The King of Jazz Guitar
Not only did Lonnie Johnson introduce the guitar into the jazz scene, but he also helped the violin get a spot. This man was a humble jazz genius, so let’s dive a little deeper into his music career highlights.
Alonzo “Lonnie” (1899-1970) was destined for musical greatness. He grew up surrounded by a family of musicians and was raised at the epicenter of jazz music in New Orleans, Louisiana. He studied and played various instruments as a child but really enjoyed the violin and guitar. At a time when most teens would be out fraternizing with each other, Lonnie was perfecting his craft by playing alongside his family in his father’s band.
“I just bought an instrument and in six months I was holding a job. I was playing with my father’s band – he had a string band” – Lonnie Johnson
He caught the eyes of a revue, a group of multi-act entertainers, and joined an international tour in England for a few years. Unfortunately, when he came back from touring he found his whole family, except for his brother, had been victims of the 1918 influenza epidemic. Lonnie and his brother had nothing tying them to the Big Easy anymore, so they relocated to St. Louis. Both Johnson brothers continued playing on riverboats and in orchestras in their new city.
Lonnie really became a star when he entered and won a blues contest. You may be thinking, “Wait, isn’t this about Lonnie Johnson, the jazz star??” You’re right. Lonnie really just wanted an opportunity to get his music recorded and this was his opportunity.
He slowly became more well-known in the music industry and was asked to guest play with popular jazz stars, such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington in Chicago. You may remember from our last post that guitar became popular in jazz music during the Chicago-era. In 1927, Lonnie did a solo with a guitar on the 6/88 glide track, which is where the jazz guitar was born. Check out our Spotify playlist with all of Lonnie’s most popular songs.
Listeners came to recognize Johnson for his single-note melodies. Johnson used this technique on a recording with Eddie Lang. This recording with Lang was significant because the music industry was segregated at the time and Lang had to release the recordings under a fake name to avoid a lash back from white listeners.
Once the Great Depression hit, Johnson was forced to work other odd jobs to make ends meet. He continued to play music on the side, but he didn’t become popular again until much later in his life. Johnson was a janitor at the time when his music career was revived on a coincidental find by a radio station in the 1960s. He spent the last 10 years of his life doing what he loved, which was touring and playing music.
Three years before his death, Johnson said, “These 68 years has been beautiful, hard. I can go to sleep and sleep at night. I won’t have to worry about I told someone the wrong direction to go rather than the right direction. It don’t hurt to do a favor.” Johnson was a humble man with famous guitar solos, and that’s how we will remember him and his contributions to the music industry.