On July 27th, at Trumpets Jazz Club in Montclair, NJ, we will be celebrating the life, music and birthday of the amazing Howard Johnson! We will feature Howard’s big band charts of his music and arrangements of well known standards, such as Nica’s Dream by Horace Silver, and playing other charts of jazz standards that Howard has performed or recorded, and an arrangement of The Creator Has A Master Plan by our resident composer Russ Vines. (check out Howard’s version here)
To say that Howard Johnson is a national jazz treasure would be an understatement! What follows here in this post is a summary of his career written by our dear friend and excellent jazz journalist Elzy Kolb, who, for the past several months, has been creating daily posts on Facebook in celebration of Howard’s upcoming 75th birthday. Now in his 75th year (born Aug. 7, 1941), Johnson has been burning with the fire of bass-clef innovation since well before he took Eric Dolphy’s advice and moved to New York in 1963. By then, Johnson had already discovered that he could push the tuba’s range to previously unheard heights, surpassing the trombone and edging into trumpet territory. Though there was no existing repertoire for such unexplored territory in the early 1960s, Dolphy assured Johnson that someone with his ability would find plenty of work in the Big Apple. Almost as soon as he arrived in town, Johnson caught the ear—and joined the band–of Charles Mingus. The iconic bassist/composer wrote parts for him in such a high range “even trombonists wouldn’t welcome seeing those notes on the page,” Johnson says. Regardless, he always soared to the occasion, overjoyed by the challenge.
Johnson became the muse of other composers, including Gil Evans and Carla Bley, establishing relationships lasting decades. Every tuba player who came after has been challenged by the standard Johnson set. He believes the tuba can expand into a virtually unlimited range, based on the abilities of the player. By demonstrating his skills, he single-handedly moved the instrument out of its traditional place in the rhythm sections of large ensembles into featured roles in small bands.
He influenced musicians by expanding their ideas of the possibilities of the instrument, and demonstrated enormous generosity of spirit, mentoring other tuba players, past, present and future. He influenced jazz (and pop) composers and arrangers by bringing a heretofore ignored instrument to the front line of soloists, and changed jazz overall by altering the direction of how jazz used the bass clef—no more oom-pah-pah, but pure linear bop, swing and rock phrasing that could stand on its own against any other “typical” jazz solo instrument.
At a time when jazz-rock fusion was gaining traction, Johnson opened up the music without diluting the tradition, performing with an unwavering jazz sensibility as a founding member of the “Saturday Night Live” band. His writing, arranging and playing captured the attention and imagination of such pop culture icons as John Lennon, Paul Simon, Levon Helm and Taj Mahal; Johnson never dumbed it down, never resorted to spoon-feeding anyone “Jazz 101” level music. He has always been “The Real Thing,” as Taj Mahal dubbed the 1971 CD that debuted Johnson’s innovative multi-tuba brass choir, Gravity.
Approaching his 75th birthday, Johnson declares that he still burns to play, still has fire in his belly to solo, to increase awareness of the versatility of often-underutilized horns, and to continue to have his say on the definitive way to play them.
Since 1963, Howard Johnson has performed and recorded on a variety of instruments, including tuba, baritone saxophone, bass saxophone, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet, flugelhorn, electric bass, cornet, pennywhistle, E-flat clarinet, B-flat clarinet; credited on more than 600 recordings. He has made numerous contributions as an arranger, composer, educator, clinician, artist in residence, and vocalist.
Partial list of live credits: (* indicates NEA Jazz Master) Charles Mingus: 1964-1966; 1972-1974 Hank Crawford: 1965-1967 *Gil Evans: 1966-1988 *Archie Shepp: 1966-1968 Buddy Rich: 1966 *Gerald Wilson: 1967; 1972 Oliver Nelson: 1967; 1972 *Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra: 1968 Jazz Composer’s Orchestra: 1968-1970 (*Carla Bley, Mike Mantler, Cecil Taylor, *Pharoah Sanders) *Carla Bley: 1968-1975 *Quincy Jones: 1972 Taj Mahal: 1971-present The Band: 1971-1976 Gato Barbieri: 1974-1975 John Lennon: 1974-1980 Saturday Night Live: 1975-1980 (bandleader in 1979-’80 season) George Gruntz: 1976-2013 (including first jazz band tour of mainland China in 1991) *Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition: 1984-1987 Michele Rosewoman’s New Yor-Uba: 1985-present *Dizzy Gillespie Big Band: 1987 Abdullah Ibrahim: 1987-1990 North German State Radio (NDR) Big Band: 1991-1995 John Scofield: 1995-1996 *J. J. Johnson: 1996 Three Baritone Saxophone Band: 2004-2013 Charles Tolliver Big Band: 2004-2013 David “Fathead” Newman: 2005-2008 Levon Helm Band: 2006-2012 *Randy Weston: 2013-2014 (recording set for 2016 release) Johnson also appeared and/or recorded with *McCoy Tyner, *Andrew Hill, *Freddie Hubbard, Ray Charles, *Jimmy Owens, Jane Bunnett, T.S. Monk, Marty Ehrlich, Lee Morgan, Clifford Jordan, the Heath Brothers, Beaver Harris, Maria Muldaur, David Sanborn, Catherine Russell, Bob Moses, Hank Mobley, Thad Jones, Mel Lewis, *Gunther Schuller, Frank Strozier, *Cecil Taylor, B.B. King, Paul Butterfield, Bob James, Bill Dixon, George Benson, John Faddis, Leon Thomas, *Muhal Richard Abrams, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Muddy Waters, Carly Simon, and many others.
Howard Johnson as a leader: Substructure/Gravity: Multi-tuba brass choir (1968-present); Alumni include Bob Stewart, Joseph Daley, Dave Bargeron, Earl McIntyre, and others. HoJo Five (1988-present); With Erica Lindsay, Francesca Tanksley, Melissa Slocum, and others. Beartones: Multi-baritone band (2003-present); Alumni include Lisa Parrott, Claire Daly, Lauren Sevian. Other: Aided in design and development of Heritage Howard Johnson Gravity Meinl-Weston tuba. Clinics and residencies: Bowling Green University, Penn State, University of Missouri (KC), Texas Christian University, University of Akron, and Kansas State University, among others.
Discography as a leader (all on Verve): Arrival: (tribute to *Pharoah Sanders) with Nubia (1994); GRAVITY!!! (1995); Right Now!: Gravity with special guest Taj Mahal (1998). Partial discography credits: (* indicates NEA Jazz Master) Charles Mingus: Music Written for Monterey 1965 (1965), Charles Mingus and Friends in Concert (1972), Let My Children Hear Music (1972) Hank Crawford: Dig These Blues (1965), After Hours (1966), Mr. Blues (1967) *Archie Shepp: Mama Too Tight (1966), Things Have Got to Change (1971), Tray of Silver (1989) *Gary Burton: A Genuine Tong Funeral (1967) *Charlie Haden: Liberation Music Orchestra (1968) Jazz Composers Orchestra: Communications (1968) *Andrew Hill: Passing Ships (1969) *Pharoah Sanders: Izipho Zam (My Gifts) (1969) *Gil Evans: More than a dozen recordings released from 1969 through 2008 Taj Mahal The Real Thing (1971) Johnny Coles: Katumbo (Dance) (1971) *Carla Bley: Escalator Over the Hill (1971), Tropic Appetites (1974) Charles Tolliver: Music Inc. (1971), With Love (2007) *George Russell: Living Time (1972) The Band: Rock of Ages (1972), The Last Waltz (1978), High on the Hog (1996) Gato Barbieri: Chapter Three: Viva Emiliano Zapata (1974), Chapter Four: Alive in New York (1975) John Lennon: Walls and Bridges (1974); John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Double Fantasy (1980) Sam Rivers: Crystals (1974) Jaco Pastorius: Jaco Pastorius (1975), Word of Mouth (1981) *Dexter Gordon: Sophisticated Giant (1977) Clifford Jordan: Inward Fire (1978) George Gruntz: Nine recordings released between 1978 and 1994 *Jack De Johnette Special Edition: Album Album (1984) *Jimmy Heath: New Picture (1985) Spike Lee film soundtracks School Daze, Mo’ Better Blues, Malcolm X, Clockers (1988-1995) *Miles Davis: Miles & Quincy Live at Montreux (1991) Chet Baker: But Not For Me (1994) *J. J. Johnson The Brass Orchestra (1996) Tom Harrell: Wise Children (2003)
Our history with Howard goes all the way back to 2001! Our lead trumpet player, Mike Spengler, who was playing with the Ellington Orchestra, had asked Howard, who was also playing in the Ellington Orchestra, if he would like to bring in his music to our big band. Howard said he was interested and would like to talk to me. So I went to the performance at St Peter’s Church in the Citi-Corp building in NYC (which we also refer to as the “jazz church”), with jazz journalist George Kanzler, and I spoke with Howard before they went on stage. We talked a little bit about what he would like to do and agreed to call each other. He came in as our guest composer/performer August 29th of 2001, when we were still playing monthly concerts at Tierney’s Tavern in Montclair, NJ.
George Kanzler interviewed Howard and wrote an extensive article for the Star Ledger. Howard called Elzy Kolb and told her about the date and about our band. She called me for an interview and wrote an article in the NYTimes about the appearance. We had a full house the night of the performance, with people sitting on the floor and people sitting on each others laps, it was amazing! The love that this audience had for Howard was so moving!
We moved to Trumpets Jazz Club in 2003, but before we made that move, we performed at NJPAC’s Sounds of the City in Newark,NJ in August, and we produced another show for Howard, this time at the Burgdorff Cultural Center of Maplewood, NJ in October. After our move to Trumpets, Howard came in a few times to perform as a soloist on various compositions here and there. The next time he was featured was on a fundraiser that the band organized for me while I was recovering from a serious cancer operation. You can see clips from that performance on the mini-documentary that our good friend, resident photographer and film maker Dennis Connors made, “DMOCBB-A Sonic Party”. The next time that Howard was featured was our 14th Anniversary, and it was the first time I had brought the band back after my cancer operation, scheduled for Jan 26th, 2011, but we had to reschedule several times due to blizzards, until we finally had our performance in March. Parts of that performance are also in DMOCBB-A Sonic Party. The next time we featured Howard was last year on February 25th, 2015. Also on that performance was guest and emerging composer/bassist Charlie Dougherty.
I’ve also had the opportunity to perform with Howard outside of the big band. On March 1, 2006,I was honored to play the celebration of the unveiling of a tuba designed especially for Howard called the Meinl Weston 2011TA HoJo Gravity Series 4-Valve 4/4 BBb Tuba Standard!Here is a youtube video of Howard and the tuba maker explaining the technology of this tuba at Dillon Music and some shots of us playing at the J.J. Bitting Brewing Company, along with bassist Bill May and drummer Jeff Brillinger.
A few months later, July 2006, I accompanied Howard at the Summer Arts Cafe at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, NJ, presented by the Jazz Arts Project. This was an intimate setting that allowed Howard to play and reminisce about his career in music.The audience members were of course thrilled by his performance and by his stories.
In May 2014, I composed a piece in honor of Eric Dolphy called “Birdsongs for Eric”, which featured Howard on bass clarinet, and was premiered on the “Eric Dolphy:Freedom of Sound” festival, produce by Seed Artists. Also on that performance; Ken Filiano-bass, Michael Sarin-drums, Marty Ehrlich-flute, and Anton Denner-flute.
And now we arrive at our upcoming performance July 27th, 2016, to celebrate (a week early) Howard’s 75th birthday, and his 53 years of making music, contributing music to what at times seems like the entire musical community around the world! Howard has pioneered and pushed the boundaries of the tuba, both technically and musically and into musical genres that were new territories for the tuba. And as Elzy said in the summary of his career, it’s not just the tuba that he plays, but also baritone saxophone, bass saxophone, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet, flugelhorn, electric bass, cornet, penny whistle, E-flat clarinet, B-flat clarinet! Elzy is more than 100 days into her daily posts on Facebook with more posts to come with some of the most well-known names and best stories.Elzy often ends her posts with this post script and it’s one of my favorites…”And don’t forget, this man has a tuba “sitting in the corner, waiting to run riot.” And if he’s not at home, Howard likely has a penny whistle in his pocket, just in case some music is called for.”
See you at the party!!