Bunk Johnson: A Biography
With a family background that included having a Black Creek Native American grandmother, who had 11 boys and 11 girls, and himself being one of 14 children in a 7 girl/7 boy immediate family, Bunk Johnson entered our world via New Orleans in, he claimed, 1879. With a mother who operated at least three New Orleans eating places at a time and a sister who escorted him to school as he carried his tin dinner bucket of red beans, rice, cabbage and syrup, Bunk did not waste any time grabbing the chance to learn music. Thanks to the learn-the-basics-first approach of Professor Wallace Cutchey, Johnson learned to read music and, after a couple of years, learned to play the cornet, just the first of so many instruments he could play. According to future Bunk Johnson music student Cliff Davidson, Bunk could play not only the trumpet and cornet, but the drums, the clarinet, the saxophone, the French horn, the slide trombone…
In his mid-teens Johnson began his professional music career, and spent his “rookie year” playing in Adam Olivier’s New Orleans-area band at $2.50 a night. According to Bunk, the next year (1895) he joined the legendary Buddy Bolden band and played cornet alongside Bolden. He eventually played in many New Orleans-based bands and then his “traveling” era began, in which Bunk played music around the globe, worked as a seaman and journeyed to such lands as China and Australia. Stateside, Bunk joined several traveling shows, such as circus/minstrel shows that took him to pre-1906 earthquake San Francisco and as far east as New York.
In the 1920’s and 1930’s, Bunk Johnson spent much of his music-playing time in the southwest Louisiana/southeast Texas region with New Iberia, Louisiana as his “base” and primary residence until his passing away in 1949. While in the area he played frequently with the locally-based Banner Band, which traveled in a variety of vehicles to nearby southern Louisiana and Texas towns. Unlike many other jazz musicians Bunk did not achieve great monetary wealth, but he never shied away from jobs that helped supplement his music income. Along the path of his life, Johnson worked in such jobs as funeral parlor work in Texas, dock work in San Francisco, cigar-making work in the upper midwest, rice processing and sugar cane field truck-driving in Iberia Parish, and music-teaching in the Iberia Parish, Louisiana school system. As far more than one individual has pointed out, Bunk Johnson was a very well-loved music teacher, very patient, willing to joke and speak of his travels in the past but strictly business when it came to teaching music to aspiring musicians. It is said that he was always willing to teach music to anyone interested. Many great jazz artists spoke highly of his talents, and both musicians and relatives often have credited Bunk with teaching such legends as Louis Armstrong (whom Bunk indeed knew in the early 1900’s in New Orleans).
Bunk never let adversity stop his lifelong dream to always have music-playing as a part of his life, be it teeth problems interfering with his trumpet-playing, having a music performance and equipment disrupted when one of his fellow musicians was murdered in 1931, or trying to support his family in New Iberia with very little paying work to be found. It was in the late 1930’s, after Louis Armstrong (who himself performed in New Iberia in 1938 and met up with his old friend while there) and others “spread the word” about Bunk that various jazz enthusiasts traveled to Louisiana to record Bunk and book him into concerts on the West Coast, the New Orleans area, and northern U.S. cities. First, however, he needed new teeth and in a wonderful example of the balance of life, Bunk was fitted with a new set of false teeth by Dr. Leonard Bechet, whose brother, jazz great Sidney Bechet, had been helped to get his first music job by Bunk Johnson himself when Bechet was a boy. Thanks to the efforts of a wide-ranging group of supporters, Bunk found himself riding the trains and planes from 1942 through 1947 to concert appearances and recording sessions in such cities as San Francisco, Chicago, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia, and Boston and jazz magazines became wonderful homes for articles on Bunk Johnson.
In late 1947, Bunk achieved a dream-he played in a band with musicians entirely of his own choosing. This was what Harold Drob wanted for him; Drob was a jazz fan who pooled his military service finances and booked Johnson into a series of New York dance concert appearances and helped record Bunk with these musicians. These proved to be Bunk’s final public performances; despite his passing in 1949, he was not forgotten, thanks to Harold Drob, Bill Russell, and a host of other friends, several of whom provided “homes away from home” for Bunk during his many “big city” concerts.
Copyright © 2009
The Bunk Johnson Collection: A History
The intention was to make the Bunk Johnson Collection as user friendly as possible. Amidst the diverse array of items donated by Harold and Pearl Drob and others were many books on jazz, and in the cataloging record I have indicated, for instance, which pages in a specific book have detailed information on Bunk Johnson, which pages contain photographs of Bunk, etc.
Our collection continues to evolve. Bunk Johnson’s music and non-music life went far beyond his birthplace of New Orleans, and in that spirit I have added to the collection a growing assortment of jazz music on compact disc, the entire Jazz Icons DVD series, and other items. Therefore, our Bunk Johnson archive includes jazz music, musicians, and sub-genres covering the 20th century along with contemporary jazz. Visitors can listen to the music in the cozy, nightclub-like atmosphere of the jazz room. (The library also maintains an ever-evolving circulating music collection which includes music by Bunk Johnson and other jazz greats.) In addition, visitors can listen to interviews of relatives of Bunk Johnson as well as jazz musicians, researchers, etc. speaking about Bunk. Harold and Pearl Drob conducted a wide range of interviews of such individuals over many years. A fair amount of these audiotapes were not in stellar condition, but thanks to the graciousness and farsightedness of the library, I had access to technology enabling me to preserve these Drob-creations on compact disc so that they will be available for listening by future researchers and jazz fans.
Thanks to the generosity of the Friends of the Iberia Library, the jazz collection has a DVD/VHS unit so that visitors can view silent film footage of Bunk Johnson, videocassette jazz documentaries, videocassette interviews re/Bunk Johnson, along with Jazz Icons and other DVD items in the jazz room.
Harold and Pearl Drob donated this collection as a reference-only entity; we honor this wish during an era when intellectual property is increasingly difficult to protect and preserve. Jazz fans and jazz musicians from Europe and across North America as well as local people have visited our library, and we welcome you too!
Don Crook, Archivist