Margaret “Countess” Johnson

At many points in my life, I had to put down the cherished belief in my own indispensability. Yes, each of us is unique, but if we’d never existed, would the cosmos stagger to a halt? This meditation is fueled by the repercussions from a holiday-season view of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, where Clarence the angel-in-training shows George Bailey how the world he knows would be a cistern had he never been born. Yes, JAZZ LIVES believes that even Jimmy Stewart could have had his slot in the imaginary queue filled by someone else.

In science: anyone versed in the history of medicine will tell you that had (let us say) Pasteur had decided to go into baking memorable croissants, or Alexander Fleming taken up carpentry, someone would have discovered pasteurization and penicillin. The history of invention tells us much the same thing: people were racing alongside Edison to patent the phonograph, sound film, and so on. In literature, if James Joyce had been unable to see the page, we would simply be paying much more attention to Lawrence and Woolf, Pound and Eliot.

We don’t much like this heresy in jazz. Imagine, we say, if Louis Armstrong had decided to go into the more lucrative career of crime. If John Hammond’s car radio had been broken. If Coleman Hawkins had stayed with the cello, or Buster Bailey gotten first chair clarinet in the Chicago symphony. Getting darker, think of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald succumbing to the horrors and blandishments of their environments. Perhaps Jack Teagarden would have invented his own line of automobiles.

It is difficult for us to imagine a world without Charlie Parker, but would his harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic inventions never had happened if his life had taken another path? Would there be no jazz trumpet be if its early stars were Johnny Dunn and Crickett Smith, Johnny Wiggs and Mutt Carey?

And, turning the coin over, imagine the jazz world in which Blanton, Bolden, Brownie, Bix lived on. Margaret “Countess” Johnson and Cassino Simpson, Snoozer Quinn and Emmett Hardy as healthy senior citizens, happy, productive.

Some varieties of creative joyous rhythmically inventive improvised music would have flourished.

As much as anyone, I revere the heroes of our jazz heritage. But art is a collective endeavor. So let us acknowledge with gratitude the other runners in the race while we are celebrating the person who comes in first.

As we say, just asking.

May your happiness increase!

8 responses to “HERESIES IN SWING

  1. Wistful Nostalgic

    I’d never heard of Margaret “Countess” Johnson before. I looked her up on Wikipedia. Are there any records where one can hear her play the piano? How sad that TB took her in 1939.

  2. Rich Noorigian


  3. Billie Holiday And Her Orchestra : Buck Clayton (tp) Dicky Wells (tb) Lester Young (cl-1,ts-2) Countess Margaret Queenie Johnson (p) Freddie Green (g) Walter Page (b) Jo Jones (d) Billie Holiday (vcl)
    New York, September 15, 1938
    23467-1 The very thought of you (1) Voc/OKeh 4457, Col C3L-21, CBS (Jap)SOPH65-66,
    Philips (Du)B47015L, Time Life STL-J03, Col
    JG-34837, C3K47724 [CD], Definitive (And)DRCD44436
    [CD], Poll Winners (Sp)PWR27378 [CD], Giants of
    Jazz (It)CD53085 [CD], King Jazz (It)KJ159FS [CD]
    23467-2 The very thought of you (*) (unissued)
    23468-1 I can’t get started (2) Voc/OKeh 4457, CBS (Jap)SOPH65-66, Time Life
    STL-J03, Col JG-34837, Album Jazz Collection
    ORO134, L’Art (F)1 [CD], Definitive (And)DRCD44436
    [CD], Giants of Jazz (It)CD53215 [CD], Dreyfus
    (F)FDM36723-2 [CD], King Jazz (It)KJ159FS [CD]
    23468-2 I can’t get started (2) Col JG-34837, Franklin Mint GJR014, King Jazz
    (It)KJ172FS [CD]
    23469-1 I’ve got a date with a dream (1,*) CBS (Jap)YBPC-1, Col JG-34837, King Jazz
    (It)KJ172FS [CD]
    23469-2 I’ve got a date with a dream (1) Voc 4396, Col C3L40, PG32127, CBS (Eu)62815,
    (Jap)SOPH65-66, Col JG-34837, Franklin Mint
    GJR081, Philips (Du)B47015L, Definitive
    (And)DRCD44436 [CD], Giants of Jazz (It)CD53215
    [CD], King Jazz (It)KJ160FS [CD]
    23470-1 You can’t be mine and somebody elses too (2,*,#) Raretone (It)RTR24011, Affinity (E)CDAFS1019-8
    [CD], King Jazz (It)KJ172FS [CD]
    23470-2 You can’t be mine and somebody elses too (2) Voc 4396, Col C3L40, PG32127, CBS (Eu)62815,
    (Jap)SOPH65-66, Col JG-34837, C3L-33,
    (Jap)SL1209-11C, Seven Seas (Jap)KIJC6011-60127
    [CD], Jazzmen (G)62550011 [CD], Definitive
    (And)DRCD44436 [CD], Giants of Jazz (It)CD53006
    [CD], King Jazz (It)KJ160FS [CD]

  4. Michael, Your musings sound like a possible fruitful scenario for Jorge Luis Borges to take a crack at and contrive all sorts of alternative realities and taxonomies.

    * A Johnny Dunn EP was the first jazz record that I bought.

  5. Sam Mckinstry

    A nice reflection, Michael, the ‘what ifs’ of life and jazz, counterfactual reasoning. Poor unrecorded Emmett Hardy also springs to mind, cut off at 22, tragically terminating his relationship with Martha Boswell. You had me with Crickett Smith, so I looked him up and learned something else today, for which thanks. I’ll ask Tim Fitak in LA if he has anything recorded by Crickett he can put out on his website, from among his his 12,000 old disks. All best,

  6. This may not be exactly in line with your piece, Michael, but I am reminded of Charles de Gaulle’s words: “The cemeteries are full of indispensable men.”

  7. Nice post, Michael. There have been lots of great players who are basically unknowns now, those who never had a chance to record, or whose recordings were few. I can name a handful from the West Coast – clarinetist Bill Pavia, trumpeter Al Zohn, trombonists Bob Meisner and Archie Thomas, pianist Bob Johnson (Bill Johnson’s brother), cornetists Ned and Vince Dotson. And those are just guys who played in Portland, Oregon and the West Coast. Fine musicians.

    I’ve often wondered if the mythical Buddy Bolden cylindar recordings were discovered if we would be disappointed, or if an Emmett Hardy recording surfaced if he would pale in comparison to Bix. Likely the things we ruminate on late at night.

  8. If Louis had never been born we would be completely….at a loss.

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