October 7, 1973: Remembering Lennie Johnson
Trumpeter Lennie Johnson was at his playing peak in the late fifties and early sixties, but even then he was well known in the business and little known outside of it—the proverbial “musicians’ musician.” He’s another one who never got his 15 minutes of fame.
Johnson was born in Boston on October 2, 1923, and died there on October 7, 1973, barely 50 years old. We first hear of him in the early forties, as one of Tasker Crosson’s youngsters. He also formed group with altoist Tom Kennedy in 1942. He entered the army in April 1943, but I don’t know where he served or if he played in an army band. After his discharge, Johnson returned to Boston.
Johnson was with Jimmie Martin’s orchestra in 1948-49. Hi Lockhart, who played beside him in that band, said Lennie was “the high-note man, the power in the section.” Those same years, he worked with Jimmy Tyler at Wally’s Paradise (more on Tyler here) and they were a good match: rooted in swing, experimenting in bop, working out their own modern approaches. When Sabby Lewis reorganized his band in January 1950, Johnson was part of it, and he was with Lewis on and off through 1953.
Lennie’s best-known Boston affiliation, though, was with Herb Pomeroy’s big band at the Stable, of which he was a charter member in 1955. Pomeroy always maintained that Johnson was the heart and soul of his big band. His bandmates called him “The King.”
Traveler columnist John McLellan admired Johnson’s work, and when WHDH-TV broadcast the first installment of his television program, The Jazz Scene, on May 5, 1958, Johnson was his guest. Johnson, wrote McLellan, “is one of our prize possessions in Boston…(He’s) one we ought to listen to with great respect and admiration.”
In November 1959 Quincy Jones came calling. Johnson toured Europe with Jones and made two recordings, The Great Wide World of Quincy Jones (Mercury MG 20561) and I Dig Dancers (Mercury MG 20612). He rejoined Pomeroy in mid-1960. In February 1961, he replaced Joe Newman in Count Basie’s band, staying for eight months; he was on the Basie at Birdland album (Roulette 52065), and the First Time! sessions, the Basie/Ellington collaboration (Columbia CL 1715).
In the 1960s, Johnson freelanced, worked in the studios, and played in various Boston-based groups with other former Pomeroy bandmates. He frequently played for the shows at the Surf on Revere Beach, and with traveling singles at Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike. In 1968, he was hired as an instructor at Berklee.
Then he fell ill with what turned out to be cancer, and he died in October 1973. Berklee staged a memorial concert the following March, headlined by two of Lennie’s longtime friends: Jaki Byard, with whom Johnson worked in the Jimmie Martin and Herb Pomeroy bands; and Clark Terry, his section mate with Quincy Jones. Berklee also established an endowed scholarship in Johnson’s name.
Johnson’s most memorable work was in the modern big-band setting, with Pomeroy, Jones, and Basie, and if Cat Anderson had left the Ellington orchestra, I believe Duke would have invited Johnson to replace him. In fact, Johnson’s obituary mentioned he played with Ellington, but I have not been able to verify when, or whether it was as a substitute or for a longer period.
Lennie Johnson was the one man at mid-century who worked with every significant Boston bandleader, and with Q and Basie besides, yet until he began teaching at Berklee in 1968, he worked a day job as a hospital attendant to make ends meet. He was the heart and soul of Pomeroy’s band, and if anyone qualifies as an unsung hero in this Boston jazz story, it is Lennie Johnson.
Johnson was part of the great 1959 Quincy Jones band, here performing “Caravan.” That’s Jimmy Cleveland on the trombone.