By Hal Smith
WILLIE JOHNSON, trumpet
b. New Orleans, LA 12/12/1879 (?) d. New Iberia, LA 7/7/49.
Willie ‘Bunk’ Johnson was one of the most controversial, and divisive, musicians in jazz history. Even today, few are lukewarm on the subject of Bunk’s musical ability, his biographical details and his personality. All agree, however, that he was the central figure of the New Orleans Revival of the 1940s. Without his participation, traditional jazz in the 21st century would not sound the same.
The first controversy surrounding Bunk is his birthdate. Though he claimed to have been born in 1879, many researchers are convinced that he was born ten years later. When Bunk was interviewed in the early 1940s, he claimed to have performed with the legendary Buddy Bolden in the 1890s. While quite a few writers have dismissed the claim, no one has been able to prove that Bunk did not play with Bolden. A recording of Bunk whistling to demonstrate Bolden’s style is very convincing, if one is predisposed to believe his claims.
Bunk also told his boosters that he taught Louis Armstrong to play. Several years later, when Bunk and Louis talked to the press, Louis seemed to agree. Even when he later disputed that Bunk had taught him, Armstrong continued to praise Bunk as an early influence, specifically mentioning his admiration for Johnson’s diminished chords. Other New Orleans musicians agreed that Bunk taught Armstrong—or at least that he was a major influence on Armstrong’s playing.
The Nickname 'Bunk'
Bunk’s nickname is another controversy. Several theories exist, but the most plausible may come from a story told by another New Orleans musician, Mutt Carey. At the Geary Theater concert in 1943, Bunk was backstage with some of Kid Ory’s musicians as well as some of the young San Franciscans, including clarinetist Bob Helm. Bunk may have wanted to enhance his status as a jazz pioneer in front of the Ory’s men and impress the younger musicians with his background. He told the assemblage, “I was the bugler for Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. I blew ‘charge’ for them at San Juan Hill.” With a self-satisfied expression on his face, he walked away. Helm said, “I’d never heard that before.” Trumpeter Carey replied, “Why do you think we call him ‘Bunk’?”
Bunk Johnson’s personality frustrated most of the people he dealt with, angered others, and was potentially a factor in at least one suicide. While Bunk was grateful to those who rediscovered him and helped relaunch his career, he was quick to scold them, in person and in correspondence, if they failed to provide immediate results for his requests for money, employment, releasing his records, or contacting potential employers on his behalf. On more than one occasion, he caused headaches for supporters by missing high-profile concerts, or showing up late or drunk, minus his horn. Sometimes the concerts had to be cancelled and rescheduled at considerable expense, but most were willing to forgive him. He was deferential to musicians such as James P. Johnson, but would not hesitate to publicly berate any player he considered inferior.
Bunk did a poor job of managing his money, so he was always pleading with his benefactors and even his sidemen for loans. He was an expert at manipulating people, especially wealthy fans who felt guilty about their comfortable situations compared to Bunk’s status as a poor southern African-American. Bunk played that part to the hilt whenever he put the touch on someone. In addition to money, he was able to talk his supporters out of everything from beer and cigarettes to an expensive carved pipe, a typewriter, and a shotgun with ammunition.
The most controversial subject when discussing Bunk Johnson is his ability as a musician. Since his first notes appeared on home-made discs, critics were quick to dismiss the music as being played by an old man, past his prime. When considering Bunk’s trumpet playing, the listener should take into consideration the fact that the trumpeter was either 66 or 56 (depending upon which birthdate you choose to believe); had not played trumpet for nearly 10 years and was struggling to play a difficult instrument with false teeth that frequently came loose and/or caused pain. Also, Bunk was seldom able to work with the class of musicians that he hoped for. When the band recordings were made in New Orleans, Bunk hoped that the personnel would include reading musicians, so that the band would be able to play Joplin Rags as well as popular songs from the sheet music.
Bunk specifically mentioned trombonist Vic Gaspard, clarinetists Alphonse Picou and Big Eye Louis DeLisle on clarinet and guitarists Willie Santiago and Johnny St. Cyr as his first choices. If some combination of these musicians had played on the records, the repertoire and the sound of the band might have been astonishingly different. But the Jazz fans who organized the initial recording sessions wanted more “authentic” sounding players involved, such as George Lewis and Jim Robinson. As the band recorded more and played engagements as a group, Bunk grew frustrated with the inability of his sidemen to learn the repertoire that Bunk envisioned. In some cases he blew up at the musicians at rehearsal, on the bandstand and in the recording studio. Other times he dealt with the situation by getting drunk, showing up late to sessions, playing indifferently and sometimes falling asleep during performances.
One of the few times when Bunk was able to play with the type of band he wanted was during his last visit to New York in 1947. That group recorded, but ironically the records are frequently dismissed by purists as not being “authentic” enough.
Bunk Johnson’s true birth date may never be determined, and no one alive can confirm the definitive origin of his nickname. If a psychologist were to analyze Bunk’s personality, the results would certainly fill a volume with long chapters concerning instant gratification, sociopathic behavior, and guilt manipulation.
The musical controversy is even more difficult to address, since no two individuals have exactly the same musical taste.
The fact remains that Bunk’s recordings continue to influence bands and musicians in all parts of the world.
1930s and 40s New Orleans Revival
In his prime, Bunk Johnson was considered by most New Orleans musicians to be an excellent trumpeter. He played a wide variety of engagements with brass bands, circus bands, and dance orchestras. Bunk could also play other brass instruments, so did not rely solely upon the trumpet for work. He was also willing to work non-musical jobs during rare slack periods, including a stint as a policeman in Houston, Texas.
By the mid-1930s, Bunk's teeth were gone, and he was no longer able to play trumpet regularly. He lived in New Iberia, Louisiana, teaching music at area schools, driving a tractor, and hauling rice and sugarcane. In 1938, Louis Armstrong’s orchestra played a dance in New Iberia and the two visited during the intermission. The following year, jazz historian William Russell encountered Armstrong while assisting authors Charles Edward Smith and Frederic Ramsey in research for their forthcoming book Jazzmen. Armstrong mentioned Bunk as a musician who was active during the formative years of New Orleans Jazz, and recommended Bunk be interviewed for the book. Russell wrote to Bunk and when the trumpeter responded, that letter helped launch one of the most important aspects of the New Orleans Revival.
In the late ’30s and early ‘40s, jazz historians, researchers, writers, and record collectors across America rediscovered Bunk Johnson. Gene Williams, David Stuart, Bill Colburn, Hoyte Kline, Hal McIntire, and Ralph Gleason were part of this fraternity, in addition to Russell, Smith and Ramsey. There was a San Francisco connection with Bunk at the very beginning of his comeback. Lu Watters, leading the orchestra at Sweets Ballroom in Oakland, collected funds from his musicians so Bunk could buy a horn. In 1941, trumpeter George Sabback, who played with an early version of the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, visited Bunk in New Iberia. He took photos of Bunk holding Sabback’s trumpet and reported to Gene Williams’ Jazz Information magazine that Bunk “…is still a fine musician.” A year later, Bunk received a special Rudy Muck mouthpiece from trumpeter Benny Strickler, who was performing with the wartime version of the Yerba Buena Jazz Band at the Dawn Club.
The First Recordings
Finally, with a serviceable trumpet and a new set of false teeth, Bunk was ready to record. His first band recordings were made in New Orleans on June 11, 1942 with Russell, Stuart, Williams, Colburn and McIntyre present. Bunk worked hard to please his sponsors despite the fact the musicians were not his first choices and the repertoire had to be simplified due to the their limitations. Bunk played with wild abandon on numbers like “Moose March” and “Yes, Lord I’m Crippled,” and also made several ‘talking records,’ recalling his early days in New Orleans. The recordings, released on Stuart’s Jazz Man label, sold well and were instrumental in introducing jazz fans across the country to Bunk’s music.
One of the recorded numbers, “Storyville Blues,” became a staple of the San Francisco bands. The song was actually Bunk’s interpretation of Maceo Pinkard’s “Those Draftin’ Blues.” Either he could not remember the correct melody or chose to improvise on it. Either way, the song held great appeal to Lu Watters, who arranged it for the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, retitled it “Bienville Blues,” and recorded it for West Coast in 1946. Later, Turk Murphy reverted to the “Storyville” title, added an original strain, and recorded it for Good Time Jazz in 1950 and again for Columbia in 1955. Subsequently, the Murphy version was recorded by the Firehouse Five Plus Two, El Dorado Jazz Band and many other revival groups.
In 1943, a mutual friend of Bill Colburn and Hal McIntyre offered to bring Bunk to San Francisco. William Russell heard about the offer and sent a letter to Bunk, urging him to think about possible complications, but by the time his letter arrived in New Iberia, Bunk was already en route to San Francisco. When Bunk arrived, the Lu Watters and the Yerba Buena Jazz Band had already launched the West Coast wave of the New Orleans Revival—performing regularly at the Dawn Club, broadcasting on station KYA and recording two sessions for Jazz Man.
Bunk’s first engagement in San Francisco was a concert at the War Veterans Memorial Building, where he played, accompanied by former King Oliver pianist Bertha Gonsoulin. He talked about his early career and generally held the audience in the palm of his hand. This successful event was followed by a concert at the Museum of Modern Art.
Next, jazz impresario Rudi Blesh invited Bunk to perform in his “This Is Jazz” concert series at the Geary Theater. This ambitious presentation was to include Kid Ory, Mutt Carey and members of Ory’s band as backing.
Some aspects of Bunk’s personality began to emerge during his stay in San Francisco, which had not been obvious in the first stages of his rediscovery. The night before the Geary Theater concert, he went ‘out on the town,’ and returned, in a thoroughly inebriated condition, at 5:30 a.m. Luckily, he sobered up enough to make a good impression at the concert. He was living rent-free at the home of Bill Colburn, one of Bunk’s biggest fans and supporters. Despite the success of his concerts, Bunk needed other sources of income between jobs. He gave trumpet lessons, played a few jobs with local African-American swing bands, and even worked briefly in a drugstore and as an elevator operator. Though he made a decent amount of money during this time, Bunk did not offer to pay Colburn for rent, utilities, or food. He continued to send letters to Gene Williams and others pleading for money and describing the plight of his sister-in-law in New Iberia. Bunk claimed that she was living in dire straits but would surely be able to get a good job in San Francisco, pay off her debts, and make a better life for herself. Colburn loaned Bunk the money for his sister-in-law's train fare, but later realized that this sister-in-law was actually a girlfriend.
With the Yerba Buena Jazz Band
In the meantime, Bunk played several sessions at the Big Bear Tavern in the Oakland Hills with a band that included several musicians associated with the Yerba Buena Jazz Band. A number of good players had either received deferments for military service or held local duty stations. Blesh was planning to feature Bunk with the Kid Ory band in a concert-dance at the Dawn Club on the night before the Geary Theater appearance.
The engagement was cancelled at the last minute by San Francisco’s segregated Musicians Union. Previously, Bunk had joined the Black Musicians Union, and African-American musicians were not permitted to play at the Dawn Club.
In a letter to Lu Watters, Bunk expressed his disappointment with rueful humor: “But Lu…I’m an Indian!” Fortunately, the concert at the theater was a success. It also made the local jazz fans aware of Kid Ory’s music, which would have a profound effect upon his later career.
At the C.I.O. Hall
Meanwhile, Bunk’s original sponsor, who encouraged him to come to San Francisco, was nowhere to be found. The promised musical engagements failed to materialize, and Bunk expressed an interest in returning to Louisiana. However, International Longshoremen’s Union President Harry Bridges offered the use of a room at the Congress of Industrial Organizations (C.I.O.) Hall in San Francisco for concerts featuring Bunk. Bridges was a jazz fan, and Bunk had met his father in Australia many years before. The concerts, under the auspices of the Hot Jazz Society of San Francisco, began on July 11, 1943. One unusual feature of the concerts was the inclusion of a wide range of guest artists, from Max Kaminsky, Ray Bauduc, Jack Teagarden, and Joe Sullivan to Count Basie, Artie Shaw, and Stan Kenton. Basie had listened to Bunk in 1931 with drummer Baby Lovett’s band at the Yellow Front Café in Kansas City. After the C.I.O. session Basie said, “To think of my young trumpet section complaining of ‘beat lips.’ We can all stand a lesson from Bunk!”
Among the musicians who played the sessions with Bunk and his Hot Seven were trombonists Bill Bardin and Turk Murphy, clarinetists Ellis Horne and Wade Whaley, pianists Paul Lingle, Ray Jahnigan, John Anderson, and Burt Bales. Drummers Bill Dart, Clancy Hayes, Bill Catalano, and Lefty Benjamin were joined by two regulars, banjoist Pat Patton and sousaphonist/bassist Squire Girsback. There was friction between the younger musicians and Bunk when he announced that he wanted to play current pop songs such as “Mairzy Doats” and “Bell Bottom Trousers,” anathema to the revivalists who wanted to play only classics by King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton. For the most part, however, the musicians worked well together and patrons were happy.
Working with Bunk made Ellis Horne change his musical preferences from the strict two-beat of the Watters Band to the free-flowing 4/4 implicit in the Johnson style. Squire Girsback was another convert. He recalled, “Suddenly at rehearsal one day we were jogging along with that old rambunctious rhythm section we had and I heard him! He was playing straight down the middle, not wavering, and putting in some lovely little things. He was hitting it, as they say.” One of the numbers that the Hot Seven played at the C.I.O. Hall was “Maryland, My Maryland.” When performing this number, Bunk would add what he called fancy variations to the melody. Turk Murphy was impressed by these improvisations and incorporated some of them into his own arrangement of the song.
While the C.I.O. sessions helped to keep Bunk in the public eye and provided him with a meager income, he continued to borrow money with no intention of paying it back. He spent large amounts on items such as a fur coat for his girlfriend. When his money ran out, he pawned his trumpet. Worst of all, his drinking increased.
Jazz fan David Rosenbaum, who was in charge of the C.I.O. Hall sessions, organized a jazz vs. swing concert, pitting Bunk’s Hot Seven against Saunders King and his Rhythm. Rosenbaum was horrified when Bunk called him before the concert with slurred speech, obviously in an advanced state of inebriation. Bunk played the show, but caused many stressful moments for the producer, the musicians, and the audience as he fumbled drunkenly through his set. In spite of Bunk’s less-than-stellar performance, Rosenbaum decided that the trumpeter should be recorded for posterity, backed by his Hot Seven. Bunk agreed to the idea, but word leaked out to Bunk’s long-suffering host Bill Colburn who had his own plans to record Bunk. Their already strained relationship was pushed almost to the breaking point, but Rosenbaum moved ahead with his idea.
The recording band included Turk Murphy, Ellis Horne, Burt Bales, Pat Patton, Squire Girsback, Clancy Hayes, and gospel singer Sister Lottie Peavey, who had appeared as a guest at the C.I.O. Hall concerts. The first recording session on January 19, 1944 ended when some of the musicians became too drunk to play. Unbelievably, the same scenario played out until the last session, but fortunately there was enough material to issue a record. The recordings show Bunk in total command of his horn, playing a unique style with a distinctive beat and a flair for exciting improvisation. The trumpet solo on “Careless Love” is one of his most inventive choruses. Cornetist Jerry Blumberg, originally a Bunk Johnson disciple, told a fellow musician that the trumpet work on “Ace in the Hole” is the best recorded example of how Bunk sounded in person.
Discerning trumpeters and cornetists continue to quote Bunk’s ensemble lead and his solos from the records with the Yerba Buena musicians. Some of Bunk’s trumpet phrases on “All The Girls Go Crazy” were even quoted by pianist Paul Lingle on a live recording of the same tune made in 1951. The session also includes Bunk’s only recorded vocal, “Down By The Riverside.” Sister Lottie had been scheduled to sing the piece, but refused at the last minute. Bob Helm, who was on leave from the Army, sat in and played softly enough that it is nearly impossible to hear him.
Several times during the recording session, Bunk dropped out of the ensemble almost randomly. Over the years, writers have suggested that he was looking for a different texture by allowing the trombone or clarinet to take over the lead. Even today, trumpeters in some revivalist bands drop out of the ensemble from time to time, believing that Bunk Johnson would have done the same. When Turk Murphy was asked why Bunk suddenly dropped out at certain times, he laughed and said, “I can tell you why he did that. He was adjusting his false teeth!” When the sides were finally released, some critics panned the music since the band included Yerba Buena Jazz Band sidemen, rather than more authentic New Orleans musicians.
With Louis Armstrong
Recording Sessions - San Francisco, LA, New Orleans, New York
By March 1944, Bunk had gotten his fill of San Francisco and returned home to New Iberia. Bill Colburn managed to convince Bunk that he should give the Bay City another chance, however, promising recording work, broadcasts, and dance engagements. Dutifully, Bunk traveled back to San Francisco on April 22, ready to play. Colburn had become involved with the Standard Oil Company radio programs, and had recently hired the Kid Ory band for a Standard Oil Classroom broadcast. He planned to feature Bunk on one of the broadcasts, and also on a recording session for Decca with Kid Ory and George Lewis.
In the meantime, the white San Francisco Musicians Union had come up with a new rule: white and African-American musicians could no longer work together. This ruling ended the idea of Bunk appearing on the broadcast with Ellis Horne and the other musicians who had worked with him at C.I.O. Hall. In desperation, he worked a few days as a longshoreman, but realized that type of employment was for younger and stronger men. He also played a few engagements with a local African-American swing band. None of Colburn’s promised broadcasts, recordings or dance jobs materialized, so Bunk made plans to depart the Bay Area permanently and return to New Iberia.
On the way back to Louisiana, Bunk stopped in Los Angeles to record a session for World Transcriptions. Gene Williams had planned the recording for some time, and Bill Colburn offered to help supervise it. In Los Angeles, Bunk and Colburn went to hear Kid Ory at a local club. Ory was invited to make the record and initially agreed, but just before the recording date asked for more money and Colburn refused. Ory asked his musicians not to participate in the recording and everyone except the pianist acceded to Ory’s request. Another trombonist was engaged, but at the last minute he was unable to make the session because of unpaid union dues. The drummer who had been hired did not show up, so Colburn had to find a trombonist and a drummer quickly. Fortunately, Chicago trombonist Floyd O’Brien was in town with Bob Crosby’s Orchestra, and Lee Young, brother of the tenor sax giant Lester Young and an excellent drummer, agreed to record with Bunk. The session was concluded hastily, with not much time to get comfortable with the material, and the records reflect that. Bunk himself played well, but the World Transcriptions date certainly does not rank as one of his best recordings.
Back in Louisiana, Bunk traveled to New Orleans to record for William Russell’s new American Music label. Bunk appreciated Russell’s assistance in staging his comeback, but resented Russell’s choice of musicians for the records, the repertoire that Bunk considered to be monotonous, and the multiple takes of each number that Russell insisted upon. Bunk reacted by drinking more than ever, becoming impatient with the musicians in rehearsals as well as the studio, and adopting a passive-aggressive stance toward Russell. He managed to play very well on many of the sides, but at least once, it was necessary to replace him with ‘Kid Shots’ Madison rather than waste an entire recording session.
Bunk started the year of 1945 with a bang, sitting in with an All-Star band at the Second Esquire Concert at Municipal Auditorium. The group he played with was led by Louis Armstrong and included J.C. Higginbotham, Sidney Bechet, James P. Johnson, bassist Ricard Alexis, and Paul Barbarin. Radio station WDSU broadcast the concert, in which Bunk can be heard with Armstrong and accompanies his vocal.
In 1945, Bunk joined Sidney Bechet for an engagement at the Savoy Café in Boston. Bunk was looking forward to playing with Bechet and Pops Foster. Things got off to a good start with a recording session in New York City for Blue Note with exactly the band Bunk had wanted to play with. He also participated in one of Milt Gabler’s jam sessions and another at Jimmy Ryan’s, resulting in good reviews. But a series of unfortunate coincidences turned the Boston engagement into a nightmare. After the jam session at Ryan’s, Bunk stayed out all night drinking and almost missed the train from New York City. Pianist Cliff Jackson changed his mind about playing with the band at the Savoy and pulled out without notice. Drummer Freddie Moore also canceled, claiming that he could not back out of an existing commitment at Jimmy Ryan’s. Replacements were found for Jackson and Moore, but the situation worsened when Bunk experienced trouble with his lip. He had also expected Bechet to play mostly clarinet, and disliked the aggressive sound of Bechet’s soprano sax. The fast tempos Bechet kicked off and the stale repertoire contributed to Bunk’s displeasure. For most of his short stay in Boston, Bunk’s playing was wildly inconsistent. He was drunk much of the time, missed more than one engagement, and was sullen and uncooperative on the bandstand. Bechet finally had enough, paid Bunk off, and told him to get out.
New York Performances
Once again, Bunk returned to New Iberia. William Russell returned to New Orleans in May, with Gene Williams. Williams still had the bulk of his inheritance and was willing to spend quite a bit of it helping Russell to make more records for American Music. Bunk traveled from New Iberia for the sessions, but the old resentments were becoming more apparent with each new take of a song. For some time, Russell and Williams had discussed bringing Bunk to New York City with a band, to give New Yorkers a taste of authentic New Orleans music. In discussions with Bunk, he clearly stated his preference for the sidemen: J.C. Higginbotham on trombone, Albert Nicholas on clarinet, James P. Johnson on piano, Pops Foster on bass, and Sid Catlett on drums. Russell and Williams did not take the suggested lineup seriously, and made it clear to Bunk that he would be taking his regulars: Jim Robinson on trombone, George Lewis on clarinet, Lawrence Marrero on banjo, Slow Drag Pavageau on bass, and Baby Dodds on drums. Bunk tried more than once to convince them that the band would sound better with different musicians, but his pleas fell on deaf ears.
Bunk in New York at the Stuyvesant Casino
In New York, Bunk’s band, with the addition of Alton Purnell on piano, performed at the Stuyvesant Casino. Purnell was not Bunk’s first, second, third, or fourth choice, and the pianist’s confrontational nature did nothing to defuse the tension that already existed. The situation was exacerbated by the fact that the entire band was staying in Gene Williams’ apartment.
During their time in New York, the band recorded for two major labels, Decca and RCA Victor, but the atmosphere at both was strained. Additionally, George Lewis was in great pain; his teeth had deteriorated to the point that they all needed to be pulled out.
By the end of the band’s run at the Stuyvesant, Bunk was not bothering to hide his disdain for the sidemen. Sometimes he pretended to go to sleep on the stand. Other times, he was not pretending. He cursed George Lewis, Baby Dodds, and the rest within hearing of the patrons. He drank more than ever.
Before the last note sounded at the Stuyvesant, Baby Dodds quit and several other band members threatened to return to New Orleans before the contract expired.
Despite the obvious ill will displayed on the bandstand the previous year, the owners of the Stuyvesant Casino contacted Bunk in the spring of 1946 with an invitation to return to the venue. At this point, Bunk was relying on Gene Williams to handle most of his business affairs, so he suggested different personnel. Bunk was incensed that George Lewis had contacted the Stuyvesant Casino on his own, and that Lewis was the bandleader on a Rudi Blesh recording session, shrouded in secrecy, and pointedly omitting Bunk. He also wanted to replace Alton Purnell with Don Ewell, a young Baltimore pianist who sat in with the band on New Year’s Eve. Ewell’s interpretation of Jelly Roll Morton’s style impressed Bunk out of his ennui. Ewell was included in the lineup, but once again Bunk would be working with - or against - Jim Robinson, George Lewis and Slow Drag, while Lawrence Marrero was dropped as a cost-cutting measure by the casino’s owners. Baby Dodds was not even considered for the drum chair, so Fletcher Henderson’s great drummer Kaiser Marshall was hired. Sadly, Marshall drank himself off the job in a relatively short time. His replacement was Alphonse Steele, who was known as ‘Swinging Steeley.’ Steele played the kind of understated, swinging drums that Bunk wanted to hear in the rhythm section.
On this return trip, Bunk brought along his common-law wife Maude. Once again, the majority of the musicians stayed in Gene Williams’ apartment. Maude’s presence helped to curtail Bunk’s excessive drinking, but even she could not prevent him from hurling insults at the sidemen on the bandstand. Bunk held Don Ewell in high regard, exempt from all criticism, but he labeled Robinson, Lewis, and Pavageau as ‘emergency musicians.’ The 1946 band did not record and did not play outside engagements. Everyone seemed anxious for the whole thing to end, especially after Bunk demanded that Robinson and Lewis move out of Williams’ apartment. The only positive result of the second trip to New York was a set of attractive trio recordings by Bunk, Ewell, and Steele, which allowed the trumpeter to express himself on an unusual selection of tunes with supportive and highly rhythmic accompaniment.
Amazingly, Bunk received yet another offer from the Stuyvesant’s owners to return in the fall. He declined the offer and instead accepted an invitation from jazz fan John Schenck to play a high profile concert in Chicago. Bunk arrived midway through the concert, hungover, without a horn, and claiming that he had been robbed. The audience seemed to believe his story, and agreed to a ‘make-up concert’ in the future. After the concert was performed, Bunk hoped to find some good-paying engagements.
The Last Years
A musical-political conflict developed which kept Bunk from playing the jobs he had hoped for. He was back in New Iberia when John Schenck offered to organize a series of Midwestern tours for him. His second experience in Chicago was not much better than the first, though he enjoyed staying rent-free with David and Marilyn Bell, a generous young couple who enjoyed his company and made no demands on him. Bunk and Ewell traveled to Minneapolis for a memorable concert with Doc Evans’ band, but the other concerts that Schenck described never happened. Bunk blamed Schenck for not following through with the bookings and also accused him of holding back a large sum of money to which he felt entitled. With no work in sight, Bunk went home to New Iberia.
Bunk in New York at Town Hall
The final chapter in Bunk Johnson’s musical career came when he was contacted by jazz impresario Bob Maltz and offered a concert date at New York City’s Town Hall. He actually played two concerts there, as well as appearances at Jimmy Ryan’s and dances at the Caravan Ballroom. The band at the Caravan included two of Bunk’s favorite musicians, Albert Nicholas and James P. Johnson, plus several young jazzmen: Bob Mielke, Jerry Blumberg, Charlie Traeger, Irv Kratka, and occasionally Dick Wellstood.
After Bunk had a falling out with Bob Maltz, another fan introduced himself to the trumpeter. Harold Drob heard Kid Ory’s band in Los Angeles and realized that all the musicians were on the same page. They listened to each other, always played for the benefit of the band, and were accomplished enough to play a variety of songs instead of endless blues and spirituals. Repeated listening to Ory’s band convinced Drob that Bunk had been hoping for years to play in a group like that. He realized that Bunk would play his best if he were given the freedom to select the musicians and the repertoire they would perform.
Drob offered to sponsor a series of dances at the Stuyvesant Casino for a band of Bunk’s choosing, and free rein to choose the material. Bunk contacted veteran musicians who played with the great African-American orchestras led by Fletcher Henderson, Cab Calloway, Chick Webb, Don Redman, and Duke Ellington. All of the band members were skilled at reading music. Bunk’s chosen sidemen were Ed Cuffee on trombone, Garvin Bushell on clarinet, Don Kirkpatrick on piano, Danny Barker on guitar, Wellman Braud on bass, and Alphonse Steele on drums. They played a varied repertoire with an ‘easy swinging’ approach. The dances lasted through November, 1947.
The 1947 Columbia Recordings
After several weeks of hearing how well the band sounded, Drob suggested to Bunk that it should be recorded. Bunk agreed and on three dates in December, 1947 the group assembled in the small Carnegie recital hall to record. Bunk selected rags by Scott Joplin, James Scott, J. Russell Robinson, and Joe Jordan, as well as popular songs “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” “Chlo-e,” “Marie Elena,” “Someday You’ll Want Me To Want You,” and “Out Of Nowhere.”
On all three sessions, Bunk plays with a big, clear tone and a swing feeling that is not apparent on the recordings made with Robinson, Lewis and the others. These recordings are often dismissed by traditional jazz purists as having too much of a swing influence, but they are without a doubt some of the best examples of what Bunk Johnson could achieve as a musician when the circumstances were right. The recordings were finally issued by Columbia after Bunk’s death.
New Iberia - The Final Chapter
After the last recording session, Bunk returned home. He wrote to William Russell, Gene Williams, Harold Drob, Don Ewell, David Bell, and anyone else who might help find work for him. San Francisco, Chicago, New York – anywhere would be just fine if only someone would give Bunk one more chance. His friends sent money whenever their finances permitted, but Bunk’s debts continued to increase. Gene Williams, nearly penniless and inexorably depressed over his failures as a record producer and concert organizer, committed suicide in May.
Bunk suffered a stroke in early November, and another just a few weeks later. One of his sons died in December. Still, he communicated with the outside world with Maude writing the letters. In 1949 Bunk visited with Louis Armstrong one last time, when the All-Stars played in New Iberia. He traveled to New Orleans to pose on the steps of Lulu White’s Mahogany Hall before the building was demolished, and talked about the early days of jazz with researcher Alan Lomax when the latter visited Bunk at home. Bunk’s health continued to worsen and he was barely able to acknowledge the presence of his most devoted fan when William Russell came to visit at the end of June. On July 7, 1949 Bunk Johnson passed away at home.
Though listeners and musicians remain divided over Bunk Johnson’s musical abilities, it is an undeniable fact that his records, together with the 1941-1942 Yerba Buena Jazz Band sides, launched the New Orleans Revival. Bunk’s music continues to be an inspiration across the United States, in Europe, and in Asia.
California Recordings by Bunk Johnson
Bunk & Lu Good Time Jazz GTCD-12024-2
Note: This CD includes the music recorded in 1944 with Turk Murphy, Ellis Horne, Burt Bales, Pat Patton,
Squire Girsback and Sister Lottie Peavey.
Bunk Johnson in San Francisco American Music AMCD – 16
Note: This CD includes the 1943 concert at the Geary Theater with Kid Ory’s band, duets with pianist Bertha Gonsoulin, Bunk playing along with a George Lewis record and two fragments of unreleased sides from the 1944 sessions.
Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band: Volume 1, 1937 – 1943 San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation SFTJF
Note: This CD includes three of the four sides recorded by Pat Patton at the Big Bear Tavern on Apr. 12, 1943. The fourth (“Fidgety Feet”) remains unissued on CD.
Bunk Johnson and Louis Armstrong GHB BCD – 101
Note: This CD includes the recordings Bunk Johnson made in Los Angeles after leaving San Francisco for the last time.
Collinson, John and Kramer, Eugene: The Jazz Legacy of Don Ewell. Storyville Press, Essex, U.K., 1991
Ginell, Cary: Hot Jazz For Sale: Hollywood’s Jazz Man Record Shop. Self-published, Los Angeles, CA, 2010
Hazeldine, Mike: Bill Russell’s American Music. Jazzology Press, New Orleans, 1993Hazeldine, Mike and Martyn, Barry: Bunk Johnson: Song of the Wanderer. Jazzology Press, New Orleans,
Koenig, Lester: Liner notes to Bunk & Lu, Good Time Jazz L – 12024, 1957
Stuart, David: Liner notes to Bunk Johnson’s Superior Jazz Band, Good Time Jazz M – 12048, 1962.
Williams, Martin: Jazz Masters of New Orleans. MacMillan Company, 1967
AUTHOR'S CONVERSATIONS AND CORRESPONDENCE REGARDING BUNK JOHNSON:
Bales, Burt (musician)Helm, Bob (musician); Horne, Ellis (musician); Kratka, Irv (musician; record producer);
Larson, Paul (writer); Mielke, Bob (musician); Lucas, John 'Jax' (writer; fan); Murphy, Turk (bandleader); Russell, William (record producer); Stanton, P.T. (musician)
For More Information Visit: The Swedish Bunk Johnson Society (Claes Ringqvist)