Remembering Howard Johnson

August 7, 1941 – January 11, 2021

 

A tribute to the innovative jazz tuba player

Tuba player and multi-instrumentalist Howard Johnson passed away on January 11, 2021 at the age of 79.

Johnson was born on August. 7, 1941 in Montgomery, Alabama and grew up in Massillon, Ohio.

Self-taught, Johnson played both tuba and baritone sax while in high school, served in the Navy, spent time living in Boston and Chicago, and moved to New York in 1963.

By that time he was a masterful tuba player who extended his instrument’s range and showed that there was no reason that the tuba could not be a viable instrument in modern jazz, both in ensembles and as a soloist.

Johnson was always in great demand as a sideman, playing in the 1960s with Charles Mingus, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Hank Mobley, Hank Crawford, Archie Shepp and the Gil Evans Orchestra, and keeping busy for decades.

His most high profile associations were as one of four tuba players with Taj Mahal in the early 1970s, appearing with The Band in The Last Waltz, and as a long-time member of the Saturday Night Live band, but he also recorded with Gary Burton, Gerald Wilson, Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, Andrew Hill, Pharoah Sanders, Charles Tolliver, Carla Bley, Sam Rivers, Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition, Jimmy Heath, John Scofield and George Gruntz’s Concert Jazz Band among many others.

In 1995 Howard Johnson led and recorded with Gravity, a group consisting of five or six tuba players and a rhythm section.

A major musical force who was also an important educator and one who cheered on other performers, Howard Johnson was active until his last few years.

Here is Howard Johnson and Gravity (with Johnson, Velvet Brown, Dave Bergeron, Earl McIntyre, Joseph Daley, and Bob Stewart on tubas along with keyboardist Carlton Holmes, bassist Melissa Slocum, and drummer Edward JT Lewis) from Jan. 11, 2014, performing “Evolution” and “Natural Woman.”

-Scott Yanow

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