Despite the presence of "junior" in his name, showing up on some, but not all credits for this trumpeter, the career of Bobby Johnson Jr. is nothing if not a senior epic. His professional activities began in the '30s, the glory days of the big band era. He later became one of the seasoned veterans associated with live music at resorts in the Catskill mountains of New York state, a perch from which he taught many a young player how classic jazz was really supposed to sound. Referring to him as a junior must have been particularly hard in the last decade of his life -- despite being past his mid-'80s, he was still making some of the most challenging recordings of his career.
The popular band of trumpeter Erskine Hawkins was where legions of jazz fans first heard Johnson Jr.. The leader used the latter man as a foil, frequently contrasting his own high note shenanigans with Johnson Jr.'s growl and mute expertise. Johnson Jr. also put in stints with the Duke Ellington band, although he should not be confused with the better-known and apparently somewhat wealthier Money Johnson. When rock and roll usurped the popularity of the big band, Johnson Jr. literally headed for the hills, although his years on what is sometimes called "the post-borscht-belt circuit" certainly lost him some visibility on the jazz scene.
Compensating for this was the type of talent he ran into working in the Catskills. Many younger players, such as trombonist Roswell Rudd and saxophonist Harvey Kaiser, have said they learned a great deal from the elder trumpeter, later becoming his collaborators in groups and recording sessions. A group formed in the late '90s called the Kansas City Sound is one example, involving some three generations of players including Kaiser in a tribute to the authentic sound and spirit of Kansas City jazz. Rudd also involved both Kaiser and Johnson Jr. in his Knitting Factory collection of large ensemble ballad performances entitled Broad Strokes. Another of the trumpeter's excellent later recordings is a small band session with Kansas City piano legend Claude Hopkins, Swing Time.