Catching up with Howard Johnson by Marty Erickson, Associate Editor for Jazz
As part o f my “Catching Up W ith ………’ series, on October 22, 2000 I had the opportunity to visit with tuba ja zz artist Howard Johnson and learned that he had a lot o f strong feelings about our instrument, mainly stemming from a pure love of the sound of the tuba. He most recently was honored at the N ew York Brass Conference and was the featured tuba jazz artist at our recent ITEC in Regina Saskatchewan last June. Here are some highlights from our phone interview.
Marty Erickson: Good morning Howard. Thanks so much for doing this interview as part of the “Catching Up With…” series. We were able to spend some great times together at the last ITEC and your performance there was a huge hit. Congratulations and thanks again.
Howard Johnson: Only too glad.
ME: Most of the folks in our organization know about you as the bari sax/tuba player on the first Saturday Night Live Band and the leader of the tuba jazz group “Gravity,” so why don’t we start there. How did the SNL gig come about?
HJ: Well, in the 70’s I had a reputation for being able to put together “happening” horn sections for rock groups and things like that. I had done some of that for the group called “The Band” and for “Taj Mahal,” and for several recording projects. One was for a producer named Joe Boyd. I guess you do those things and you don’t know what sort of impact that has on other people. After that, SNL’s producer, Lome Michaels ran into Joe Boyd at a party on the West Coast, and was telling him about this new project he was starting (which was “Saturday Night Live”). The only problem was that the musical producer he really wanted was from Toronto, and that was Howard Shore. Howard didn’t really know the New York musicians or who might be interested or could do the job. It was going take a while to pull all of that together, so what they needed was an “in town” contractor who knew all the cats. So Joe Boyd gave Lome my number, and Lome gave it to Howard Shore. Howard called me and invited me up to his office, which I was able to do, and he explained the whole thing to me. At that point I said I’d be glad to help you out and to give you some names, but I don’t want to be involved. Howard (Shore) said: “Well, why not? At the very least, this will be thirteen weeks of work, and it might turn out to be a good opportunity.” I said I didn’t want to do it because it was too “regular.” This is was in 1975 by the way. Anyway, guys get a position like that and they suddenly develop some “turf’ that they haven’t had before. They spend a lot of energy just defending that turf and keeping the job, and that makes the music always sounds like that.
ME: In other words, you wanted more diversity, or didn’t want to get “pigeonholed” with one kind of style.
HJ: Yes, or just having to adhere to that corporate “thing,” you know. So, he (Shore) said; “Well if you feel that way about it-you’re the man for the job. Just find some other trouble makers like you and we’ll have a great band. So I thought of Tom Malone and Alan Rubin. You see, in a situation like that, we have sort of our own union and didn’t have to take any “guff” from the Stage Managers’ or Actors’ unions.
ME: So you decided to sign on then, in 1975?
HJ: That’s right. That was in September and we started rehearsals in October.
ME: Back at that time, was the baritone sax your primary vehicle?
HJ: Yes, that was my “chair” in the band. They used the tuba sometimes; in fact they used to use (Tom) Malone on tuba sometimes. He’s a good tuba player.
ME: I see. Now, you were contracting the band for the show. Were you also leading the band at that time or did that fall into somebody else’s hands?
HJ: In the fifth year, they scaled the band down a little bit from the big horn section. The guys then were me, Malone, and Dave Sanborn in the fifth year. THAT year I was the band leader. I called myself the “nominal” band leader because I didn’t have nearly as much to say about things as I wanted to. All it really meant was that I had to wear that stupid headphone on my head.
ME: (Laughs) At this time, were you writing any charts for the band?
HJ; A few I did – yeah.
ME: Is this where your group “Gravity” started happening, or was that a separate project? I remember seeing them on the show.
HJ: Well that was in the fourth year. “Gravity” started in 1968 as a group called “Substructure.” 1 had to change the name because nobody could remember the name. They’d say “Sub – what? Sub’terranian, sub-basement, substandard…” I don’t know… everything BUT Substructure. But the people who followed us back then knew because they had a meaningful experience and connected with the band you see.
ME: Sure. Who were the guys in the band “Substructure” then?
HJ: It was myself, Morris Edwards, who was a bass player and actually played a Mehellion B-flat tenor tuba with a tuba bore, but bigger than any euphonium.
ME: Okay, you, Morris, and who else? HJ: Morris was playing the lead and Dave Bargeron (also with Blood, Sweat and Tears band) was playing second on E-flat tuba. Jack Jeffers played third and Bob Stewart played fourth in the ensemble. I was basically out front but would sometimes drop in on the third part. I didn’t like doing that, so after about a year of doing that, I added another tuba player and had a five horn ensemble.
ME: Who was that new tuba player?
HJ :I think what started happening was that Joe Daley and Earl McIntyre started being in and out of one of those chairs. Actually, it was more Joe Daley, because Earl would take Dave Bargeron’s place with the E-flat.
ME: Now what was their background? Were they bass players or tuba players? HJ: Well, they were basically kids. I met Earl when he was a 12-year old bass trombone player who couldn’t reach sixth or seventh position. He was interested in playing the tuba, and I helped him get started on that. Joe was a tuba player who would do gigs on valve trombone because there was more work for trombone.
ME: Sure. Was “Gravity,” or “Substructure” a group you started because you liked the sound of the tuba and wanted people to hear what it could do, or because of musicians you admired and wanted to put together? Tell us about the thought process you went through.
HJ: Oh! It was very definite, very clear. I was tired of people like Thad Jones and Ernie Wilkins and people like that declining to write tuba parts because they were afraid if I couldn’t play it, they wouldn’t have anybody who could handle it to their satisfaction. They wanted to write a little more “hellified” tuba parts and I wanted to show them AND the world that I wasn’t the only one, and that there were more right now, and there were more (tuba players) coming! So what I was trying to do was expand opportunities for tuba players.
ME: Oh sure—as a comparison, we can look to Harvey Phillips in the “legit” and educational field so to speak, and see that this is what he was trying, and IS continually trying to do in every musical idiom.
ME: The importance of your effort is not only that it happened, but that it happened in arguably the highest impact area from a media standpoint. That’s how you were trying to bring more players into the picture. HJ: Plus the fact that some BETTER
playing was needed.
ME: So when the writing wasn’t there, was this an impetus for you to write more, or did you have other people writing for “Gravity?”
HJ :I was the ONLY one writing for the group, except for one chart by Warren Smith.
ME: Did your arrangement of Yesterdays come out of that group (the arrangement we played at ITEC) or was that a separate thing?
HJ: Very good question Marty – what it started out as was…….well, I was on the west coast in 1967 and started thinking about it back then, and as soon as I got back to New York, I was going to do that. But, I came back to town and ended up doing a great jazz record. I got involved with Gil Evans on a Danish film score, with Freddie Hubbard’s High Blues Pressure, McCoy Tyner’s Tender Moments, and a great session with Andrew Hill, and then with Carla Bley and Gary Burton. So with that quality of stuff I said “there ain’t no way I’m going back to the coast!”
ME: So that was in 1967-68?
HJ: That’s right, and I decided to go back and terrorize my old friends at “Your Father’s Moustache,” one of the banjo clubs in town, which is where I actually met a lot of great tuba players – people like Dave Bargeron who was playing trombone at that time, and in 1967 I met Bob Stewart. He would drive up from Philadelphia and arrive about 11:30 or midnight and we’d play for several hours and just talk about ideas, and that’s when I wrote the first two parts of Yesterdays – as a duet for us to play together. I added the other two parts later. The interesting thing about that was that Bob would drive up for 5:00 p.m. rehearsals every Thursday just because he wanted to be involved. I couldn’t ask him to make that drive because of the distance, but he wanted to be a part of it and made the trip. This was when he was part of the “Father’s Moustache” band. I had the idea that I wanted a euphonium player to play the lead, but he didn’t show up, so I played lead and Bob played the fourth part. I figured a quartet arrangement should work and Yesterdays only goes up to an “F” above the staff, and I don’t consider that a very high note, so I couldn’t predict what the sound would be like, and we were absolutely knocked out at what the sound was like! We knew we had something that didn’t exist before.
ME: While there were (and are) great players on the west coast, guys like Roger Bobo and Tommy Johnson, etc. there wasn’t really an organized group like yours then. H
J: Well, I get the feeling that there was not a lot of transcribing for classical tuba either, as if to say; “well if the “greats” (composers) weren’t writing for it, why trust it now?” That may have kept the idea of a tuba ensemble from breaking through until later, you know.
ME: Okay. Well, let’s backtrack a little now. I know many of our readers will be interested to hear how you got started. Did you start on the saxophone?
HJ: Well, I never started out intending to be a professional musician or anything like that. The best way to put it is that I didn’t know it was going to happen, and I had no say in it.
ME: (Laughs) So what was your first instrument and how DID you get started?
HJ :I found a baritone sax in the band room, and I was showing off to some girl that I could tell what instrument was inside each case just by looking at it. This case had this camel-hump-looking thing in it, and I had no idea what it was. Even after 1 opened the case, I still didn’t know what it was. 1 had been clanging around in the percussion section for a year-and-a-half and the band director, a guy named Max Reed, was tolerant, but as far as he was concerned, I was just one of the clowns in the band, you know….. and he definitely didn’t need me clanging around on the cymbals, so he said: “That’s a baritone sax, you want to play it?” 1 said; “well, what’s it sound like,” and he said to meet him the next day and find out. 1 met with him and he told me how to deal with the reeds and how to play a G scale (concert Bb) on the sax. TTie thing was that in Massillon, Ohio, where this was, 1 learned how to read the notes in the first grade from the music teacher who came monthly. In order to teach elementary school at that time, you had to know how to play piano, and there was a piano in every classroom.
ME: That’s great….very unusual. Probably even more unusual today….what a privilege.
HJ: Yeah, and 1 didn’t find out until later that it wasn’t that way all over the world. Also, they provided instruments for everyone. Since then, I have heard people say that they wanted to be in the band, but there was no instrument or no uniform. We had everything. Anyway, Mr. Reed said we would meet for lessons every day, which was great for me because 1 got out of study hall. After the second lesson, his schedule had changed and he couldn’t teach. So I took it home, joined a young summer school band, and just began learning all of the other keys on the sax myself without a fingering chart – 1 just found them.
ME: So, did you stay on bari sax through high school? When did the tuba make its appearance?
HJ: One year later, at a different junior high school, 1 was in a small, not very good band. The bari parts weren’t very interesting, and 1 would play the tuba parts on the sax. So, 1 was developing very slowly – no teacher and no good parts. Anyway, 1 began to notice that what I had to do to get from Bb to G on the bari, was exactly what the tuba players did: open to 2nd, to first, to first and second. I thought, “wow, that’s weird,” so I started watching the tuba players to see how they played things. On a conscious level 1 learned their fingerings and wondered if 1 could actually apply that, but there were very strict rules about not playing anyone else’s school-owned instrument. 1 waited until Mr. Reed was out of the room and went over to one of the tubas and played a Bb chromatic scale down and back up. When 1 was halfway down the next scale and looked up and saw that Mr. Reed was standing there, so 1 put the horn down and scrunched back over to my own chair. 1 was thinking that I was SO busted, but he came over and said; “how long have you been playing the tuba?” 1 said listen, I never played it before and I’ll never play it again – 1 promise. (Laughs) He said; “No – who taught you to play,?” 1 said that 1 had just watched the other tuba players. He said: “Who taught you how to get a tone?” and I replied: “Do I have a tone?” Mr. Reed replied that some players start out with a terrible sound for weeks, and he had apparently liked my sounds. He suggested that 1 get into the marching band on tuba, because there was more competition in the drum section and sax section then, and four bass players were graduating. That was fine, but the ONLY thing that registered with me was that 1 WASN’T IN TROUBLE.
ME: Let’s move on from there. Were you doing some gigging on the side?
HJ: Not so much, except that in those days my older sister was what they called an “exotic dancer,” which meant that she wore a brief costume and did a kind of special dance. She didn’t remove any clothing and she really had to be able to dance. So, she would be hired on weekends in the Cleveland, Buffalo and Youngstown area, and it was hard to get around, but when she had me, my little 15-year old self, come in with a baritone sax, which most bands didn’t have, to play… First I had to see what tunes the band knew, because she liked to come out to Satin Doll and a lot of these bands only knew the blues in a couple of keys. I’d do a slow version of St. Louis Blues, and if they didn’t know that. I’d play the melody. When she was changing. I’d jam with the band, and that was my first experience playing. After that gig, we’d get into the car and go to the next place. That way, we could do three or sometimes four gigs in one night. I would make fifteen bucks a night! That was big bucks back then, especially for a teenager. But, it gave me some much-needed experience. Sometimes there was just a guitar, so I had to learn how to play in all the sharp keys. It’s like putting up a building. The foundation doesn’t have to be pretty, but it can hold up the rest!
ME: I know the feeling. My first gig was as a 15-year old bass player with a combo, playing for a local fashion show at the Steams Hotel in Ludington, MI. I made $8. But I learned “singers’ keys.” Where did you go from this point? I do know you spent some time in the Navy.
HJ: Well, 1 felt that I was more or less an astute kid, and I figured that there was no way there wasn’t going to be a war in the early sixties, so 1 thought I’d get in and out of the military before that happened. I auditioned for the School of Music right out of high school in 1958 and enlisted as a “MU” (musician’s rating) before going to boot camp. I auditioned on the bari sax and the tuba, what 1 play to this very day. But when I got through boot camp, I was informed that I couldn’t major on bari sax because that was an “easy” instrument, and they only put the worst of any given five sax players on bari. If I were going to be a sax player, it would have to be on alto or tenor AND be able to play clarinet. 1 wasn’t interested in that. Now, if 1 was a tuba player, 1 had to double on string bass and I WAS interested in that. But, I had hurt my hand in boot camp, so when I went to get my instrument, the guy issuing the instruments couldn’t deal with any of this and said: “You’re going to play the alto sax and clarinet,” and sent me on my way. I never played them very well, because they didn’t interest me. My teacher was a guy with a real bosun’s mate mentality, and he couldn’t deal with me at all. He was actually a pipefitter, but found out that musicians out of boot camp were second-class petty officers at a much higher pay rate and got into music – but he hated musicians! We were not a “match made in heaven.”
ME: (Laughs) So what happened then?
HJ: After one year, 1 left as an un-grad and shipped out to sea as a bosun’s mate on the aircraft carrier the “Wasp.” I spent my last three years not playing. All the Navy gave me was some big band experience, which 1 had never had. My class had a great lead alto player named Steve Griffiths.
ME: Well, Steve was a good friend of mine who finished his Navy career with the U.S. Navy Band Commodores big band when I was there. We were good friends. He was a phenomenal player and a great guy.
HJ: Yes, he came from the Detroit school, and there WAS a Detroit school. Steve was the one who discovered that 1 didn’t know the approach to learning the “Bird” tunes, and things like that, and he taught me that approach to the music. In fact, he taught me everything and is responsible for the jazz musician 1 became.
ME: That just reinforces my opinion of Steve. He taught me a lot of things about how to play a gig and how to learn tunes as well and was patient with everyone who cared about learning.
Gravity – L to R: Joe Daley (Kneeling), Carl Kleinsteuber, Bettina Wauschke, Hojo, Dave Bargeron, Earl McIntyre
Once again, this idea of the “older” guys teaching the next generation is an important part of the process. Well, after the Navy in 1962, what was next?
HJ: While 1 was in Boston, serving on the “Wasp,” my Mom asked me to look up a former neighbor whom I liked a lot. The neighbor asked me if I was still interested in jazz. When I said yes she said that her roommate’s son was a great jazz drummer, even though he is only 14 years old. This turned out to be Tony Williams. So, the three years I was in Boston 1 hung out with Tony and got keyed into the scene there, and played a lot with the best players in Boston.
ME: Who would you say were the most influential people in your life musically after that experience?
HJ :I think that, instead of any one pivotal point, 1 just got on a good path starting with my sister, who introduced me to musicians in Columbus and Cleveland, Ohio. They taught me a lot. They told me “you’ve got a lot to say – you say it so well yet, but you keep on like you are, and you’ll be saying what you want to say with your horn.” They could have cut me up on the bandstand back then, because 1 didn’t even know the bridges to any tunes, and didn’t know you needed to know that!
ME: One of the common denominators among many of us who have achieved some success is this relationship with older, more experienced musicians who were patient with us and encouraged and inspired us. Rather than slamming us for inadequacies, they pointed us down the right path.
ME: Of all your experiences, where would you say you experienced the most growth as a player?
HJ:1 get asked that question a lot, and there’s only one answer – Mingus and Gil Evans. As a tuba player, they asked me to do things nobody had asked before. They made me think differently about my instrument, and apparently had these things in their head, and weren’t able to get what they wanted from other players to that point.
ME: Did (Charles) Mingus use you as a solo voice often?
HJ: Not a lot. Sometimes I had to beg for solos, but the parts were demanding and rather exposed.
ME: What about Gil Evans?
HJ: I did most of what Gil did between 1966, when he came to meet Mingus, until 1988. He stretched me and got some things from me that I didn’t even know were possible. One of those happened during a recording session in 1968 with Gil and Miles Davis. On one tune, FalUng Water, 1 had to play with Ron Carter, who was playing with a bow. It required me to play with a very light sound, but 1 had to project, concentrating on pitch and a focused sound. It was such a beautiful fit with Ron, and I incorporated that into my playing.
ME: If you had to advise young musicians who love jazz on how to get started playing jazz and improvising…?
HJ: This is where my thoughts are mostly unsanctioned by the educational community, because I think before you even get to any jazz education thing, you have to look pretty deeply into yourself, and not come there as a completely blank slate. People think that’s what they have to do, and that’s how they miss some really important stuff, you know. Before there was a system, everybody came into it the same way. They heard the music and said: “Hey, that’s me in there. That’s just the way I want to express myself.”
ME: That’s a great statement. In many ways, that’s how I came into it – -from listening to my Dad’s jazz records as a kid and hearing people like J.J. Johnson, Gerry Mulligan, and Clifford Brown, and wanting to make those sounds on tuba.
HJ: Yes, and you don’t need to take the next step until you make a commitment, not only to music, but also to your life. What used to really distinguish musicians and was created by being around musicians was what characters they were. So many people just learn to play licks and play well, but they have no sense about who they are or what they are trying to express. You have to listen and have your heart open enough to really get the message. I don’t know of anyone who didn’t zero in on the part of jazz that they could get the quickest. Then, they really become artists when they go back and listen to what was going on before the kind they were interested in and make that connection. Even if they go forward and listen to the really far out music, the point isn’t how open you were to any one thing, the point is being open! Years ago, a group of five of us would go into a place called “Slugs” on East Third Street. I lived very near there, and we would go almost every night, sometimes the whole night, listening to every band. We would talk about all of them because we checked out their sounds, and we knew what we were talking about because we listened.
ME: Listening is always going to be one of the keys. Based on your listening history, what are some of the most influential or inspiring CDs you’ve heard?
HJ: It would be heavy in favor of Gil Evans, but what just recently jumped to the top of that list is the J.J. Johnson “Brass Orchestra” record. It had six trumpets, four french horns, two tenor and two bass trombones, and a section of two euphoniums and two tubas! Of course, almost anything by Clifford Brown has to be up there because that was my main influence, not so much in what I played, but what I got from his personality and what he was. One of the recordings that comes to mind was a recording called Sonny Rollins Plus Four but later released as Three Giants, which included Sonny, Clifford, Max Roach and more. There was a tune called Kiss and R u n where they were trading fours, and what Clifford did was some of the most spontaneous playing ever. It’s one of my favorite tracks of all time. It’s a great CD too.
ME: Great stuff Howard! We’re getting to the end here, but I wanted to touch briefly on the disturbing news you’ve gotten recently. This is the esophageal cancer, which will require surgery very soon. Would you mind talking about this?
HJ: There’s so much I don’t know, and the doctors don’t know yet, but I ought to be able to play. Major surgery can go a lot of ways, so the way I’m looking at it is this. It’s not only the surgery, but other things that are happening with my life. I’m looking forward to a better situation – better life, better accent on things I want to do. How much I can play and what I can play is a hundred percent up to me. Nobody is going to tell me “your playing career is over.” It might be, but it’ll be because I exhausted every possibility. This doesn’t really disrupt my process, because I’ve always thought about doing things a new way. This just becomes part of my new way of doing things.
ME: Plus, you’re not a one-dimensional person, which is something I admire. You’re a player, a writer, a creator and all of those things are still intact obviously.
HJ: I’m just really a blessed guy you know. I’ve had a lot given to me, and I want to give out a lot more.
ME: Thanks for sharing that Howard. Do you have any last thoughts or bits of advice for young musicians?
HJ: Basically, they’re on their own. They have to make out of their talent what they can. What they think of will be more potent than what is out there waiting for them. Don Harry, at the very first ITEC, once talked about too many of us becoming teachers who are going to teach other teachers to teach teachers. We’re like a giant beehive, and everybody’s consorting with the queen, but there ain’t no honey getting made. What it is, is that there’s nothing you can study that can prepare you for what is going to happen. You’re going to adjust to things from being in the real world. A fixed community in academia, in orchestras – that’s all waiting for you. You know what’s going to happen in that. If you want to ask anybody, anybody can tell you. If you’re going to make your own experiences, you’re going to learn some stuff you can only learn that way. Some of it will scare you to death, and some of it will kick your behind, and some of it will make you happier than you ever thought you could be. You’ve got to be out there to have those experiences. I think people get robbed when they go right from studying to teaching, and that may seem hard-lined and inflexible, but there is so much more out there waiting for you to start it. If you know that you’re not going to go out and stimulate anything, maybe teaching is for you, but then you will be able to give your students less than you would have otherwise.
Howard Johnson: A Short Discography
Howard Johnson has recorded with counrlL-ss “roups in thousands ot sessions on insrrumenrs ranKin” from penny whisrle to ruha. Because ot space limitations and the specilic interests of the reailetship, we will limit this diseo^raphy to a tew alhiims with other jazz norahles and on which he plays tuha. 1 le appears on many, many other jazz alhum.s and with pertiirmers from a wiile ran“e ol other musical styles from Yoko Ono to James Taylor. With Gravity: • Arrival (Verve) • Gravity!!! (Verve) • Ri}.’ht Now (Polyitram) With Taj Mahal • Happy Just to he Like I Am (Mobile h’idelity) • Recycling the Blues and Other Rehited Sniff (Mobile Hideliry) • An Hveitinj.’ of Acoustic. Music (RFR) With Miles Davis and Gil Evans: • The CJompleto Columbia Recordings (Sony) With Gil Evans • Blues in Orbit (Enja) • Sveiiftali (Wea International) • There (.!omes a Time (BMC^ International) • Priestess (Antilles) • Live at Sweet Basil (two volumes) (Evidence) With Charles Min(>us • Music Written for Miinterey, 196t (JWS) • Ler Mv Cdtildren 1 lear Music (C ailumhia) • Wirh Orchestra (IVnon) With McCoy Tyner • Tender Moments (t’apitol) • Jazz Prolile (Blue Note) • The Tiirnint; Point (Vetve) • The Best ot McCJoy Tyner: The Blue Note Years (Bltie Note)
The Journal has been following Howard Johason’s health situation as cKxsely as possible. In December as we approach pre.ss time, we are pleased to report that his surgery was intleed successful. According to the doctors, all cancer was removed and no chemotherapy or radiation will be necessary. The prognosis is that he will be playing the tuba again after his recovery in several months.