Howard Johnson, 79, Dies; Elevated the Tuba in Jazz and Beyond
During childhood visits to his uncle’s house, Howard was first enchanted by live music. “He lived in a music club, and when I spent the night and slept on the floor, I could hear the bass line very well,” he recalled in an interview with Roll magazine in 2017. “And that was very satisfactory.”
A gifted student, he learned to read before he was 4 and skipped a class at school. His first instrument was the baritone saxophone; After receiving just two hours from his junior high school tape teacher, he taught himself the rest. A year later, he fully learned the tuba by observing the fingerings of other players as the band rehearsed. He would wait for everyone to leave the practice room, then tiptoe to the tuba and try out what he’d seen.
In the high school band, he lived from a friendly competition with his teammates. Many of them received private tuition but were left on their own. Mr. Johnson blew past them, stretching the instrument well beyond its normal range, maintaining a graceful articulation throughout.
“I thought I was playing catch-up – everything else I taught myself could be done by others,” he told Roll. “The ones who were the best in the section were like role models: I wanted to play like them one day. But by the end of that school year, I could play a lot better than her. And I could do many other things. “
After high school, Mr. Johnson spent three years in the Navy, playing the baritone saxophone in a military band. While stationed in Boston, he met drummer Tony Williams, a teenage phenomenon soon to be hired by Miles Davis, and there he met with other young jazz musicians. After his release, he moved to Chicago briefly, thinking it would be a good place to hone his skills before finally moving to New York. At a John Coltrane concert one evening he met the well-known multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy, a member of Coltrane’s band. When he mentioned his range on the tuba was the same as on the baritone, Dolphy urged him to move to New York immediately.
He said, ‘If you can do half of what you say you shouldn’t wait here two years. I think you are needed in New York now, ”Mr. Johnson recalled. “So I thought, ‘It’s February, maybe I should go to New York in August.’ I thought about it a little more and left six days later. “