Don’t worry if that last name doesn’t sound familiar, or if it sticks out when saddled next to the two most influential saxophonists in jazz history.
George Johnson is best (and perhaps only) known for the tenor sax buried behind layers of youthfully busy polyphony and 78rpm static on Bix Beiderbecke‘s first recordings with the Wolverines in 1924. If not for the influential cornetist’s presence, these fifteen sides would be downplayed as period pop ephemera, the work of rambunctious, untrained kids, unworthy of the continuous remastering and reissue they receive to this day. If Johnson’s moaning behind Beiderbecke on “Tiger Rag” and “Royal Garden Blues,” or his straight-laced lead and wooden tone on two takes of “Susie” (at about 0:26 in the following clip) didn’t generate any imitators, his playing is all the more charming because it’s such a singular sound:
The only thing jazz may love more than hearing its saxophone royalty is writing their family trees. Many jazz histories outline a teleology of influences leading inexorably to jazz modernity: Hawkins begat Webster and Berry, who begat Byas, who begat Rollins, who begat Coltrane…and Trumbauer begat Young, who begat Parker, who begat everyone…Earlier artists are just that: musicians who were around earlier than the
mold musicians we all know. Just like a Model A or blunderbuss, they might be interesting historical figures but somehow they’re not a fully “developed” product.
Jazz history, with its obsession for developmental theories, tends to handle music with hindsight and has categorized most pre-1940 Ellingtonia as “leading up to” the indisputable plateau of ‘Ko-Ko,’ ‘Main Stem,’ etc…what strikes me most forcibly upon rehearing [Ellington's recordings from the twenties]…is how much each individual piece has to offer just in itself…it is the greatest possible tribute to the genius of Ellington and his famous men that this should be so, for after all, at each given moment of playing, they were making music and not writing chapters n the history of jazz.
For further perspective from another source wiser than this blogger, and regarding a figure who never had the fortune (or PR) to found a lineage, Michael Steinman offers his thoughts on neglected saxophonist Boyce Brown…
The critic Dave Dexter, Jr. got excited about these recordings, hearing [Brown's] volatile style as a precursor of Charlie Parker. I don’t find that assessment valuable (must all roads in jazz lead to a Greater Master?) preferring to hear Boyce as someone whose phrases had a certain winding urgency, his notes poised on the front end of the beat. More than a fledgling bopper, Boyce seems to have deeply understood the impulsive leaping playing of 1927 Louis [Armstrong] and Frank Teschemacher. Hal Smith calls him “the hottest alto saxophonist in jazz.”
Steinman’s language is as insightful as his ideas: all great players have a “deep understanding” of their peers and forefathers, but understanding ain’t imitation, or for that matter explanation.
Players like George Johnson and Boyce Brown, or Buster Bailey, Don Murray, Leonard Davis, Cyrus St. Clair and many others are a blessing, because they force the listener to be just that, a listening audience, receptive to what they’ve never heard and might never hear again, rather than a catalog of sounds and inspirations heard elsewhere. Play it again, George…