The Strange Case of Osie Johnson


One thing leads to another and my recent post about trombonist Eddie Bert touched on the drumming of Osie Johnson, which got me to thinking about him and listening again to some of the many records he played on. I’ve been thinking of writing something on him for a while as he’s long been a great favourite, so here goes.


Both on records and in person, drummer Osie Johnson was all over the hyperactive New York jazz scene from the early 1950s to the mid ’60s. The range of people he played with was imposing – in small groups and big bands, with black and white musicians of several generations and in a variety of styles, on straight “blowing” dates or more complex, written ones – he worked with just about everyone imaginable. His freelance work with Hank Jones, Barry Galbraith and Milt Hinton was so frequent they became known as “The New York Rhythm Section”. The Tom Lord discography lists him as playing on 670 jazz sessions, a huge number even for those peak years and doubly impressive when you consider that most of this took place in just twelve years. But Lord’s discography doesn’t cover his frequent recordings as a staff drummer for the CBS and NBC studio orchestras, which were of a more commercial nature, plus he was all over the place in clubs.

Johnson never played with Count Basie or his band that I’m aware of, but he could easily have, as his drumming teemed with Basie’s musical values: It was swinging, relaxed, uncluttered, pithy, the very essence of “straight ahead”, yet stylistically flexible. And for two of the rare sessions he did as a leader he hired a bunch of Basie’s men – Thad Jones, Henry Coker, Benny Powell, Frank Wess, Ernie Wilkins, Charlie Fowlkes, Eddie Jones. By all reports, Osie the man was much the same, a happy, humorous, down-to-earth, very upbeat guy, forever smiling, as he can be seen doing from the steps of the brownstone in Art Kane’s famous “Great Day in Harlem” photo. Not just with his mouth, but with his whole face, it was a smile that lit up the room. So, given this straightforward, well-adjusted and sunny overview, one might ask, “Where’s the strange case mentioned in the title?”

It’s not that Osie Johnson had a deep, dark secret or anything, but his unique career raises several questions, mainly : 1) – Why was he so in demand across the board? How was he able to establish this so quickly and maintain it for over a decade at a time when jazz was changing so rapidly? And, 2) – Given his omnipresence on the biggest, most active stage in jazz, why has he been so studiously ignored by jazz commentators through the years?

To give some idea of this riddle……..The jazz blogger Steven Cerra recently wrote a piece on Johnson entitled “Osie Johnson: An Undistinguished Distinctive Drummer”. The title is paradoxical, seemingly confused and confusing – how could a drummer be both undistinguished and distinctive? And yet it’s an interesting piece and I know where Cerra is coming from. Johnson is a hard musician to get a handle on and that so little has been written about him is perplexing. Cerra points out the dearth of coverage on Johnson, apart from a sizable entry in Leonard Feather’s Encyclopedia of Jazz. In Burt Korall’s second volume on jazz drummers, Drummin’ Men, the Heartbeat of Jazz, Johnson is barely mentioned with the following –  “…the gifted drummer, Osie Johnson.” In his Visions of Jazz: The First Century, Gary Giddins refers to Osie in the context of drummers who performed with Bud Powell : “He worked with only the best: Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, Roy Haynes, Art Blakey, Art Taylor, Osie Johnson – percussionists who complemented his dynamics, speed, and shifting rhythms.” The obscure jazz writer Georges Paczynski did devote three pages to Johnson and his drumming style in his two-volume Une Histoire de la Batterie de Jazz, but this work has yet to be translated into English. These comments are at least positive, but one would reasonably expect that a musician as prolific as Johnson would merit at least a chapter all to himself, if not an entire book, but apparently not.

I’ll attempt to answer the two key questions asked above, but these answers lead to other questions and considerations having to do with the very nature of jazz drumming itself and shifting perceptions about this, particularly the very real difference between the way musicians look at things and the way critics do. Before getting to this though, a short biographical sketch of Johnson, to give some perspective and context.

Osie Johnson was born January 11, 1923 in Washington, D.C. He attended Armstrong High School, which had a very good music program – among his classmates were Frank Wess and Leo Parker. He received a very strong grounding in drumming fundamentals, theory and harmony there and also studied harmony and arranging in private with the pianist John Malachi, who would go on to be Sarah Vaughan’s accompanist for many years. His first important professional appearance was in 1941 with a band called The Harlem Dictators and he was with the Boston-based band of Sabby Lewis from 1942-43, which also served as a stepping-stone for other important musicians such as Paul Gonsalves, Sonny Stitt, Cat Anderson, Idrees Sulieman, Joe Gordon and Roy Haynes. Johnson spent his military service playing in the excellent Navy band at Great Lakes Naval Station in Chicago. The great alto saxophonist Willie Smith was the leader and among the prominent sidemen was Clark Terry, who would be a close friend of Osie’s for life.

He remained in Chicago immediately after the war, working on the local nightclub scene and doing some arranging and playing for record dates. He became a great favourite of Dinah Washington and Carmen McRae, in part because he was a good singer himself. He wrote the orchestrations for such Washington hits as “Fool That I Am” and “Too Soon to Know”.

He began to achieve some prominence in 1951-53, when he went out on tour with the  Earl Hines sextet, featuring Jonah Jones, Bennie Green, Aaron Sachs, Tommy Potter and vocalist Etta Jones, which impressed people across the U.S. He left Hines and settled in New York in mid-1953, playing a long engagement at The Playhouse with the modern clarinettist Tony Scott. He joined Illinois Jacquet’s band for tours in both America and Europe which gained him further exposure, reflected in his winning the Downbeat Critics Poll as best new drummer of 1954. He returned to New York, working with Dorothy Donegan’s trio at The Embers, pianist Lou Stein at Basin Street, Dan Terry’s big band at Birdland, and again at The Playhouse with Scott.

It was right around then that Osie Johnson began getting calls for various studio dates and word of this drummer who could do just about anything spread very quickly, he was firmly established in no time. He was very good friends with the arranger Manny Albam, who had a certain influence among other N.Y. writers and with the jazz department of RCA, where Johnson virtually became the house drummer. Albam used Johnson a lot and other arrangers followed suit – Al Cohn, Mundell Lowe, Bob Brookmeyer, Quincy Jones, Oliver Nelson, Gerry Mulligan, as well as more experimental ones like George Russell and Hal McKusick. Jazz players of all stripes loved him too and the list of records Osie made with them is far too long for any detail, but includes many with Cohn and Coleman Hawkins, several each with Brookmeyer, McKusick and Sonny Stitt, and sessions with Oscar Pettiford, Art Farmer, Bennie Green, Mose Allison, Zoot Sims, Jimmy Raney, Bud Powell, Tiny Grimes, Paul Gonsalves, Phineas Newborn, Ben Webster and many, many more. He was a regular on pretty much every jazz label except Blue Note during those years – RCA Victor, MetroJazz, Columbia/Colpix, Riverside/Jazzland, Prestige/Swingville, Bethlehem, Impulse!, Mercury, as well as a few more obscure ones like Dot, Seeco, Coral and Dawn. The only thing that ended his run of prominence was his premature death at just 43 from kidney failure due to renal infection, on February 10, 1966.

Some general thoughts on Johnson before moving on to the questions……..

Osie’s sudden and early death explains the abrupt end of his long, busy run, but this may have happened anyway due to changes in jazz style, tastes and economics. The explosive advent of rock ‘n roll in the early ’60s changed everything and the jazz business became more about playing your own music, leading (or playing in) a prominent touring/recording band and becoming a star, or trying to – think Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Charles Lloyd, etc. Club and recording work declined and the days of earning a jazz living in one city by being a freelancer who did a little bit of everything were numbered, or at least shrinking. The arrival of Mel Lewis in New York cut into Osie’s work a little – they shared a lot of the same virtues – and the hole left by Osie’s death was quickly occupied by Grady Tate; they were very similarly versatile players.

Mention Osie Johnson to most people now and – if they remember him or have heard of him at all – they’ll likely think, “Oh yeah, the studio guy”. This is misleading, because the meaning of being a studio player has changed greatly over the years. Beginning about 1970, there was an increasing separation between being a jazz player and a studio musician, but back in Osie’s heyday, most studio players were jazz players, the exceptions being string players or those who played symphonic woodwinds such as the oboe, English horn or bassoon. And most of the music they recorded was either out-and-out jazz, or had a strong jazz orientation. Jazz skills like being able to swing and improvise were required, along with the normal studio skills of being a good sight-reader, able to play in a variety of styles, etc. Increasingly, being a busy studio musician has carried the connotation of being highly skilled but anonymous, accurate and reliable but having no particular identity. Whether or not that is a fair portrayal of how studio musicians are seen, it was not the case in Osie’s day. I don’t think of him as a studio drummer, but as a jazz drummer who recorded a lot….really, really a lot.

Though he did have an identifiably personal approach, Osie was not in any way a drumming innovator, it’s quite clear his stylistic model was the great Jo Jones. Osie’s sound on the kit and his time feel – whether playing with sticks or brushes, on the ride cymbal or hi-hat – were quite similar to Jo’s. Like many others who were inspired by Jones – Gus Johnson, Shadow Wilson (both of whom followed Jo in the Basie band), Harold “Doc” West, Specs Powell, Don Lamond, Shelly Manne, Mel Lewis – Johnson was able to make a smooth transition between Swing and bebop styles on the drums. And like these others, he did so without completely abandoning the virtues of Swing drumming or fully embracing the newer music, which gave him some stylistic depth and flexibility. Osie didn’t quite have the fire or flair of Jones – or of Lamond and Wilson, both of whom could play drum fills that would set you on your ear – but, as we shall see, he brought his own unique set of skills to the table.

For those who don’t know of Johnson or haven’t heard his playing, the Thelonious Monk portion of the classic 1957 TV documentary The Sound of Jazz provides an excellent introduction. It’s widely available on YouTube and other similar sites and allows one to both see and hear Osie at his best, albeit in an atypical context. I say ‘atypical’ because as far as I know, this was the only time Monk and Osie played together and the results make one wish they had done so more often. Monk plays his own “Blue Monk” and his regular bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik completes the trio. Monk’s regular drummer then was Shadow Wilson, who was very similar to Osie, and it’s not clear why he was absent. One reason could be that Wilson had a heroin habit – a very controlled and quiet one, but a habit nonetheless – and the powers involved might not have wanted to deal with that. Or he might have been sick, he suffered through some illness in those years. For whatever reasons, the musical consultants for the show – Nat Hentoff, Martin Williams and Whitney Balliett – very astutely opted for Osie as a sub.

It couldn’t have worked out much better, the hook-up between Monk and Johnson is just extraordinary, the groove very profound and joyous, as evidenced by the beaming faces and wide eyes of Count Basie and Coleman Hawkins, sitting nearby. Osie sounds wonderful and is clearly having the time of his life too, grinning and bobbing his head throughout, riding the top cymbal while stitching marvelous little fills and cross-rhythms around his kit into the mile-wide beat that’s he’s helping to generate. Of course Monk is wearing sunglasses and his expression is as inscrutable as ever, but at one point the camera moves to his huge feet, which tell the tale. He’s wearing what appear to be soft moccasin slippers and one foot is splayed out to the side, patting out all four beats, clearly he’s feelin’ it too. I had only a vague idea of who Osie was when I first saw this, but even since becoming quite familiar with him, the clip still thrills and surprises me. Not because he sounds so good with Monk – Osie always played this way – but hearing him out of context like this with someone as singular as Monk elevates one’s perception of Osie’s musical standing somehow. It also makes you realize something about Monk that’s often overlooked – his music is challenging, but also fundamental – he didn’t need a far-out, flashy drummer, but one who could really swing and Osie fits the bill beautifully. The clip also gives a sense of what might have been. If Osie had played with Monk (or someone similarly innovative and compelling) more often – which this footage shows he was fully capable of doing – he might be better remembered today.

It may seem like a stretch to some, or even heresy, but, apart from Gus Johnson and Shadow Wilson, the drummer who most reminds me of Osie Johnson is Billy Higgins. True, there are differences. Unlike Johnson, Higgins made his initial splash in New York playing with a controversial band – Ornette Coleman’s – which was revolutionary enough to nearly cause riots and split the city’s jazz community right down the middle. But Billy was the one member of the group most fully and quickly embraced by the jazz mainstream of New York. Like Johnson, Higgins became a gently ubiquitous presence in the city during his time. As the virtual house drummer for Blue Note from about 1962 on, he did a ton of recording and playing with Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley, Donald Byrd, Jackie McLean, Sonny Clark and later with Cedar Walton’s trio, on its own or backing people like Clifford Jordan and/or Art Farmer. The music he was playing was often more modern and adventurous than anything Johnson was generally involved with, but then again, Higgins was much younger and came along ten years later. But throwing all that aside, they were quite similar as drummers and personalities. Think about it – the relaxed, spacious beat, the transparent, feel-good sound, the chiming ride cymbal, the simplicity and flexibility, all delivered with a beaming smile and positive attitude which reflected their joy in playing – they were cut from the same cloth.

The Two Questions. Returning to the questions raised earlier, the first one was: Why was he so in demand across the board? The answer to this is quite simple – everybody loved playing with Osie, because he was so easy to play with. This deserves to be broken down into more detail though, as in: What made him so easy to play with?

1. His Time. Osie Johnson had perfect time and liked to play it. He wasn’t just metronomically accurate and steady across the spectrum of tempos – many drummers managed that – but he really swung, consistently and effortlessly. More than anything, jazz is the art of ‘feel’ and Osie’s time felt great. His ride-cymbal beat was very relaxed and wide, but still managed to give the time forward motion and lift. His brush-playing was crisp and achieved the same feeling as his cymbal work. He never seemed to crowd the beat, his had a rolling, loose feeling. By “rolling”, I mean that his beat was very round, he took the sharp edges off it so that it became elastic, allowing the rhythmic and phrasing nuances of whoever he was playing with to come through without too much friction or tightness. While he played simply, he didn’t just sit there like a machine going “ching-ching-a-ching” for the whole tune. He had a marvelous sense of shading, of shaping the pulse with gentle accents and nicely timed little fills, often on the snare or the hi-hat, which gave the beat more variety and flow. Like his model Jo Jones, he was a master of the hi-hat – both in playing the two-and-four afterbeats on it with his foot – ever so slightly ahead of the beat – and by playing it with sticks or brushes to give a lighter texture when needed. Bass players loved him because he listened to them and always hooked up with their quarter-note pulse. Apart from Milt Hinton, he played a lot with other really good ones, such as Wendell Marshall, Oscar Pettiford, George Duvivier, Joe Benjamin, Bill Crow and others. Each of them played differently, but they all sounded wonderful with Johnson. The overall thrust of his elastic time feel could be summarized as one of “relaxed momentum”, a tough thing to achieve.

2. His Sound. Osie’s time was complimented by his sound on the kit, which was crisp, balanced and clear. His bass drum wasn’t overwhelming or thuddy, but had a real tone – a satisfying puff of sound –  “whooomm”. His snare sound was light and crisp but also fat, he tuned it high, but not as tightly as some think, ditto his tom-toms. His cymbals and hi-hat were chiming and clear, but with a pleasant wash of darker overtones. A lot of this had to with his ears and tuning the drums properly so that every component blended and rang together, but mostly it had to do with his light touch. He was capable of delivering some heat and volume when required – say on fills or when trading fours – but otherwise, he never hit anything very hard. The key effect of all this was a very transparent sound, which allowed the other instruments to come through, especially the bass, piano and rhythm guitar. This kept everyone relaxed as nobody was straining to hear themselves and it also made arrangers happy, as he never covered up anything they wrote.

3. Taste. Osie’s playing showed a lot of taste, in that he always listened to what was going on around him and played to context. He was not a virtuoso, but was fundamentally a very sound drummer. His technique didn’t show in flash so much as in his control of time and sound. He was sensitive to dynamics and texture, had a wonderful innate sense of when to play sticks, when to play brushes, when to build up and when to build down. His playing had a real and natural authority, but he didn’t seek to obtrude or inject himself unduly into the musical surroundings, but rather to find a way of making others sound better. In short, he thought music first and drums second. Trust me, this is rarer than you might think and, while it may go unnoticed by listeners, musicians absolutely treasure this.

4. Adaptability. As mentioned earlier, Johnson made the transition to bop without entirely abandoning elements of Swing drumming. This gave him some stylistic flexibility and depth, but part of his versatility also stemmed from his great, open-minded attitude – he genuinely enjoyed playing a wide variety of jazz with a whole range of players. He was clearly comfortable with mainstream, liked the blues, bebop and playing straight-ahead, but also enjoyed the challenges of playing more structured written music, whether in a small or bigger group. He loved to play with older players like Coleman Hawkins and Tiny Grimes, but also with more experimental modern ones like Hal McKusick and Tony Scott. And he really shone with players who were in between, like Bob Brookmeyer, Zoot Sims and Al Cohn. Mostly, he loved to play, period, and was a joy to be around.

So, musicians loved playing with Osie for these reasons. Throw in the fact that he didn’t have any serious bad habits, sight-read extremely well, always showed up on time and was a fun guy and you can see why he stayed so busy. Why the hell wouldn’t you hire him? Arrangers also valued him highly for all of the above reasons, but he had one other dimension that set him apart for them:

5. Musical Insight. Johnson was an accomplished and experienced composer/arranger himself, as well as being a talented singer. These skills gave him an insight into interpreting arrangements that went beyond both sight-reading and that of most other drummers and arrangers quickly picked up on this and valued it highly. The many records he did for RCA generally involved medium to full-sized big bands playing arrangements by Al Cohn and Manny Albam, who were staff arrangers for the label, but also others by writers like Bob Brookmeyer, Billy Byers, Ralph Burns, Johnny Carisi and George Russell. Even the small group dates he did for RCA with people like Mundell Lowe or Hal McKusick were quite structured with written material. He was a very quick study in grasping the big picture and the arc of an arrangement, no matter how involved. He had a lovely sense of how to play kicks and fills around figures to highlight and colour them, without overdoing it. He had the gift of making a big band feel like a small group and of making an intricate written drum part sound spontaneous. And his arranger’s ear and knowledge of harmony made him sensitive to line-writing, form/structure and dynamics – he knew when to stay out of the way and when to play more, when to be big and when to be small. Arrangers loved him for all this and it was the extra dimension of these skills that put him over the top in terms of being in demand.

The second question was: Given his omnipresence, why has Osie been so studiously ignored by jazz commentators? Clearly, I think critics have been remiss in this and at least part of the reason I’m writing this is to rectify things on this score a little. But I’m not a critic, I’m a musician who does some writing and, just as clearly, there’s a big difference between how musicians see other musicians and how critics view them. The following will hopefully not seem like a diatribe against critics, but rather an attempt to explain why they’ve ignored a drummer like Osie Johnson, filtered through my own musician’s point of view. Here are the main reasons, as I see them:

The sheer mass of his output makes it hard to process, to even conceive of. It’s like trying to get a sense of a huge oak tree while standing three inches from it. I think there’s a prejudiced assumption at work among some observers that high quantity and high quality are mutually exclusive, that if a guy worked this much with so many people he can’t have been all that good, I call it the “assembly-line syndrome”. It’s absurd, but often the kind of consistency and versatility shown by a freelancer like Osie are taken for granted. I’ve noticed this in baseball and other fields, that doing a lot of things well will not receive as much attention as doing a few things really well, it’s the “Jack-of-all trades” bugaboo.

Also, he’s been dead for 48 years now, a long time. Unless a figure is extremely famous in their time, regarded as very important and special like say, Duke Ellington or John Coltrane – they tend to be forgotten after dying and the longer they’re dead, the more they’re forgotten. Osie was well-known and regarded as important by musicians, but to critics he was mostly invisible because he was a sideman and a rhythm player. And in terms of retrospect after his death, a lot of the many fine records he played on went out of print quickly and for a long time, making it hard to look back on his career. Even after the CD reissue process began, a lot of these records – especially the many ones on RCA – were hard to find.

Rhythm section players – especially drummers and bassists – were almost always overlooked and taken for granted back in Osie’s day, unless they were regarded as key innovators (Kenny Clarke, Oscar Pettiford for example), brilliant soloists (e.g. Max Roach, Paul Chambers), or were bandleaders, like Art Blakey, Shelly Manne, Charles Mingus. Osie wasn’t an innovator or a flashy soloist, though he always sounded good when playing fours and eights, drum breaks, solo intros, etc. But he was certainly overshadowed by such star drummers as Roach, Blakey, Roy Haynes, Philly Joe Jones and later, Elvin Jones and Tony Williams. And apart from a couple of records as a leader, Osie was always a sideman, and a freelancing sideman at that. If he’d worked with a narrower range of people, he would have had a clearer identity.

He didn’t play regularly for any leaders who became cutting-edge stars in his time – such as Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Wes Montgomery, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley, which didn’t help his profile any. He did work a lot with Coleman Hawkins, who was certainly a star, but one who was beginning to fade by the time Osie was playing with him. He worked with a lot of musicians who were regarded as very, very good – Al Cohn, Bob Brookmeyer, Sonny Stitt, Zoot Sims, Manny Albam, Hank Jones, Hal McKusick, Kenny Burrell – but none of them were stars exactly or had the cachet of being considered groundbreaking. And they seemed less so against the rapid groundswell of profound change effected in just a few years by the likes of Cecil Taylor, Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy and other avant-garde figures. Johnson died just as the dust from this was beginning to settle, another ticket to oblivion for him.

By the same token, although he played on a great many excellent records which have stood the test of time very nicely, he didn’t play on any that were seen as iconic or game-changing, like Walkin’, Saxophone Colossus, Brilliant Corners, Giant Steps, Waltz for Debby, Maiden Voyage, Out To Lunch, or A Love Supreme. Consider Jimmy Cobb, a terrific drummer, very much like Osie – not an innovator or particularly original, but who always felt great. He might be just as forgotten today as Johnson is, but for two things – he worked with Miles Davis during a peak period of his stardom, and he played on the most famous, iconic jazz record of all time – Kind of Blue. Several whole books have been written about it in recent years and Jimmy Cobb’s presence on the record means he’ll be remembered forever and deservedly so. But, before joining Miles Davis on Cannonball Adderley’s recommendation, Cobb had a profile much like Johnson’s – very well-regarded by musicians, but largely unknown to the public and critics. It just goes to show how much the reflective glow from a superstar and being in the right place at the right time can enhance a musician’s standing in one stroke. Osie Johnson had a great career, but nothing quite like that ever fell into his lap.

The difference between a musician’s view of things and a critic’s view can be illustrated by the following story involving the drummer Jake Hanna, a notably trenchant observer of the jazz life. I was hanging out with Jake and some other musicians at the bar one night between sets and somebody mentioned a review they’d recently read that raved on and on about what a brilliant musician so-and-so was. Jake responded with some edge in his Southie Boston drawl, “Never mind brilliant – is he any good? And is he good every night?” That’s always stayed with me. Sure, fiery brilliance and creative derring-do are important and impressive and all that, but if everyone displayed these all at once, the music would just become formless drivel, like a room full of people all talking at the same time. While the purported creativity is being dealt, somebody has to be back there holding things together, providing some context and space and making things feel good. Musicians know this and appreciate players such as Osie who regularly delivered on it – but often critics and other outsiders miss this entirely, because it’s not noticeable from a distance. So, wrong as it may seem and for all these reasons, Osie Johnson has been one of the overlooked, forgotten ones and I hope this piece will help in a small way to change that a bit.

I suppose the other main question that could be asked about Osie Johnson and his place in jazz history would be: Was he a great drummer?

Obviously, the answer would depend on who’s being asked; many musicians might be inclined to say yes, critics probably no. I don’t know if I can answer it, or even want to. For one thing, in jazz terms, I’m not sure what “great” even means anymore and for another, I wasn’t there. I didn’t experience the swirling New York jazz scene of those days, I can only imagine what it must have been like to be around so much great music happening all over the place at once, the head spins. But guys like Al Cohn, Hank Jones, Bob Brookmeyer, Manny Albam, Milt Hinton, Phil Woods et al – they were there, they seemed to think pretty highly of Osie. One could go back and forth on this question forever, but that involves speculation and opinion, and opinions are a dime a dozen.

But the following is not an opinion, it’s a fact: Hundreds and hundreds of times during his career, a host of the most savvy and important musicians in the world had the opportunity to put some jazz on record, a record that would be both costly and a lasting statement and, having their pick of the best drummers New York had to offer, they very often chose Osie Johnson. That’s awfully compelling evidence and should settle the matter.

No, he wasn’t an innovator or a virtuoso, a “monster” who achieved “heavy-osity”, he probably wasn’t even a great improviser. But he made a whole bunch of bands and music feel awfully good. That was his job and he did it so well that he became a fixture on the scene in the jazz centre of the universe during its busiest years. Surely there’s a kind of greatness in that – it’s more than good enough for me.

© 2014 – 2015, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

26 thoughts on “The Strange Case of Osie Johnson

  1. You didn’t say so, and you are younger than I am, so I doubt you saw the Sound of Jazz show live. I did. By that time I had seen a fair amount of jazz on TV and even at 16 I could sense the phony, offensive treatment on the network programs. The presentation of this show was shocking. No sets, no costumes, no dancers! Cameras got in the shots. The show did receive criticism for a mainstream/swing style bent but there was Monk and Basie with that big smile. Good music is good music and good musicians know when it is happening.
    It is hard to describe the effect of the show. They made a record but it was not the same. There was no recording of your TV in those days.Years later when the VHS became available it was wonderful to see and hear. There was so much packed into that hour.

  2. Steve,

    THANK YOU for writing this! I found it by way of Adam Nussbaum … very timely as I am planning out this year’s series of classes and lessons at the Thornton School of Music at USC, and was only yesterday writing down Osie Johnson’s name for study.

    I was introduced to Osie Johnson’s brilliant drumming by way of the Oliver Nelson album “Full Nelson” when I was a kid, and have been an ardent fan and admirer ever since. Your article is not only incredibly informative, you really hit the nail on the head about so many musical points … this will become required reading for all of my students — and maybe most of my friends and colleagues, too!


  3. informative and intelligent thoughtful article steve.

    thanks so much for highlighting a player that i knew little about.. i especially liked your personal perspective on him, along with the general observations on the importance a drummer plays in making the music which are often overlooked – making it feel good for the band.. you’re right – the feel is almost everything. clearly osie was able to provide that which is why so many great musicians wanted to work with him.. thanks!

    • My father ran a luncheonette in Brooklyn (near Erasmus Hall HS) in the 1960’s and one of his regular customers was Osie Johnson. I started playing drums in the early 60’s, so when my father told me Osie Johnson was a customer, I was excited to know what he was like. Osie Johnson was certainly a well known and highly regarded drummer back then. He played beautifully on so many excellent recordings; I looked up to him as one of the top NY drummers.
      My father described him as a friendly, down-to-earth guy who was always a pleasure to serve. I remember my dad was sad to hear Osie passed away at such a young age, “He was a helluva nice guy.” I’m sure that was also a factor in why so many artists loved playing with him.

  4. Thank you so much for this fascinating and insightful post. I have always adored Osie’s playing and wondered why nobody had ever written anything about him.

    Kind regards,


  5. Hi Steve:
    Really enjoyed what you did with your post on Osie Johnson. Very thoughtful and very informative. So nice, too, that drummers like Adam, Peter and Eric were able to read it and commend it.
    Can’t believe that it took me so long to catch-up with your beautifully written piece.
    Kind regards,
    Steve Cerra

  6. ‘His bass drum wasn’t overwhelming or thuddy, but had a real tone – a satisfying puff of sound – “whooomm”.’ That’s so well-stated! Osie Johnson was with Mose Allison in an intimate concert venue, and I was sitting about six feet directly in front of that bass drum. He had that front skin loose, you could see the full excursion producing those deep vibes, and he blended so perfectly; his face was a big smile.
    Just got a CD re-release of Phil Woods’ “Rights Of Swing” and noted Mr. Johnson’s contribution, and thought “Gee, I’ve seen his name a million times. He was one of the cats. What’s the deal?”
    There was your article on the WWW! Cosmic! I’ve never read a better article about drumming or about a working drummer. (Beautifully written, too, like Mr. Cerra syas.) Many thanks!
    Osie can also be heard on the Manny Albam arranged “The Hawk In Paris” (Coleman Hawkins). The art of swing, indeed.

  7. Very interesting and beautiful writing about the music. That Monk/Abdul-Malik/Johnson video of ‘Blue Monk’ really caught my attention when I first heard it, and most importantly as you state, made me feel good!

  8. On the jazz album WEST SIDE STORY(MANNY ALBUM) his playing is so beautiful. WOW a great article. Yes GREAT DRUMMER. Time, taste, swing etc. had it all=GREAT.

  9. I just found your article, and enjoyed it very much.
    I played with Osie many times, on commercial jingles and on jazz dates. He was the busiest drummer during the hot years of recording in NYC. Everyone loved to play with him because of his mighty swing feel, his intelligent accompaniment, and his generous enjoyment in playing, which spread to the entire band. Producers saw what an effect he had on everyone else, making record dates go smoothly and confidently, and so they adjusted their schedules to fit his. They would try to get Osie, Hank Jones and Milt Hinton, because they knew those men would insure a good foundation for any record date, both musically and socially. The contemporary drummer that reminds me most of Osie is Bernard Purdie.

  10. One of my favorite records is Joe Williams Me And The Blues Osie is killing it what a band are you familiar with this I use to listen to this all the time when I was in high school in 1964

  11. Just read the article and loved it. I spent quite a few years in New York and heard Ossie’s name a lot but other than “busy studio drummer” I couldn’t find a lot of information on his background. This answers many of my questions and makes me a much happier (and better informed) drummer. Thank you.

  12. I really enjoyed this piece. The details in the sections titled “His Time” and “HIs Sound” were illuminating to this non-drummer. Sadly, I think that beyond a article in “Modern Drummer”, “Downbeat” and “Jazz Times”, there’s probably very little market for writing about a figure like Osie. Sometimes these things happen in spite of marketplace demand (like “Bassically Speaking”, the book about Osie’s frequent collaborator George Duvivier), but I guess Osie has not found his dedicated chronicler. Maybe the information and analysis will bubble up from blogs and youtube posts.

  13. Steve,
    Just reading this in Sept 2020. Great writing on jazz, and music, in general. You touch on the ineffable substance of music that today’s computer based music can never achieve. There’s a “feel”, a “groove” that only great musicians working together in the same room can achieve. Johnson was one of those ‘geniuses’ who sensed that, felt it, enhanced that, and spread that around the room. Those drummers don’t play precisely on the beat. They’re slightly off-beat. It’s like there’s a 3rd dimension that they lock into that doesn’t make any logical sense but when taken as a whole produces that groove. Monk, tapping his feet and grinning, is sensing it, feeling it.
    Thx so much!

  14. Steve,

    I was reminded of Osie Johnson by reading Milt Hinton’s wonderful memoir and photo album, “Bass Line” (which includes a photo of Osie’s daughter, Osa, as an infant, sitting on Harry Belafonte’s lap during a studio session break—and now I see her comment on this blog!). I knew that Osie played on lot of recordings, but Hinton’s memoir led me to Steve Cerra’s blog post, and now to yours, and I don’t know what I could add to the praise heaped on it by Adam Nussbaum and Peter Erskine except: thank you, so so much!


  15. Thanks for this informative post. I’m a longtime jazz fan but it only dawned on me recently while listening to various things on YouTube how great he was. I’m no drum expert but to me he seems to have had perfect time and perfect taste, varying his patterns and sticking in little accents and fills that drive the ensembles and solos along without being obtrusive.

  16. found my way here after trying to find out more about Johnson after listening to him on some Lucky Thompson sides. what a great drummer!! and I had never heard of him.

    heard him, no doubt, but never heard *of* him.

    thanks for this thoughtful and eloquent testimonial to a great player.

  17. My first exposure to Osie Johnson was probably “Mack the Knife” but the real impact of his drumming hit me on JJ Johnson’s and Bob Brookmeyer’s “Trombones, Inc.” on the East coast side. All he used was a bass drum, snare, floor tom, hi-hat and ride cymbal. His hi-hat playing is the highlight of his playing!!

  18. Osie Johnson was a big influence on my drumming style.I listened to many recordings he made since I first discovered him as a young teenager.I studied drums from Mousey Alexander and he spoke very highly of Osie’ s great swinging time abilities.These two drummers knew exactly how to compliment all the other musicians with driving time. They were musicians first and drummers second. Although this is what all drummers should be and should listen to how musical they both were.Odie taught me exactly how to play behind all the musicians and not get in the way,but still display brilliance in playing..Osie’ should like Mousey have been alit more famous as Jazz Legends.

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