Bunk Johnson

Birth Name:
William Geary Johnson
Birth Date:
December 27, 1885
Birth Place:
Constance Street, New Orleans, Louisiana
Death Date:
July 7, 1949
Place of Death:
638 Franklin Street, New Iberia, Louisiana
Cause of Death:
Lingering effects of a stroke
Cemetery Name:
St. Edward Cemetery
Claim to Fame:
Willie "Bunk" Johnson was an prominent jazz trumpeter in New Orleans who lied and/or exaggerated his role in the development of jazz that historians have a difficult time understanding the truth from fiction. But what everyone agrees on is that Johnson was regarded as one of the leading trumpeters in New Orleans in the years 1905–1915, in between repeatedly leaving the city to tour with minstrel shows and circus bands. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, Bunk Johnson spent much of his music-playing time in the southwest Louisiana/southeast Texas region with New Iberia, Louisiana as his “base” and primary residence. While in the area he played frequently with the locally-based Banner Band, which traveled in a variety of vehicles to nearby southern Louisiana and Texas towns. Unlike many other jazz musicians Bunk did not achieve great monetary wealth, but he never shied away from jobs that helped supplement his music income. Along the path of his life, Johnson worked in such jobs as funeral parlor work in Texas, dock work in San Francisco, cigar-making work in the upper mid-west, rice processing and sugar cane field truck-driving in Iberia Parish, and a music teacher in the Iberia Parish, Louisiana school system. In 1942 William Russell and two other jazz researchers went to New Orleans and made a series of records of Bunk playing with a band that included George Lewis (clarinet) and Jim Robinson (trombone). The researchers also interviewed Johnson, who claimed he had taught Louis Armstrong and Joe "King" Oliver (actually Louis Armstrong admitted he mimicked King Oliver and Bunk Johnson style - but never was taught by Bunk). With the help from contacts in Cleveland and the new recordings, Johnson set off on a wild seven-year jazz history odyssey, playing in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, New York, New Orleans, Chicago and Philadelphia, being praised by the press, and making dozens of records that were said to be authentic recreations of the earliest forms of jazz. The enthusiastic jazz researchers who found Johnson and promoted him, quickly discovered, however, they had created something of a monster. According to the many, Bunk emerged as essentially a manipulative con man, often begging the researchers for money, frequently getting drunk, and sometimes failing to show up for concerts. Eventually, Johnson managed to alienate most of his friends. Sidney Bechet fired him from his band and Armstrong, who in 1939 praised Bunk as his "life-long inspiration," later said angrily, "Bunk taught me nothing!" The Bunk Johnson saga ended when he suffered two strokes in late 1948. He died the following July.

Fun Facts

Despite popular opinion, Bunk Johnson was not born in 1979 but rather most likely 1885 (however researchers do not rule out 1888 or 1889). He claimed the earlier date as to make it look like he was one of the early creators of jazz.

Bunk Johnson grew up at 5406 Constance Street (near Octavia Street) in New Orleans, Louisiana. The home that stands there today *might* be the original house as photo comparisons look very close. However the garage addition to the left is not part of the original home.

One of the reasons that Bunk stepped away from music for nearly a decade was do to his failing dental health. So when he returned to music, Bunk got new teeth from Leonard Bechet, famous jazz musician Sidney Bechet´s brother, who was a dentist.

Bunk Johnson lived and died at 638 Franklin Street, New Iberia, Louisiana in 1949. Some years later that address was changed to 638 Malain Street. The original house has since been demolished.

At the time of his death, his widow Maude requested that Life magazine cover the funeral of her husband. The magazine agreed upon one condition – that Johnson be photographed in his casket with his trumpet and be buried with the valuable instrument. The widow Johnson agreed, only to pull the horn out of his cold, dead hands just before they closed the lid without anybody looking.

Cemetery Information:

Final Resting Place:

St. Edward Cemetery

East Dale Street

New Iberia, Louisiana, 70560


North America

Grave Location:

Section NE, Row 14, Plot 28

Grave Location Description

Located at the corner of French Street and Dale Street near downtown New Iberia, as you enter from any of the three entrances walk to the center of the cemetery to the large cross at the intersection of the paths. As you are facing the cross, turn to your left and Bunk Johnson’s small marker can be found six space down and three rows into the section, between the large tombs.

Grave Location GPS

30.00049221439178, -91.82939798508488



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