Artist: Bunk Johnson
Put-it-on-a-Playlist: “The Entertainer,” “Someday (You’ll Want Me to Want You),” “Chloe (Song of the Swamp)”
Recorded at Carnegie Hall in December of 1947, this is, as the title suggests, the last testament of a great New Orleans jazzman. The legendary Bunk Johnson would die from a stroke one year later (he was 69). This casts a dour mood over the proceedings, but make no mistake, this is a joyous celebration of high-stepping Dixieland.
An influence upon Louie Armstrong, Johnson was a key figure during the 1900s. He played trumpet throughout Louisiana until he got his teeth knocked out in 1931, prompting an early retirement. A critical reappraisal by the likes of Armstrong and Sidney Bechet helped revive Johnson’s career, and his comeback coincided with the late-’40s Dixieland Revival. Yet the music of the Revival was nothing like the real thing. And Johnson was definitely the real thing. The passage of time did little to hamper his roots-oriented tone. Bunk always stayed true to his original essence — an authentic Nawlins sound circa 1908.
The Last Testament is beautiful jazz nostalgia, closer in resemblance to ragtime than swing. In fact, the bluesy cover of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” might be the highlight of the entire recording. Just before his death, Bunk Johnson gave us a glimpse of the turn of the century, and for 33 minutes, makes us forget about big band, bebop and bullshit. Free your mind and your ass will follow.