Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Bob Stewart Remembers Howard Johnson

One master of the tuba pays tribute to another (8/7/41 – 1/11/21)

Howard Johnson
Howard Johnson (photo courtesy of Nancy Olewine)

I met Howard either in the fall of 1966 or the winter of 1967. I was living in Philadelphia, where I went to high school and college. I’d been working at a little club called Your Father’s Mustache, part of a chain, and I was learning how to play changes on the tuba, from the I to the IV to the V and so forth. They hired me to play at the New York club on weekends. One night in New York, where there are no Black folks in the club, I look up and there’s this Black guy standing at the bar and I’m thinking, “What’s he doing in here?” And come to find out it was Howard. He came over and introduced himself. We quickly became friends and we would get together and hang out after each of our gigs, which often lasted into the early morning hours.

I never really viewed him as a mentor, because I might have been intimidated. He gave me insight and inspiration to just delve into the instrument. I saw the things he did and realized very quickly I was not going to be able to do that. For one thing, his upper range was ridiculous. He could hit notes higher than some trombone players, and he did it with the greatest ease. In a certain way, he was a natural because he really didn’t understand how he did it. If I had difficulty with the upper register, he would say, “Just put it up to your mouth and blow!” He really had no idea technically what he was doing. He would do something with his embouchure and the notes would just come out. 

For someone like Howard, it’s a conceptual thing. He sees or hears an instrument and for him it’s not like some brass teachers say—“You can’t play that” or “You can’t double on those instruments.” People like Tom “Bones” Malone or Howard just decide to take the instrument up and play it. They see what the instrument needs and they play that. It’s a different sort of creative approach. When he worked with or did arrangements with other people, he just saw what was needed and he did it. That was why he was able to apply himself to so many different genres and projects. I took that from Howard, and I applied it to moving between genres in the same way. 

It was his idea to form Gravity [the all-tuba band]. It was his creation, his arrangements. At that time I had no concept of tuba and jazz. My vision was right in front of my eyeballs. Howard’s ingenuity was to create a four- to five-octave range for the tuba. We were able to play together in Gravity, but very seldom would we get a chance to play together in other bands. There was one time where Mingus had both of us in the band. Howard was playing baritone sax and I was playing tuba. This was in 1971-1972, after we both worked for Taj Mahal. We did two albums with Mingus: Let My Children Hear Music and Charles Mingus and Friends in Concert.

Tuba players will always know Howard’s legacy because Gravity and the music he created with it are going to be timeless. It’s going to be a long time before that gets replicated in any way.

There’s a trio out of London, Sons of Kemet, with saxophone, tuba, and drums. I heard them on Facebook and my mouth dropped open. The guy [tubist Theon Cross] was playing bass lines and stuff and I was thinking, “How does he keep that going so long?” I’ve never heard anyone doing that other than me, so when I hear somebody else do that, I get amazed.

All of this has been inspired by Howard, because he never told anyone what or what not to play. That’s one of the things he helped to generate in people: the ability to recreate themselves in their own image. Because no one out there now is playing like Howard, but everyone is playing really well and very differently.

[as told to Lee Mergner]

Howard Johnson 1941-2021

Bob Stewart

One of jazz’s leading tuba players, Bob Stewart has worked with such artists as Charles Mingus, Gil Evans, Carla Bley, Muhal Richard Abrams, Arthur Blythe, David Murray, Taj Mahal, Dizzy Gillespie, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, Don Cherry, Nicholas Payton, Wynton Marsalis, Charlie Haden, Lester Bowie, and Bill Frisell, to name only a few.