Howard Johnson (jazz musician)

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Howard Johnson
Howard Johnson in 2013
Howard Johnson in 2013
Background information
Birth nameHoward Lewis Johnson
Born(1941-08-07)August 7, 1941
Montgomery, Alabama, U.S.
DiedJanuary 11, 2021(2021-01-11) (aged 79)
New York City, U.S.
Instrument(s)tuba, baritone saxophone

Howard Lewis Johnson (August 7, 1941[1] – January 11, 2021)[2] was an American jazz musician, known mainly for his work on tuba and baritone saxophone, although he also played the bass clarinet, trumpet, and other reed instruments.[3][4] He is known to have expanded the tuba’s known capacities in jazz.[5]

Johnson was known for his extensive work as a sideman, notably with George Gruntz, Hank Crawford, and Gil Evans. As a leader, he fronted the tuba ensemble Gravity and released three albums during the 1990s for Verve Records; the first Arrival, was a tribute to Pharoah Sanders.


Johnson was born in Montgomery, Alabama, United States,[1] but from the age of two was raised in Massillon, Ohio. A self-taught musician, he began playing baritone saxophone and tuba while still in high school.[1] After graduating in 1958, he served in the U.S. Navy before moving to Boston, where he lived with the family of the drummer Tony Williams. He then spent time in Chicago, where he met Eric Dolphy, before moving to New York City in 1963.[6]

In the 1960s he worked with Charles Mingus, Hank Crawford, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Archie Shepp,[1] and Hank Mobley on the album A Slice of the Top. He also began a long association with Gil Evans in 1966.[1] He was arranger of a horn section that backed Taj Mahal on Mahal's 1971 live album, The Real Thing, which featured three other tubists/multi-instrumentalists, Bob Stewart, Joseph Daley and Earl McIntyre. Johnson also played with the Band on their Rock of Ages live album,[1] The Last Waltz and into the new millennium with Levon Helm's band.

During the 1970s, he was the live band conductor of the Saturday Night Live Band; he can be seen in several musical numbers, including playing bass saxophone in the "King Tut" sketch and leading his all-tuba band Gravity in a featured performance on Season 3, Episode 17. Gravity was perhaps his best-known band.[4]

He led three tuba bands, collaborated with Tomasz Stanko, Substructure, Tuba Libre, and Gravity. He has recorded frequently. In 1981, he performed at the Woodstock Jazz Festival, held in celebration of the tenth anniversary of the Creative Music Studio. He had a minor role in the 1983 film, Eddie and the Cruisers as Wendell's replacement. He has also appeared in episodes of Matlock and Hill Street Blues. In 1984, he appeared as part of the Gil Evans Orchestra, accompanying Jaco Pastorius at the Live Under The Sky Festival in Japan.

Johnson accompanied James Taylor in a performance of "Jelly Man Kelly" on Sesame Street in 1983, and also on tin whistle when Taylor sings to Oscar the Grouch.[7]

Personal life[edit]

Johnson was father to David and Nedra. David (1964–2009) was an actor in New York, and lived in Brooklyn. Nedra is a blues singer and musician. Johnson died on January 11, 2021 "in his New York home".[2]


Howard Johnson with Pharoah Sanders (2013)

As leader[edit]

  • 1994: Arrival: A Pharoah Sanders Tribute (Verve)[8]
  • 1995: Gravity!!! (Verve)[8]
  • 1998: Right Now (Verve)[8]
  • 2017: Testimony (Tuscarora)

As sideman[edit]

With George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band

  • The George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band with Guest Star Elvin Jones (MPS, 1978)
  • At Zürich Schauspielhaus (Kenwood, 1981)
  • Live 82 (Amiga, 1982)
  • Theatre (ECM, 1983)
  • Happening Now! (Hat Hut, 1987)
  • First Prize (Enja, 1989)
  • Beyond Another Wall (TCB, 1991)
  • Blues 'n' Dues et Cetera (Enja, 1991)
  • Ray Anderson & The George Gruntz Big Band (Gramavision, 1994)

With Mario Pavone


  1. ^ a b c d e f Colin Larkin, ed. (1992). The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music (First ed.). Guinness Publishing. p. 1296. ISBN 0-85112-939-0.
  2. ^ a b "'SNL' alum, Taj Mahal sideman Howard Johnson dies at 79". The Mercury News. 2021-01-11. Retrieved 2021-01-12.
  3. ^ Yanow, Scott. "Howard Johnson". AllMusic. Retrieved 5 July 2018.
  4. ^ a b "Remembering Jazz Tuba Player Howard Johnson". Retrieved 2022-06-16.
  5. ^ Russonello, Giovanni (2021-01-14). "Howard Johnson, 79, Dies; Elevated the Tuba in Jazz and Beyond". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2022-06-16.
  6. ^ Feather, Leonard; Gitler, Ira (1999). The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz. Oxford: Oxford UP. p. 359.
  7. ^ Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street; Chapter 15
  8. ^ a b c "Howard Johnson Albums and Discography". AllMusic. Retrieved 2022-06-16.

External links[edit]