When writers Bill Russell and Fredric Ramsey tracked Bunk Johnson down in New Iberia, Louisiana in 1938, they found him toothless and out of music. Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong had spoken so highly of Johnson to the men that they searched him out for their book Jazzmen, if only to discover how and why he drifted away from New Orleans, and music making. Johnson offered them a drink, had one himself, and proceeded to gallop through the story of jazz as likely no one ever heard before. He told them how he wrapped string around his remaining teeth to solidify his embouchure, but that had not worked out so well. And, he told them all about the beginning of jazz. He knew the story so well, he told them, because he had been there from the start.
What Johnson didn’t exactly tell them was the truth. According to Big Eye Nelson, and a host of others, Johnson never played with Bolden, the long acknowledged progenitor of jazz. But Johnson’s words managed to find their place in the pantheon of jazz. His Bunk-centric stories, along with his sinewy horn lines ignited the traditional jazz revival, and for that alone he should be lauded. For as much of a scoundrel Johnson was, his own second coming helped ease traditional jazz out of its crypt.
According to Johnson, a sin had been committed to all music the moment he stopped being musician and started as a laborer, unloading bags of sugar cane and driving rice trucks around the south. A sin rectified only by his return to New Orleans and music, a set of false teeth fixed in his mouth by Sidney Bechet’s brother.
He quickly set about evening the score, immediately assuming a very Bolden-esque role. He was often quoted claiming responsibility for the sound and vision of jazz. Viewed 80 years later, the embellishment doesn’t appear desperate. Rather, it offers insight into the everlasting desire Johnson had for the music he lovingly played. And eventually, that sound and his myth became forever intertwined.
Previously, he had been disinterested in recording, like many musicians of the time who believed recordings closed the door on individuality and innovation. But hadn’t Armstrong rode the success of popular recordings into film and TV appearances, becoming a national treasure in the process? Upon his return, Johnson leapt at the chance. Former band mates like Bechet and Kid Ory achieved more than a little notoriety from their own recorded output. Johnson smelled a similar success in his future. As his stories began lives of their own, solidifying Johnson’s own myth, members of Bolden’s band struggled to make ends meet, and many were therefore willing to straighten out the discrepancies in Johnson’s story. Somehow, these repudiations did not cloud Bunk’s rising star.
His first foray into recording came in February 1942. In keeping with the irregular beat of his life, Johnson laid down a trumpet track while a record featuring Sippie Wallace, Bechet, and pianist Clarence Williams, played in the background. A few months later, two more sessions caught Bunk with a live band, upstairs in Grunewald’s music store on Baronne Street.
From then on, Johnson developed a keen taste for recording, laying down over 50 sides between 1943 and 1947, a number of which were recorded by or for music historian Bill Russell, another key ventricle of the trad jazz revival.
Bunk remained irascible. If band members annoyed him, he attempted mid-show tutorials. If they didn’t swing right, he went to sleep in his chair. And yet, he could not damage his reputation. The audience ate the antics up. Here was a character too ribald to be missed. Luckily, his recordings progressed, too. Given the chance to lead, he ably placed himself out front of the band, sometimes arranging the songs, sure to leave room for a daring trumpet solo.
As Johnson’s more daring fabrications reached Armstrong, the star heard enough. Bunk claimed he not only gave Armstrong his first cornet, but also taught him how to play it. That was too much for Armstrong. He stopped talking Johnson up in interviews and rarely mentioned him in private. The journalists still gathered round Bunk every chance they got. And why not? He was one of the revival’s greatest stars, always good for a quote, as long as you bought him a couple of drinks.
A few years before he died, he stopped telling his story altogether, failing memory halting his ability to improvise history. He still had his chops, though. Two late in life recordings contain the strongest music he ever produced: Bunk Johnson Live at the Stuyvesant Casino, featuring his New Orleans Band, and The Last Testament, exactly that, the last session he ever played, recorded with swing era pros.
The end was nigh. Back in New Iberia as of March 1948, Johnson suffered a stroke from which he never fully recovered. In July 1949, his ability to talk severely diminished, perhaps a divine comment on his ramblings, Johnson died, leaving his myth as yet deciphered, his music finally able to do all the talking.