Howard Johnson's musical trailblazing
Volume 115, No. 2February, 2015
Howard Johnson, a member of Local 802 since 1963, is one of the finest jazz tubists in the world, but if that’s not enough, he also plays baritone sax, flugelhorn, bass clarinet, cornet and pennywhistle, among other instruments. Howard was born in Montgomery, Alabama in 1941 and grew up in Ohio. He taught himself the baritone sax in 1954 and the tuba a year later. He moved to New York in 1963 – at a time when the tuba was not a fashionable jazz instrument. (Outside of the New Orleans-style bassline tubists, the only visible player was Ray Draper.)
Charles Mingus welcomed Howard into his workshop in 1964. In 1965 he toured with soul jazz alto saxophonist Hank Crawford, playing baritone sax, but returned to the Mingus workshop for a year beginning in July 1965. In 1966 he played with the Archie Shepp band for some months and appeared with him at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1966 and 1968. Gil Evans used Howard’s multi-instrumental capacity at various points between 1966 and 1988. Active on the West Coast in the mid-60s, Howard played with Buddy Rich, Gerald Wilson and Oliver Nelson. In 1968 he played in the Jazz Composers Orchestra, an epic combination of scores and extreme performances from Carla Bley, Cecil Taylor, Pharaoh Sanders and Larry Coryell. That same year also saw him forming a tuba ensemble named Substructure. He supplied the tuba solo on the arrangement of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” in 1974 with the Gil Evans Orchestra.
Howard’s career smashes the so-called division between commercial and avant-garde. He even performed a stint as conductor of the Saturday Night Live Band in the late 70s. He also arranged for Taj Mahal, B.B. King, and Paul Butterfield and played on The Band’s “Rock of Ages” and “The Last Waltz.”
In 1972, Howard changed the name of Substructure to GRAVITY, which has released two acclaimed late-90s sessions for Verve Records. He’s played and recorded with John Scofield, Hank Crawford, Archie Shepp, Buddy Rich, Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner, Marvin Gaye, Miles Davis, Quincy Jones, Abdullah Ibrahim and John Lennon and had a four-year association with the NDR Big Band in Hamburg, Germany. In movies he can be heard on the soundtracks of Spike Lee’s “School Daze,” “Mo’ Better Blues,” “Malcolm X” and “Clockers.”
Local 802 recording rep Bob Pawlo recently caught up with Howard Johnson to hear his story.
Bob Pawlo: Howard, what are your earliest memories of music?
Howard Johnson: Well, in the household where I grew up in Massillon, Ohio, the radio was always on. If you knew your dial, you could get a half-hour of R&B here and an hour of gospel there. And then there was, of course, church. Also, in Massillon they took music education very seriously. The elementary school teacher had to lead the children in song every day, with a piano. One day in the instrument room, I found a baritone sax – but I didn’t know what it was. The band director told me, “Well, that’s a baritone sax. You want to play it?” He showed me two scales and said to take it home and “see what you can find.” By the time the junior high summer band started, I was able to read my parts.
Bob Pawlo: So when did you first start the tuba?
Howard Johnson: In ninth grade. By then I could play the baritone sax pretty well. Now, I never thought about playing the tuba but I liked that instrument. I always did, because it’s low, you know. I like the low notes, the low sounds. And just by watching the tuba players as they were playing, I thought that their fingering was similar to my own instrument. In fact, if there was something coming up on baritone sax where I didn’t know the fingering, I’d look at the tuba players and learn it. Sometime in May towards the end of that school year, I thought, “Hmmm…I think I know enough to play a chromatic scale on it.” But the problem was, we weren’t allowed to play other kids’ instruments. So I waited until the band director was out of the room, and I went over and played the chromatic scale on a tuba. Then I looked up, and the band director had come back in the room and was staring at me. I thought he was just really angry or something. So I kind of slunk back over to my chair.
He asked me how long I had been playing tuba. I said, “About a minute.”
He was incredulous. “So why do you have a tone?” he asked me. “It takes people weeks and sometimes months to get a decent sound.”
I said, “Well, I don’t know. I thought I was just doing what the tuba players do.”
He encouraged me to hang with the tuba because he knew I was going to be in the high school band the next year. The band was making the trip to the Tournament of Roses parade in Pasadena that year and they’re wouldn’t be marching with a baritone sax. But they needed tuba players. And I said O.K.
The next day, the high school band director had me come down to the school and tested what I could do. And he couldn’t believe that I had just started playing the day before. So he said, “We want you to come to the high school summer band and see if you can make it.” He had already decided that I could, but he didn’t say that. That’s what band directors do, you know.
Bob Pawlo: So now you’re the tuba guy. After the California trip, how did you continue?
Howard Johnson: I worked very hard to make the concert band, and I won first chair, to my surprise. I also developed my ear so I could play any melody I knew. I also kept up with the baritone sax because I heard it in both Duke Ellington and Count Basie’s bands as well as rock bands. At the same time, I started doing a few gigs. I was in a “kid band.” It was a lot of fun. We’d come in and do a set at a dance, playing things like “Night Train” with a baritone instead of tenor.
Bob Pawlo: What happened after you graduated from high school?
Howard Johnson: I went into the Navy. I was stationed in Boston for three years, and I became good friends with the drummer Tony Williams. When I got out, since I hadn’t had time to play a lot, I moved to Chicago to get some experience before coming to New York, which is what I always wanted to do. I figured I’d be in Chicago for a couple years. But after just a few months there, I had a conversation with the great Eric Dolphy and he was very encouraging that I not wait two years if I could do what I said I could do on the tuba. So I moved to NYC the next week. That was February 1963.
Bob Pawlo: And what was your experience when you got to New York as a young musician?
Howard Johnson: Well, I just went around sitting in wherever I could on baritone. I didn’t get a tuba until August 1963. After that, I would go around with both.
Bob Pawlo: That must have been unusual in those days
Howard Johnson: Oh, it was. It still is.
Bob Pawlo: Who were some of the people you played with at that point?
Howard Johnson: Well, in those days places where there was a jam session, it wasn’t like now where people who can’t really play are working their stuff out and work it into something. In those days people who could play were playing in those jam sessions. I met Lou Donaldson at one. Another is where I met Paul Bley and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Jimmy Wormworth was the house drummer for the session. It was great, you know, because all those folks could play.
Bob Pawlo: Is that what led you to meeting and working with Charles Mingus?
Howard Johnson: Yeah, it was. I wandered into the Five Spot one night when Mingus was playing there, and he had heard that Red Callender couldn’t make an upcoming Birdland gig. Red was his first string bass teacher but was also a great tuba player. He played on his 1964 “Mingus At The Monterey Jazz Festival” recording. And Mingus was really unhappy about that. So while I was there in the back trying to be unobtrusive, Jaki Byard pointed to me and said, “There’s your tuba player, right there.” And Mingus actually auditioned me in front of the audience.
Bob Pawlo: What did you play?
Howard Johnson: Oh, I think a medium blues or something like that at first. Then he said “Now when you were playing the solo on that, you were doubling up pretty good on the tempo. Could you play it up-tempo too?” I said “Well, sure.” And he said “You couldn’t play ‘Cherokee,’ could you?” I said “Sure.” So he had to hear that, and I played a couple choruses on that one. By this time the audience is…well, you know, I’m the underdog, right?
Bob Pawlo: They’re rooting for you…
Howard Johnson: Yeah, and I wasn’t very comfortable. Mingus wasn’t very comfortable either, but he hired me for the gig in Birdland, and that’s what exposed me to the rest of the scene.
Bob Pawlo: What was it like working for Mingus?
Howard Johnson: He was a great man. A great composer, arranger and bass player. A plus-sized personality, you know. He was a lot of times rather funny, he had a good sense of humor. And he also had a sense of menace. You know, when I first met him, he didn’t seem unhappy. But I didn’t know if he was going to punch me in the face or not.
Bob Pawlo: And you played tuba with his group?
Howard Johnson: Yeah, there’s a record of a live concert at UCLA’s Royce Hall for that band. It’s the only recording that band ever made.
Bob Pawlo: So doors opened.
Howard Johnson: Yeah. It was a big band at Birdland, so I got to be known by all the people in the band. I think I really didn’t know them before that, except for Joe Farrell and Garnett Brown. But a lot of people took my number and actually called for gigs. Jerome Richardson was doing a lot of contracting in those days, and he called me for a couple of things.
Bob Pawlo: So at this point you’re working for Mingus and others. What led up to your meeting and working with Gil Evans?
Howard Johnson: I was at the Five Spot with Mingus the next year and Gil came into the club. That’s who I wanted to come to New York and play with! So I managed to get myself a solo in the set, but after I went into the back to put my horn down and came back out, Gil was gone. What I didn’t know was that he had already gotten my number from Mingus, and he called me the next week.
Bob Pawlo: To work? For a gig?
Howard Johnson: Yeah, he was starting a band. He hadn’t done any kind of performing since Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall, which was in 1961. It was now ‘66 already.
Bob Pawlo: What was it like working with Gil?
Howard Johnson: Well, he was cool. He had so much knowledge. He had such great ears, and just such a personal concept, you know.
Bob Pawlo: What things did he stress for the guys in the band? What especially stood out?
Howard Johnson: Well, he just had an idea of how stuff should be played. He never told us ahead of time. He’d just play it, and if something wasn’t to his liking or different than what he wanted, he’d just tell you. And, you know, you can learn plenty that way from a master like that.
Bob Pawlo: Certainly. So now you’ve worked with Mingus, you’ve worked with Gil Evans. Is it at this point you met and worked with Oliver Nelson?
Howard Johnson: Yeah, that was in ‘65. At that time I was also working in Archie Shepp’s band, which was a wild avant-garde band. I was starting to do studio work too, with guys like Horace Ott and Teacho Wiltshire. Then the great baritone sax player Jay Cameron asked me to sub for him with Oliver Nelson at the Apollo for a couple of dates. So I was ready to go in there and make a big impression on Oliver. Then Jay called me at the last minute and said, “Oh, bring your bass clarinet.” And for some reason I said, “I don’t have a bass clarinet” instead of saying, “I’ve never touched a bass clarinet.” So he said, “That’s okay, I’ll leave you mine,” and hung up. So I said to myself, “Whaaaat?” I went up there and suddenly all the confidence and everything I was bringing in to playing the baritone for Oliver was replaced by my fear of tanking on the bass clarinet. So I went to the dressing room, found the bass clarinet, opened it up, and the first thing I realized was that I don’t know how to put this thing together! So, I had to figure out how to do that. I bent a couple keys doing it – and then started to play, first down in the lower register. I started to make my way over the “break” of the bass clarinet, where I really needed to work on a little more for the sound and the fluency. Then Oliver came in the room. He heard me – I sounded okay in the lower register. I told him that I was actually a tuba player – and that went nowhere with him. Because he figured, “How well is the guy going to play tuba?”
Bob Pawlo: But did you play the tuba with Oliver?
Howard Johnson: Oh yeah. All the things I did were mostly on tuba. But I was about to have an identity crisis, you know. I started playing the electric bass too. I played with Gato Barbieri for about a year and a half on electric bass.
Bob Pawlo: And when was it that you first became part of the Saturday Night Live band?
Howard Johnson: From the beginning. I was with the show for its first five years.
Bob Pawlo: What was that like?
Howard Johnson: Howard Shore, the musical director, called me to put together the band. I was the actual contractor. And so it started in ‘75. Howard invited me to his office and told me about it. And he was surprised when I said I’d be glad to help him out because it sounds like a decent project, but I didn’t want to be involved myself. And he, why not? Even if the show tanks, you get 13 weeks double-scale as contractor. I said “Well see, that’s the problem. It’s too regular. You know, the reason music sounds so bad on television is because the guys get comfortable with making that money and stop trying. They don’t wanna upset anything, they don’t wanna rock the boat, and they suddenly have turf to protect.” So Howard said “Well, if that’s the way you feel about it, you’re the right man. And get me some other troublemakers like you and we’ll have a great band.”
Bob Pawlo: Through your career, what are some of your most memorable performances and what made them special? What really stands out?
Howard Johnson: You know, too many stand out to say that. I was blessed to get some amazing calls. You know, at a certain point, people thought they would use the tuba almost like a gimmick. They would have it doubling the melody or something in another register and this was just such a corny idea. I never liked those very much. But then there were a lot of things where people had used their imagination and thought about the tuba in a way they hadn’t heard anybody play.
Bob Pawlo: Finally, what advice would you give to young musicians starting their careers in this day and age?
Howard Johnson: I don’t know that. You know, it’s all so different. I couldn’t come here now and do what I did then, because what I did then doesn’t exist anymore. And I never had the feeling I knew what somebody else should be doing. The union pension means a lot to me now, but I did far too many gigs off the books. I’m not suffering now, but it would have been all the better if I had done more union work. So my advice to young musicians is to work with the union as much as you can so you can have a better retirement.