Bunk Johnson Day

December 27, 1879 – July 7, 1949

A tribute to a New Orleans jazz pioneer

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Trumpeter Willie Gary “Bunk” Johnson was born on December 27, 1879 in New Orleans, LA.

Because he often exaggerated aspects of his life, Bunk Johnson (who at one point claimed that he was born in 1879 so he could say that he played with Buddy Bolden) had a career that is a bit shrouded in history and misunderstood.

What is true is that Johnson was an important trumpeter in New Orleans starting around 1910, when he was known for his pretty tone, playing with Billy Marrero’s Superior Orchestra, Frankie Dusen’s Eagle Band and other combos as he freelanced throughout the South.

A fight in 1931 resulted in his teeth being ruined and Johnson having to stop playing trumpet, working as a field laborer and a truck driver.

In 1937 Bunk Johnson was rediscovered by Bill Russell and Fred Ramsey, writers who used him as a source of information for their book Jazzmen; when it was published in 1939, it resulted in New Orleans jazz fans starting a collection that raised money for Johnson to get a set of new teeth and a trumpet.

By 1941 Bunk Johnson was practicing regularly, making his first recordings in June 1942 and sounding like a throwback to the pre-1920 period.

Johnson’s trumpet chops got stronger during 1943-44, he recorded in San Francisco with the wartime version of the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, he made recordings with a band including clarinetist George Lewis and trombonist Jim Robinson and, by the time he arrived in New York in March 1945, he was being heralded as a living legend.

Due to his excessive drinking and bragging, some modern jazz fans and writers wrote him off as a fraud while some New Orleans jazz purists treated Bunk as if he was a musical messiah.

The truth is that at his best Bunk Johnson was an excellent ensemble player and a colorful soloist with his own sound.

He recorded frequently during 1944-47 before returning to Louisiana where ill health resulted in his death in 1949, ending his unlikely comeback.

Bunk Johnson is featured on this fine recording of “Franklin Street Blues.”

-Scott Yanow


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