Willie Gary “Bunk” Johnson was an early New Orleans trumpet player. There is uncertainty about his actual birth date. He gave his birthdate as 1879 but it is supposed the deliberately gave an earlier date so that his claim of performing with Buddy Bolden, an early New Orleans bandleader and trumpeter.
He performed in New Orleans from 1915 to early ‘20s both locally and traveling with minstrel shows and then moved to New Iberia, LA. He was a farm worker and sometime trumpet player until he lost some teeth either due to decay or fights. In the late 1930’s he came to the attention of some jazz writers who put him in contact with Sidney Bechet’s brother, a dentist, who repaired his teeth so that Bunk could resume his trumpet playing.
Bunk returned to New Orleans and performed with another older jazz clarinetist George Lewis. Their band played both in New Orleans and also to New York City, San Francisco and Boston.
Record producer Gus Statiras, a New York City native who made Tifton, Georgia his home after WWII told of his encounter with Bunk. Gus was visiting in New Orleans shortly after the end of WWII. He searched out the jazz events and made acquaintance with Bunk. Since Gus was visiting and had not secured lodgings, Bunk invited him to spend the night in his home. Gus reported that Bunk’s house was in the Treme’ district, elevated on short brick pillars. It was the kind of wooden house with space underneath for the dogs to rest. It was such a cold, windy night that Bunk’s home became unbearably cold. Consequently, Gus and Bunk “bunked” together for the rest of the night!
Editorial Note: The late Gus Statiras was a good friend to Jazz Pensacola. When we planned our three jazz parties ’89 to ’91, he supplied contacts for our visiting musicians and advised about certain technical aspects of our event. He also brought his recordings and sold them at our events. He also came to some of our later Pensacola JazzFests and sold his recordings. Gus subsequently sold his recording interests to late record producer George Buck in New Orleans. And, when Jazz Pensacola started its Jazz Room collection at downtown West Florida Public Library, we engaged George Buck and Gus Statiras to advise during the first couple of years on that collection. Perhaps it was jazz guitarist Marty Grosz who put it best, “It is impossible NOT to like Gus!”