Howard Johnson, Pioneering Tuba Virtuoso and a Fluent Baritone Saxophonist, Has Died at 79

Jan 15, 2021

A master of the low end has left us.

Howard Johnson, who presided for more than 50 years as the preeminent tuba player in modern jazz, while making celebrated forays into rock, blues and soul — and racking up nearly as much mileage on baritone saxophone — died at his home in New York City on Jan. 11. He was 79.

His longtime partner, Nancy Olewine, announced his death on Facebook, noting that he died after a long illness.

The tuba has a foundational history in jazz, stretching back to New Orleans brass brands at the turn of the 20th century. As the double bass took over, the tuba was relegated to the margins. Johnson not only helped bring it back into wider circulation but also exploded the range of possibilities for the instrument — in terms of tonal register, dynamic mobility and lyrical expression. As Morning Edition put it in a remembrance this week, Howard Johnson could make a tuba sing.

“He was like Dizzy Gillespie on the tuba,” his fellow tubaist Bob Stewart tells NPR. “He could play higher than anybody else, just like Dizzy could; he could play faster than any other tuba player. Harmonically he could hear all the things that he was playing, not unlike Dizzy Gillespie.”

That virtuosic capability brought Johnson into the heart of modern jazz at a moment of hurtling change. He appears on many important albums, including Andrew Hill’s Passing Ships, McCoy Tyner’s Tender Moments, Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, and Archie Shepp’s Mama Too Tight. He was a key asset for composer and bandleader Gil Evans, who wrote with his skillset in mind. (Stewart has recalled that when another tuba player was called in to sub for Johnson, it was always a struggle.)

Johnson had a foothold in pop culture starting in the 1970s as a charter member of the Saturday Night Live band, which he joined at the urging of musical director Howard Shore. He spent five years with the show, appearing in popular skits like Steve Martin’s “King Tut” (playing baritone saxophone). Johnson also toured and recorded with bluesmen Muddy Waters and Taj Mahal, and with rock royalty like John Lennon; he played on The Band’s Rock of Ages, and led the horn section on their farewell concert, memorialized by Martin Scorsese in The Last Waltz.

Here he is on Sesame Street with James Taylor, performing “Jellyman Kelly” in the early ‘80s.

Not content to broaden the tuba’s potential as a backing instrument, Johnson pushed it into the foreground, notably with his band Gravity. A showcase for an elite peer group, Gravity marshaled an improvising chamber choir of tubas alongside a rhythm section, playing arrangements that reflected Johnson’s insight as an orchestrator. For an illustrative example, hear the way that he and his cohort — including Stewart, Joe Daley, Earl McIntyre and Marcus Rojas — breathe life into Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments,” from the Verve album Gravity!!! in 1995.

Howard Lewis Johnson was born on Aug. 7, 1941 in Montgomery, Ala., and raised from age 2 in Massillon, Ohio. He later described his upbringing as hardscrabble — his father, Hammie Johnson Jr., was a steelworker, and his mother, the former Peggy Lewis, a hairdresser — but there was always music playing in the house.

Johnson began playing baritone saxophone in his middle school band. One day during a break, he picked up a tuba and began playing around with it, fascinated by the similarities in pitch and fingering. The band teacher, on walking back in, did a double take: “Who taught you to play the tuba?” The answer was no one, and this remained true throughout Johnson’s career; on his signature instrument, he was a self-made virtuoso.

In a 2000 interview with Bass Magazine, Johnson recalled that an unspoken pecking order in his high school band — with self-taught players at the bottom — only motivated his progress. When one student asked him how high a tuba could go, he admitted that he had no idea. So he began to test his own limited, discovering that at its extended upper register, the tuba sounded almost like French horn.

Credit David Redfern / Redferns/Getty

“So I added that new octave to my warm-ups,” he said. “At that point, I’d probably been playing about six or eight weeks. I was highly motivated. I didn’t want to look like a fool.” He added:”It was at that point that I decided not to let anybody tell me what the limitations were of the tuba or of the music.”

Johnson served in the Navy for three years after high school, playing baritone saxophone in the Navy band. After his discharge, he picked up the tuba again, and began plotting an eventual move to New York. A chance encounter with multireedist and flutist Eric Dolphy inspired him to accelerate his timeline, and he moved to New York in 1963.

In short order he was playing with Charles Mingus, Hank Crawford and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, among many others. Carla Bley featured him in her arrangements for Liberation Music Orchestra and Gary Burton’s A Genuine Tong Funeral, and on her own Tropic Appetites and Escalator Over the Hill. Johnson played a key role in the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band — as he did with Gil Evans, who assigned him the melody in an arrangement of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile.”

The depth of Johnson’s contribution on tuba might seem to overshadow his achievements on other instruments, but versatility was his calling card. Examples of his baritone sax playing abound, on albums by Jaco Pastorius, Muhal Richard Abrams and David Sanborn, and on Album Album, by Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition. Johnson also played bass clarinet and flugelhorn; he excelled on pennywhistle, which he played with Taj Mahal, James Taylor and others.

But of course, the tuba was his legacy. Meinl Weston created a signature tuba to his specifications in 2008, and he is mourned by a broad coalition of tuba players, in and out of jazz.

In addition to Olewine, Johnson is survived by his daughter, singer-songwriter Nedra Johnson; and two sisters, Teri Nichols and Connie Armstrong. A son, David Johnson, died in 2011.

Before he passed, Johnson left instructions that seem wholly characteristic: in lieu of flowers, he asked that donations be made to the Howard Johnson Tuba Jazz Program Fund at Penn State.