These recordings of New Orleans trumpet legend Bunk Johnson, who first gained a reputation in the period from 1905 to 1915, represent his work during his “comeback” era. It has been written that his hiatus from playing was due to the loss of his teeth and his trumpet during a bar fight. Once both were restored by donations from musicians and journalists, Johnson enjoyed a renewed career as a traditional jazzman.
His trumpet is heard here in three different settings as recorded by Bill Russell. Bunk’s full band, the musicians of which can certainly be considered all-stars, holds a prominent position on the disc with the group having been captured at various times and locales. The group includes trombonist Jim Robinson, clarinetist George Lewis, bassist Alcide “Slow Drag” Pavageau, drummer Baby Dodds and banjoist Lawrence Marrero. They work familiar tunes like “Ballin’ the Jack” and “Careless Love” and those lesser known numbers like the hilariously titled “All the Whores Like the Way I Ride.” Of course it gallops happily along with the ensemble working as one unit until Lewis’ clarinet and then Bunk’s trumpet take over the reins.
Slow Drag gets his opportunity to shine as he opens his self-penned “Slow Drag’s Boogie Woogie,” with Baby Dodds doing a little tap dance with his nimble sticks. The other settings include three tunes done by Bunk in a duet with pianist Bertha Gonsoulin that were recorded in 1943 in the intimacy of her San Francisco home. In 1946, Bunk was in a New York studio with pianist Don Ewell and drummer Alphonse Steele. The material on this date, including the English folk song “In the Gloaming,” could be considered, well, unusual.
The data on each song—composer, personnel, date—is all there just as it should be on an important piece of musical history. Really tying it all together, however, are the fascinating and informative liner notes by Trevor Richards. His deep knowledge of the music and insight into Bunk Johnson’s personality help bring the artist and traditional jazz’s evolving era to life.