HOWARD JOHNSON began by playing baritone sax, but his natural gift for the tuba was evident from the first time he picked up the instrument as a young teenager. It wasn’t just that he could produce a sound; he already knew how to play his school band’s parts by memorizing the other tuba players’ finger movements.
Howard made his way to New York in the mid 1960s by way of Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles, but once he settled in he never had to leave. He was embraced by both the post-bop and avant garde jazz circles and within a few years had played or recorded with Charles Mingus, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, Gil Evans, Bill Dixon, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Hank Mobley, the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, and many more. His career path began to shift in the early 1970s when he was asked by producer John Simon to put together a horn section for The Band’s Rock of Ages album and tour – and again later for The Last Waltz. Howard developed a relationship as the in-studio horn arranger for John Lennon and appears on both Walls and Bridges and Double Fantasy. He led the Saturday Night Live band for the first five seasons and can often be seen backing the guest musicians, and occasionally even acting in a sketch. Over the years Howard has also played with Miles Davis, Paul Simon, Taj Mahal, James Taylor, Muddy Waters, The Levon Helm Band, Carly Simon, Quincy Jones, Buddy Rich, Jaco Pastorius, and dozens more.
I visited Howard in his Harlem apartment to discuss his musical upbringing, how a chance encounter with Eric Dolphy brought him to New York, and the many diverse musical relationships he has built over his 50+ year career. The interview is accompanied by a performance by Howard’s tuba ensemble Gravity at the Harlem Meer in Central Park.
About Liner Note Legends:
Liner Note Legends is a documentary web series profiling veteran session musicians whose playing has been heard by everyone, but who still may not be household names. They are the players behind the scenes, appearing on hundreds of records with everyone from Elvis Presley to Miles Davis to Michael Jackson. They have the unique ability to fit into any musical genre, and likewise this series will attempt to give credit to the men and women who played on records of all musical styles, from experimental jazz to #1 pop records.
Previous episodes have featured keyboardist Bernie Worrell, drummer Steve Gadd, Nashville legend Charlie McCoy, and Motown / LA studio veteran Ms. Bobbye Hall.