues were recurring dental problems which deprived him of most of his teeth. For the rest of the decade Johnson eked out a living doing manual farm labor.

The 1939 publication of Jazzmen (one of the first books to look at the early history of Jazz) revived interest in New Orleans music, and prompted scholars to look up some of the old-time performers, including Bunk Johnson. Johnson had not played professionally in almost ten years, but his gift for self promotion was clearly intact and his letters claiming a larger role in Jazz history than was actually the case are a part of Jazz lore. He claimed to have been a formative influence on Louis Armstrong, but the younger man later disclaimed any direct contact with Johnson during his early years. Nevertheless, journalists and scholars such as Charles Edward Smith, William Russell and Frederick Ramsey were intrigued enough to raise money to have Bunk’s teeth fixed and to buy him a new trumpet. By 1942 he was playing well enough to emerge from his retirement to return to New Orleans and record with a band of younger musicians.

Other than some private recordings done in his home in early 1942, Bunk Johnson’s first commercially available releases were done in June of that year and feature the nucleus of what was to become clarinetist George Lewis’ famous band in the 1950’s. With Lewis, trombonist Jim Robinson and banjoist Lawrence Marrero (as well as pianist Walter Decou and Austin Young and Ernest Rogers on bass and drums), Johnson overcomes some rust to play traditional New Orleans marches (such as “Moose March” and “Panama”) and spirituals (“Yes Lord I’m Crippled” and “Down By The Riverside”). While the band is shaky, the overall effect is joyous and redolent of an earlier time.

Johnson’s ensuing fame caused him to be booked for a tour to San Francisco. There he played and recorded with New Orleans contemporaries in Kid Ory’s Creole Jazz Band and white players two generations removed in Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band. The Ory recordings come from a 1943 concert and feature Johnson along with Ory’s regular cornetist, Mutt Carey. Johnson’s playing is fairly tentative, but his work on “Basin Street Blues” is excellent, demonstrating a focused sound and good articulation. His work with Watters shows him in better shape with his range and intonation more assured than they had been before.

By 1945 Johnson was a celebrity who was in demand for engagements in New York and Boston. At Boston’s Savoy Cafe he performed with a quintet he co-led with Sidney Bechet. It was with this group that he made some of his best and best known recordings. “Milenburg Joys” and “Lord, Let Me In The Lifeboat” show how Jazz and spirituals might have been played in the pre-recorded days of Jazz history while “Days Beyond Recall” and “Up In Sidney’s Flat” are elemental but intense blues performances. The interplay between his trumpet and Bechet’s clarinet or soprano saxophone on these Blue Note records is exceptional, with the absence of a trombone slimming down the texture and focusing attention on the two principals.

When Johnson quit this group (or was fired by Bechet for excessive drinking, depending on the story), he returned to New York to play a long residence at the Stuyvesant Casino with his earlier group featuring Lewis and Robinson. While he was never entirely happy with this band, Johnson performed and recorded frequently with it, including a marathon series of sessions for American Music in New Orleans in the spring of 1945. The success of these records led to short term contracts for the group with Victor and Decca as well as V-Discs and live recordings before he was engaged to produce his own album for Columbia in 1947.

These sides were Johnson’s last before returning to New Orleans in 1948 and are usually referred to as “Bunk’s Last Testament” recordings. Performing with a handpicked group of Swing era veterans, Johnson recalled his earliest professional days in New Orleans playing the ragtime arrangements of the Red Back Book. The standard Dixieland lineup realizes tunes such as “Kinklets,” “The Entertainer” and “Hilarity Rag” that were popular during his salad days while freeing up the rhythms on more contemporary material such as “Chloe” and “Out Of Nowhere.” Johnson acknowledged that these were his best recordings and the ones of which he was most proud.

Bunk Johnson died on July 7, 1949. He was a versatile performer whose early career encompassed a wide range of New Orleans music, from gutbucket blues and spirituals to ragtime. A tendency towards boastfulness (accentuated by heavy drinking) caused him to be unpopular with many musicians and probably restricted his opportunities throughout his life. While he never recorded in his prime, he was more fortunate than most of his contemporaries to have survived into the recording era, leaving a legacy of performances with numerous ensembles, which aptly capture an earlier time in the history of jazz.

Contributor: John Clark