Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Johnson, Howard (Lewis)

Johnson, Howard (Lewis), tuba, baritone saxophonist, trumpet; b. Montgomery, AL, 7 August 1941. Besides his main instrument, tuba, he also plays trumpet, flugelhorn, four different clarinets, bass saxophone, electric bass, and pennywhistle. A self-taught musician, Johnson started on baritone at 13 and moved to tuba at 14.

During a term with U.S. Navy he met John Surman in England. He then stayed in Boston with the family of drummer Tony Williams. In 1962, he moved to New York City on the advice of Eric Dolphy, where he met Pharoah Sanders, another recent arrival. The day he bought his first tuba, he went to a jam session and played with Roland Kirk, Joe Albany, and Carla Bley, who was so impressed that she included tuba in every one of her bands until the late 1980's. In 1964, Howard went to watch Charles Mingus at the Five Spot; Mingus was upset because his favorite tuba player, Red Callender, couldn't make the next week's gig at Birdland. After being pointed out by Jaki Byard, whom he met in Boston, Johnson had a gig that lasted for more than a year a half and took him across the continent. During this time, he got to know John Coltrane, Monk, and Cannonball Adderley. Four days after hearing Johnson at a gig in 1966, Gil Evans called to invite Howard to join him in Monterey. That relationship lasted on and off until Evans' passing in 1988. Johnson also formed Substructure in 1966, a band that at one point included four tubas and backed Taj Mahal. He wrote arrangements for Maria Muldaur, Paul Butterfield and B. B. King while working with Mahal. Over the years, Howard has worked with Hank Crawford, Archie Shepp, Buddy Rich, Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner, Marvin Gaye, Miles Davis, Quincy Jones, The Band (with whom he appeared at Woodstock '94), Taj Mahal, and the Saturday Night Live Band (which he founded in 1975 and led in 1979). He formed a second tuba band Gravity. They performed on SNL, in New York and toured Europe. Johnson recorded with Jack DeJohnette's Special Edition, Jimmy Heath and Crawford again in the '80s. Throughout the '80s and '90s, he toured the world with George Gruntz,  Dizzy Gillespie, Abdullah Ibrahim's Ekaya, and more. He was heard on the soundtracks of Spike Lee's School Daze, Mo' Better Blues, Malcolm X, and Clockers. After a four year association (ca. 1990-4?) with the NDR  Big Band in Hamburg, Germany, he returned to N.Y. and has continued doing sessions and heading bands into the '90s.

Gil Evans; Keepin' Love New; Gravity; Arriva; Groove Elation

Ouellette, Dan, Blindfold Test: Howard Johnson, Down Beat, December 1996

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