Trumpeter from Shelby, North Carolina, who started out studying the piano and switched to cornet in his teens, then coughed up fifty-two bucks for a trumpet in 1927. Shortly thereafter, he started up his own band, playing high-school dances.
In 1930, he enrolled at Davidson College, where he played trumpet for the Sunnyland Serenaders. After college, he gigged in a band in Florida and then headed north to join Hank Biagini’s combo in Massachusetts. He went back to school in 1935, this time to the University of North Carolina, again playing in the college band, then moved to Chicago in 1936, where he hooked up with Charlie Barnet for a short while.
In 1937, he joined Artie Shaw and His Orchestra, and was with them for a couple of years, recording material that would eventually show up on The Artie Shaw Story and The Very Best of Artie Shaw.
After his stint with Shaw, he joined the Glenn Miller Orchestra, with whom he would perform from 1939 to 1942. During this time, he got his first taste of Hollywood, performing music in 1941’s Sun Valley Serenade and 1942’s Orchestra Wives. His self-purported favourite trumpet solo was in a Glenn Miller performance of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” in 1940.
Around the time he was band-hopping over to Bob Crosby’s team, Uncle Sam came calling, which resulted in a one-year assignment in England, where he played for Navy Band 501, led by Sam Donahue. After the war, he did a brief stint with Benny Goodman and His Orchestra, eventually going west to L.A. where he studied arrangement and harmony.
In the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, he did some recording with Frank Sinatra which you can hear on The Best of the Columbia Years: 1943-1952. In 1953, he reunited with Bob Crosby on his radio show, went on tour with Billy May, and appeared in The Glenn Miller Story. Two years later, he and Bob Crosby graduated to television, and he appeared in The Benny Goodman Story. In 1964, he and the rest of the Bob Crosby band had the honour to perform at the Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. Stateside, John continued to test his chops at San Diego’s Honeybucket Club, where he jammed for five nights per week. In 1973, he was back on the road with Billy May for a nationwide tour. He also performed on the soundtrack of the 1976 comedy, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings. In 1981, he toured Australia with the newly reformed Glenn Miller Orchestra.
A year later, he was involved in a serious accident, breaking his back while toiling in his orchard, where he liked to grow avocadoes. It left him in a wheelchair.
In spite of this, he continued clubbing in L.A. and San Diego, well into the 1990s. He also managed to appear in the 1985 documentary, Artie Shaw: Time is all You’ve Got, which won an Academy Award in 1987. Undeterred by his injury, he hit the road with Ray Conniff in 1987 and Zeke Zarchy in 1990 for concerts in Holland and Japan. In 1995, he honoured Glenn Miller on a PBS-TV special, in a parade in the Big Apple, and in a concert in the Roseland Ballroom, in conjunction with the celebration of the half-century anniversary of Armistice Day.
The CD era affords us myriad opportunities to enjoy the trumpet stylings of John Best, including The Best of Ken Burns Jazz, released in 2000.
Johnny passed away in September 2003, a month short of his 90th birthday.
Here’s Star Dust by Glenn Miller & His Orchestra…