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Howard Johnson 1941–2021

He took the tuba to unprecedented heights in jazz

Howard Johnson
Howard Johnson, “the Muhammad Ali of the tuba,” in 1998 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

Howard Johnson, who is generally regarded as the greatest tuba player in the history of modern jazz, died January 11 at his home in New York City. He was 79.

His death was announced by his longtime partner, Nancy Olewine, on Facebook. Olewine said that Johnson had passed away as the result of an (unnamed) long illness.

Although Johnson’s was one of the rarer of modern jazz instruments, he was recognized far and wide for his genius—especially by his fellow tubists. “The Muhammad Ali of the tuba,” Joseph Daley told JazzTimes in 2018. “Howard pretty much singlehandedly, through self-determination, pushed forward the instrument, demanding that he be allowed to express himself in many, many different facets, and then not only demanding it of himself but demanding it of other tuba players … [T]he younger musicians coming up are handling it because a precedent’s been set, mainly through Howard Johnson’s work.”

Before Johnson, in instances wherein the tuba was part of a jazz arrangement, it was typically confined to bass parts. Johnson demonstrated a prowess that allowed him to play melodic lines, even lead parts. His work can be heard on numerous large-ensemble recordings by Charles Mingus, Oliver Nelson, Gil Evans, and Carla Bley, among others.

Tuba players who substituted for or replaced Johnson in those bands often found themselves at a severe disadvantage. “I discovered that Gil Evans had written these amazingly difficult parts,” said Bob Stewart, a tubist who followed Johnson in Evans’ orchestra. “I’m sure that’s just what Gil was hearing, but he also wrote it knowing Howard wouldn’t have a problem. I had to work on it.”

Johnson himself insisted that he was never attempting to revolutionize his instrument. “People think I was a crusader for an idea,” he told JazzTimes in 2018, “but I was just trying to get some more jobs, you know? Spread some more music around.”

Although he was predominantly a sideman, Johnson did lead his own ensemble, Gravity, which he founded in 1968. It was a unique band, voiced for five tubas and a rhythm section, which allowed Johnson to create jobs for the small pool of jazz tubists in New York.

Johnson was also a baritone saxophonist. He built a significant list of accomplishments on that instrument as well, playing it with Hank Crawford, George Gruntz, the Composers Workshop Ensemble, and Evans, among others. Johnson claimed that his knowledge of the saxophone fed into his virtuosity on the tuba. “Being a saxophone player also, I have a saxophonic concept, and I’ll try some things that other tuba players wouldn’t try,” he explained.

In addition, Johnson played bass clarinet, flugelhorn, and cornet.

Howard Lewis Johnson was born August 7, 1941 in Montgomery, Alabama, and grew up in Massillon, Ohio, a suburb of Canton. At the age of 13, he taught himself to play baritone saxophone; at 14, he began on the tuba, which he played in both his high-school marching and concert bands.

Upon graduating from high school in 1958, Johnson joined the U.S. Navy, in which he remained for three years. He played baritone sax in the Navy band, but didn’t again touch the tuba until 1963—about two years after his discharge, by which time he had moved to New York. “Even though my chops were hurting from goin’ crazy with the horn, I decided to go to a jam session,” he recalled. “I just played and played, and after a while I just didn’t have the strength anymore—but I was so far ahead of everybody’s expectations that I could get away with it.”

The following year, pianist Jaki Byard recommended Johnson to bassist and bandleader Charles Mingus; Johnson sat in with Mingus’ Jazz Workshop at the Five Spot, and was quickly hired. At the same time, he joined Hank Crawford’s band as a baritone player, thus spending most of 1964 and 1965 on one tour or another. In 1967, Johnson lived in Los Angeles, where he worked with Oliver Nelson and Gerald Wilson. He founded his tuba ensemble, originally called Substructure, in 1968; it was renamed Gravity in 1972.

The 1970s were likely the acme of Johnson’s long career. He was a featured player in the Mingus, Carla Bley, and Gil Evans big bands; he also put in time with Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra (of which Bley was the music director). In 1975 he became a founding member of the Saturday Night Live Band; the following year he toured with Buddy Rich and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and took part in the Band’s final live performance, commemorated in Martin Scorsese’s classic film The Last Waltz.

Leaving SNL—through which he earned a Musicians’ Union pension—in 1980, Johnson resettled into the freelance life. He enjoyed a lengthy stint in George Gruntz’s Concert Jazz Band, and continued as well with the Crawford and Evans bands. He also refocused on Gravity, which finally made its first recording in 1995 (with two more in 1996 and 2016, respectively). By 2018, however, his illness had forced him to retire from active performance.

Howard Johnson was proud of his accomplishments on the tuba, but also worked to keep them in perspective. “I don’t think I made any innovations,” he said. “I just applied myself as a guy who loves jazz, and who loves to play the tuba, and just combined them.”

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.