He was William Geary (Bunk) Johnson, who died in New Iberia on July 7, 1949. The New York Times obituary said he was "a legendary figure in jazz" who "was considred the originator of the New Orleans style of jazz trumpet playing. ... He was the teacher of Louis Armstrong."
According to another obituary, "The period he lived covers the birth of jazz, the growth in variety and the revival of early New Orleans jazz in the 1940s. He played with the men ... considered responsible for the rise of the music, built a considerable reputation, and then fell into obscurity."
The obituaries didn't say that some of his legend was self-created and that there is reason to believe that his nickname "Bunk" was probably given to him because he spread so much of it. But that does not take away from his role or stature as a jazz trumpeter.
Johnson was born in New Orleans, probably on Dec. 27, 1879, although there is some confusion about the date. As one of his biographers records, "Bunk Johnson confused Jazz historians for years by lying about almost everything," and one of his fibs was apparently about his age.
He was the son of William Johnson and Theresa Jefferson. He started playing the French horn as a schoolboy and he said that he performed with Adam Olivier and Buddy Bolden's orchestras in the 1890s, as well as with circuses, minstrel shows and on ocean liners. The part about Adam Olivier's orchestra and playing with Buddy Bolden is probably true, the circuses and minstrel shows would have been appropriate for the time and place. Ocean liners? Maybe.
The New York Times obit points out that he had a bit of a problem when he began playing his first professional job with Adam Olivier, probably in 1894 because the other players followed a score but Bunk could not read music. That's why he switched to Buddy Bolden's band, "where it was all improvisation and ear."
That set the tone for his entire career. Cornet player Charles "Buddy" Bolden is generally considered to be the first band leader to play the improvised music that later became known as jazz. Bunk played with Bolden and various other New Orleans orchestras and brass bands until about 1915.
That year he took to the road and played for the next 15 years wherever he could find work, including theater orchestras, possibly a circus band, and then, fatefully, with the well known Black Eagle Band organized by fellow trumpet player Evan Thomas.
The band had a regular following in south Louisiana and played here often. It apparently disbanded for a little while but then was reorganized about 1930.
One of its first gigs after the reorganization was a dance party in Rayne where things turned really bad. A terrible fight broke out and Evan Thomas was stabbed to death on the bandstand. Bunk's horn was damaged in the melee.
According to one biography, "After this incident Bunk continued to play from time to time, using a borrowed trumpet, but his heart was not in it any longer. His teeth were also starting to give him trouble and in 1931 he pretty much retired from music."
He worked as a truck driver and labored in the rice and cane fields of south Louisiana and would probably have remained in obscurity except that in 1938 two men, Bill Russell and Frederic Ramsey began work on a book called, "Jazzmen," which one authority describes as "an early landmark of jazz scholarship." Bunk's name kept coming up as one of the early and influential New Orleans musicians.
The authors finally tracked him down and interviewed him in New Iberia, where apparently he continued his lifelong habit of obfuscation.As the writers put it, "Bunk was, shall we say, full of bunk."
But he also charmed them enough to cause them to take up a collection among jazz aficionados to fix Bunk's teeth, buy him a new horn, and to revive his career.
After that, according to the New York Times, "Bunk began again as a trumpet player and achieved greater fame than the first time. He starred in a jazz concert in San Francisco and then came to New York, where he made a series of records ... for Victor, Decca, and other leading record firms. ... He was lionized by the younger generation of jazz enthusiasts."
A stroke ended all of that in 1948. He returned to New Iberia and died there in 1949. As the obituary noted, nobody knew for certain how old he was.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.