Willie Gary "Bunk" Johnson (December 27, 1879 - July 7, 1949) was a prominent jazz trumpeter in New Orleans. Johnson gave the year of his birth as 1879, although there is speculation that he may have been younger by as much as a decade.
Johnson received lessons from Adam Olivier and began playing professionally in Olivier's orchestra. Johnson probably played a few adolescent jobs with Buddy Bolden, but was not a regular member of Bolden's Band (contrary to Johnson's claim). Johnson was regarded as one of the top trumpeters in New Orleans in the years 1905-1915, in between repeatedly leaving the city to tour with minstrel shows and circus bands.
After he failed to appear for a New Orleans Mardi Gras parade job in 1915, he learned that krewe members intended to do him bodily harm. So he left town, touring with shows and then by the early 1920s settling in New Iberia, Louisiana.
In 1931 he lost his trumpet and front teeth when a fight broke out at a dance in Rayne, Louisiana, putting an end to his playing. He thereafter worked in manual labor, occasionally giving music lessons.
In 1938 and 1939 the writers of an early book of jazz history, Jazzmen, interviewed several prominent musicians of the time, including Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and Clarence Williams, who spoke highly of Johnson in the old days in New Orleans. The writers tracked down Johnson's address, and traded several letters with him, where he recalled (and possibly embellished) his early career. Johnson stated that he could play again if he only had new teeth and a new trumpet. A collection was taken up by writers and musicians, and he was fitted with a set of dentures by Bechet's dentist brother, Leonard, and given a new trumpet. He made his first recordings in 1942, for Jazz Man Records.
These first recordings propelled Johnson (along with clarinetist George Lewis) into public attention, attracting a cult following. Johnson and his band played in New Orleans, San Francisco, Boston, and New York City and made many more recordings. Johnson's work in the 1940s shows why he was well regarded by his fellow musicians--on his best days playing with great imagination, subtlety, and beauty--as well as suggesting why he had not achieved fame earlier, for he was unpredictable, temperamental, with a passive-aggressive streak and a fondness for drinking alcohol to the point of impairment.
Johnson suffered from a stroke in late 1948 and died in New Iberia the following year. Jazz fans and historians still debate Johnson's legacy, and the extent to which his colorful reminiscences of his early career were accurate, misremembered, exaggerated, or untrue.
The majority of his recordings remain in print on CD reissues, and his playing is an important influence on many contemporary traditional jazz musicians. Johnson plays a small, but significant, role in Alan Schroeder's picture book Satchmo's Blues. In that book, Johnson serves as a source of musical inspiration to the young Louis Armstrong.
Bunk Johnson recorded for Blue Note in March, 1945, and for Decca and RCA Victor in late 1945.
Bunk Johnson's final recordings were made for Columbia in December, 1947.