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  • Writer's pictureCheré Dastugue Coen

Happy Birthday Bunk Johnson

Updated: Jan 5, 2023

Although jazz legend Willie Gary “Bunk” Johnson hailed from New Orleans, he’s routinely honored in a city an hour to the Big Easy’s west. The folks of New Iberia, Louisiana, celebrate the musician annually and will be throwing a “surprise party” for Bunk Johnson (he was born in December) on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021.

Johnson grew up in New Orleans, honing his musical talents on the trumpet, although proficient in many instruments. The New Iberia Parish Library’s biography states: “According to future Bunk Johnson music student Cliff Davidson, Bunk could play not only the trumpet and cornet, but the drums, the clarinet, the saxophone, the French horn, the slide trombone…”

Louis Armstrong and Bunk Johnson, San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation Collection

He began his musical career in his teens, joining the Buddy Bolden band, then traveling the world, although much of his life remains a bit of a mystery. The San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation Collection explored his life and music with much of it remaining unclear.

"Willie ‘Bunk’ Johnson was one of the most controversial, and divisive, musicians in jazz history," writes Hal Smith. "Even today, few are lukewarm on the subject of Bunk’s musical ability, his biographical details and his personality. All agree, however, that he was the central figure of the New Orleans Revival of the 1940s. Without his participation, traditional jazz in the 21st century would not sound the same."

In his later life, Johnson called New Iberia home.

“In the 1920s and 1930s, 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 until his passing away in 1949,” according to the New Iberia Parish Library’s site.

Which is why New Iberia claims him as their own. The Bunk Johnson Jazz, Arts, and Heritage Festival and Shadows-on-the-Teche historic home will host the party beginning at 6 p.m. with dinner, a movie premiere, music, and cake on the front lawn of the plantation, 317 E. Main St. in New Iberia. The night begins with red beans and rice, Johnson’s favorite meal. Music from the Bunk Johnson Brazz Band, who will be joined by Barry and Emile Martyn on drums, will follow. Participants may then enjoy cake while viewing the premiere of a new film documentary, “The Legacy of Bunk Johnson in New Iberia,” produced by Barry and Emile Martyn.

“It is a joy to hear Barry introduce jazz music according to the history of New Orleans legends of character, creativity, and commitment to New Orleans Heritage,” said Judge Charles Porter, president of the Bunk Johnson Jazz and Heritage Festival board. “New Orleans and New Iberia Jazz are an essential part of the future of Louisiana. Now let us pass the torch to the young dreamers.”

Tickets to Bunk’s surprise party are available online at Admission is $25 for adults and $5 for children (ages 6-17). The ticket includes both the program and food.

All proceeds from the event will be used to support the Bunk Johnson Creative Arts Academy, where musicians benefit from individual attention, numerous performance opportunities, and peer mentoring. The Creative Arts Academy is open to students ages 12-18. For more information, visit

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