By Emily J. Weitz
How many tuba players can you list? If it’s more than one or two, then you probably know that Howard Johnson is much more than a hotel chain. The regulars at the Bay Burger Jam Session are jumping out of their skin for this show. “He’s a LEGEND,” Jam Session founder Claes Brondal said.
So when I got to catch up with him last week for our monthly hit of Improvisational Conversations, I wanted the whole story. How did Howard Johnson come from Montgomery, Alabama, to New York City to play with the likes of Miles Davis, Quincy Jones, Marvin Gaye, and, perhaps most significantly to his own career, Charles Mingus? What a story he had for me.
Mr. Johnson will play the Bay Burger Jam Session this Thursday, April 28 at 7 p.m.
Mr. Johnson plays a bunch of instruments – the baritone sax, the flugelhorn, the pennywhistle – but he started out as a not-so-serious drummer in junior high school. Then he started on the baritone sax. Then one day, he found himself alone in the band room with a tuba. He noticed a similarity, in terms of fingering, with the saxophone.
“I just went over the fingering I had memorized on the saxophone,” he said, and I played the chromatic scale on the tuba. I just tried it and it worked.”
He didn’t realize the band director was watching him, and he never would have done it had he known someone else was in the room. Students weren’t allowed to touch other students’ instruments.
“He asked me when I started playing the tuba,” recalled Mr. Johnson, “and I said, ‘Just now, and I’m very sorry and I won’t do it again…’”
The band director couldn’t believe Mr. Johnson was able to pull that tone out of the instrument without ever having been taught, and he suggested he stick with it, and try the sousaphone in high school.
“I was just glad I didn’t get detention for playing the other kid’s horn,” said Johnson.
After high school, Mr. Johnson came to New York to see if he could make it in the big leagues. After about a year of struggle, his big break came.
“I wandered into a club called the Five Spot on a night when Charles Mingus had just found out his tuba player wasn’t going to be able to play at Birdland with him,” said Johnson.
Mr. Johnson, who was carrying his unwieldy instrument with him, was standing at the back of the club, trying to go unnoticed because he hadn’t bought any drinks or spent any money. But Mingus’s pianist noticed him: they had met before.
Mingus eyed Mr. Johnson.
“He said, ‘Yeah, he’s got a tuba, but can he play?’” Mr. Johnson recalled.
At that point, the audience was looking from one to the other: something was about to go down. So Mingus asked Johnson what tunes he knew. And Johnson, not meaning to be cheeky but just so very well prepared for this moment, returned, “What tunes do you want to hear?”
“The audience went ‘Whoaaa,’” recalled Mr. Johnson. “And I thought, ‘What have I done?’ And then Mingus said, ‘Oh you bad, huh? Come on up here. We’re gonna see about this.’ So I came up and auditioned right in front of the audience.”
His first rehearsal with Mingus was the next day at 2 p.m., and he played Birdland with him at the next opportunity.
“That’s when my career started,” said Mr. Johnson.
Since then, Johnson has traveled all over, playing with masters from across the jazz spectrum. He played with Taj Mahal in New Orleans, recording at the Fillmore East in 1971. The band had four tubas, which sounds like a lot until he notes that his current band, Gravity, has six tubas.
“Nobody anticipates what it’s going to sound like,” said Mr. Johnson. “People think the tuba only plays low notes but it has a great deal of range. It has the same range as the trombone, with a much richer, deeper sound. People say it sounds like the French horn, or the trombone. I said, ‘No. It sounds like the tuba. That’s what a tuba sounds like.’”
A quality of improvisation that I’ve noticed is that it comes from the heart. There’s no auto-pilot when you’re making it up as you go along. You have to be present. But Johnson feels the same can be true with a pre-written part, if you’re playing something meaningful.
“If you’re playing for Mingus, or Gil Evans,” he said, “the parts are interesting. They both challenged me. They wrote things down for me to play that I had never tried before. They stretched me that way. You feel like a hero playing those tuba parts.”