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Remembering Jazz Tuba Player Howard Johnson


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Today, we're going to remember tuba player Howard Johnson, who, through his own skill and determination, carved a place for tuba in contemporary jazz. He died last week at the age of 79. In the 1960s and '70s, he played on jazz recordings by Charles Mingus, McCoy Tyner, Carla Bley and Charlie Haden. He was, for the most part, self-taught. And though tuba was his main instrument, Johnson also learned to play bass, clarinet, baritone sax, flugelhorn and electric bass. He led his own ensembles, most notably the band Gravity, which consisted of six tubas and a rhythm section and released several albums.


BIANCULLI: Johnson wrote arrangements for and was featured on rock albums by The Band, John Lennon, Taj Mahal and Maria Muldaur. And he helped form and then played in the original "Saturday Night Live" house band and even appeared in some of the show's musical sketches. Terry Gross spoke to Johnson in 1984. He told her about breaking into the New York jazz scene as a tuba player.


HOWARD JOHNSON: What I would do then is just go around and sit in a jam session, so - just to get the idea in people's heads that it was happening. And that wasn't particularly easy because people don't think in those terms, you know? They can't - they couldn't at the time figure out, what could a tuba possibly do in a small band setting, you know? But I was prepared. I was - came to New York to play jazz, you know, basically. And so I knew all the tunes. I knew all the changes. You know, and for me personally, I never really had much difficulty after being heard, you know? I mean, but writers were using the instrument very well in the '50s. They kind of discovered the instrument then.

Now, as it turned out then, what they could hear was a good deal more than a lot of the players who were available at that time could do. You know, they were writing things that the players were saying, well, you shouldn't write that for the tuba and everything, you know? And I made an effort to get heard by these folks and ended up working with some of them - Gil Evans, Oliver Nelson, Quincy Jones, Ernie Wilkins. And, of course, starting in '64, I started with Charles Mingus.

And he and Gil Evans actually stretched me. Like, usually, when a writer would call, he'd say, well, I have this idea. You see - the tuba can double the bass line, or the tuba can do - you know, it would always be something so simple to me but a real stretch - or so simple to a tuba player but a real stretch of his imagination, you know? But Gil Evans and Charles Mingus did ask things of me that I hadn't ever done before.

I used to get calls from Mingus every day when I was in his band. He had a speakerphone, a crude, early speakerphone where he'd put the phone in its cradle, and then he'd go across the room to the piano and say, can you play this? And he'd play something on the piano, you know? And I'd say, well, yeah, I think so. You know, I hadn't tried it before, but I said, you know, just write - I tell him, just write anything you want, you know, just anything you think it sounds like 'cause you got a - you know, a view of it that I don't have. You know, I learned from that.

But he would still call, you know? And because the phone was across the room, he would yell really loud, you know, although the speakerphone had an amplifier, didn't really need that. And he would say, (mimicking yelling) hey, can you play this? I'd be holding my ears (laughter).

TERRY GROSS: Could you sing one of the lines that he wrote that he thought would be very challenging but that worked really well into the piece?

JOHNSON: Can I sing one?

GROSS: Yeah.

JOHNSON: Oh, gee (laughter). I'll tell you what - that band never officially recorded that I was with, but it was a very unusual band of Mingus's. And there's a limited edition album that we recorded at a UCLA concert in 1965, also on Mingus's "Let My Children Hear Music" album. There's one called "The Clown's Afraid Too" and "The I Of Hurricane Sue." Those two were orchestra arrangements of things we played in that band. We would do like (vocalizing) - you know, like, just having that kind of phrasing. If you did that for regular symphonic tuba, you'd say (vocalizing), you know? But he would write things that were supposed to have, you know, that kind of phrasing and and very high things.


JOHNSON: There's some good writing by Bob Hammer on his album called "Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus" - has to do with singing, you know, when there's long chords being held. It has to do with singing up through the chords 'cause he's got, like, the bass trombone and the baritone sax covering the low notes. I really like that kind of thing. When I joined Mingus in '64, we played that music from that album and also the music that he had just - he'd just come back triumphantly from Monterey and his "Mingus At Monterey" album. The music he did there he he wanted to do in New York at Birdland. Red Callender was supposed to come out and play the tuba because he'd played it in Monterey, but he got studio commitments and couldn't come. And I wandered into the Five Spot one night, and Jaki Byard suggested, well, here's your tuba player. That's actually how I got into the band at all.

GROSS: How did you start playing in rock bands?

JOHNSON: Well, my very first experience as a professional musician was with my sister, who used to be what was called in the '50s an exotic dancer. That's somebody who dances in a very brief costume like a stripper does, only they can really dance. You know, it isn't just jiggle time, you know. And she would sometimes book herself at maybe four or five dances on an evening.

And I would come in with her, with my baritone sax at age of about 15 or so and talk the band into her show, you know, tell them what happens next, what kind of thing to play, give the drummer the tempo, you know, because she does a long thing with just the drums and then the band comes in. And then while she was getting dressed, I'd be maybe jamming on a couple of tunes with the guys. And then we'd take off for the next one, you know. And this was just about entirely rhythm and blues, rock 'n' roll scene.

So I've always known the music. I mean, in the '50s, you weren't considered a saxophone player if you couldn't play "Honky Tonk," you know that Bill Doggett old hit, you know. And so as the music developed over the years, I just kind of stayed with it. I played with King Curtis in 1965 and got connected with the soul recording scene at that time, you know, and did a lot of dates like that on baritone sax. So that just kind of progressed. I guess that went over to the rock scene with Taj Mahal. We did that band with Taj Mahal that did that album, "The Real Thing," live at the Fillmore East in '71. And later on in that year, I did "Rock Of Ages" with The Band.


THE BAND: (Singing) Was it something that somebody said? Honey, you know we broke the rules. Was somebody up against the law? Honey, you know that I'd die for you. They got your number, scared and running. But I'm still waiting for the second coming of Ophelia. Please knock on my door.

JOHNSON: I never had the sense that there was any kind of music that's not as good as some other, you know. There's no bad music. There's some bad playing.



JOHNSON: But if I could see myself in it, I would do it, you know. I mean, I did stuff with John Lennon, you know, I loved doing that, you know.

GROSS: What did he have you do?

JOHNSON: I actually came in just to play on his album "Walls And Bridges." There weren't any arrangements. And there was an atmosphere in the studio where nobody wanted to be the one to say, why don't we do this? You know, John himself had ideas, but he thought of horn players as real musicians as opposed to rock 'n' roll players, you know. And he was kind of shy of really communicating what he wanted, you know. So what I did was I decided, well, maybe, you know, let's try this or let's try that, you know. And none of that stuff ever got written down.

It was all done on - you play this and I'll play that and he'll play that. And I ended up being the arranger for the whole - I did all the horns for the album. I didn't do the rhythm section or the strings. But Lennon had these wonderful ideas about things that he just didn't trust that well, you know. And in the last three or so arrangements, I worked very closely with him. And his ideas, you know, are what really made it happen, I felt. And I just kind of filled some of them out, you know.

BIANCULLI: Howard Johnson speaking to Terry Gross in 1984. He died last week at age 79. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1984 interview with musician Howard Johnson, who found ways to popularize the tuba as a contemporary jazz instrument. In 1975, he began working with the original "Saturday Night Live" house band and was with that band for five years.


GROSS: How did you get into the band? '75 was the first year, wasn't it? Yeah. So how did that happen?

JOHNSON: Hard as it is to believe, that was nine years ago, folks.


JOHNSON: Well, actually, because I'd done some work with Geoff Muldaur as an arranger. His producer, Joe Boyd, was a friend of Lorne Michaels. Lorne was telling him that they had this band going to put together, and he had brought his own man to lead the band and be musical director - Howard Shore down from Toronto. But they didn't really know New York musicians, so they needed someone to contract the band, you know, and hire the musicians. And Joe suggested me for, you know, putting together bands 'cause he knew I'd organized the horn section for "Rock Of Ages" and Taj Mahal. And so he suggested me. Lorne told that to Howard, and Howard agreed because apparently that first month or so and I was with Mingus. When we went up to - in November of '64 when we went up to Canada to do a show on CBC, Howard Shore was, like, a high school guy. And he he heard that. And he kind of remembered me from then.

I actually (laughter) - I actually almost ended up not doing that one, too, because I told Howard when he first talked to me about it, I would give him some names. But I didn't really want to play because I didn't want to get tied down to a studio situation or be in some kind of network-generated sense of what the music should be.

GROSS: Did you think it would be like the Merv Griffin band?

JOHNSON: Yes, something like that, you know. And he said, well, if you feel that way, then you're definitely the man for us 'cause we don't want a band like that. We want this to be the best band on television, you know, which isn't that hard to do. But it was.

GROSS: (Laughter) Was it fun being in the band? I think that, like, during rehearsals, for instance, that the actors might have really played to the band.

JOHNSON: Oh, yeah. There was a lot of a lot of hanging out with the band, especially in our dressing room. The band's dressing room was referred to as the departure lounge. See, I can refer to that because I was one of four in the band who did not do any drugs (laughter). But the cast would come up there and hang out a little bit, but they couldn't hang with the band too much 'cause they had to be more together than that, you know.

GROSS: Do you think that your work has inspired music students to learn tuba?

JOHNSON: I don't really think so. Well, first of all, they don't know what it is, you know. Like I said, I haven't been overrecorded as a soloist or as doing what I do. I'm mostly recorded as what other people want.

I mean, I get calls from time to time from people who say, well, look, I want to get into jazz on tuba. What should I do? You know - and I said, well, you know, you don't kind of get into jazz. You know, it's either in your life, or it isn't. You talk to saxophone players, trumpet players and trombone players, keyboard players - you know, they're absorbing all this stuff from the music in a real personal way, you know - something they want to do with it themselves. Tuba players don't tend to have that kind of attitude.

So when they ask me things like that, they really - what they really want is for me to take them and show them how, you know. And I really think - I mean, see there wasn't any jazz education when I came up, you know. If you lived in Ohio, you know, and were 14 or something like that, you weren't going to any Berklee. And I wasn't going to just do nothing until such time as I could get some instruction.

Well, what did the people before any of that was happening do? They listened to the music. They learned it. They found a way to learn it. I mean, you know, who gave Sonny Stitt lessons? When I was trying to understand intervals in music well enough to learn to improvise by ear, I mean, everything was an interval to me. You know, I'd hear the - a car horn or a doorbell. You know, I'd say bing-bong - ope (ph) - minor third. There we go.

GROSS: (Laughter).

JOHNSON: You know? And I mean, you know, I just had to be tuned to that in every way 'cause there were no - I mean, I grew up in Ohio. Right? There was nothing on the radio, maybe two hours a week of jazz on the radio. I didn't have a record collection or a record player. I just kind of had to slide around to wherever the records were and listen to little stuff that I could take off the radio and try to learn. So I had to really absorb myself into it in a way that people don't tend to do if they have - you know, if they can just go to Berklee.

GROSS: Well, I'm glad it's worked out as well as it has 'cause I've enjoyed your music.

JOHNSON: Well, thank you.

GROSS: And I want to thank you very much for being here.

JOHNSON: OK. Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Howard Johnson speaking to Terry Gross in 1984. The jazz musician and tuba player and founding member of the "Saturday Night Live" house band died last week. He was 79 years old.

After a break, film critic Justin Chang reviews the new Netflix movie "The White Tiger." This is FRESH AIR.


Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.