GEverything about him was important: his external appearance, his creativity, his self-confidence, not least his instrument. Howard Johnson rediscovered the tuba for modern jazz, which was critically endangered after its natural habitat, the streets and squares of New Orleans, for parades, Mardi Gras parades and opulent funerals had shrunk and jazz made its way into the glamorous Dance halls the Roaring Twenties had held. But Johnson also knew that the image of instrumental curiosity that later stuck to the tuba could not be changed through musical understatement, but rather through exaggeration. With “Gravity” in 1968 he created one of the most original ensembles in the long history of jazz: With six, sometimes even nine tuba players in a band, it was a declaration of independence from the musical accompaniment and at the same time impressive evidence of the solo suitability of the deep brass instrument.
With his melodic tuba playing and his choral line-up of the instrument, he drew the attention of numerous big band bosses who occupied him as composer, arranger and soloist. Johnson was a member of the bands of Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Quincy Jones, soloist and arranger for the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, various experimental ensembles from Gil Evans and Carla Bley’s lavish jazz opera project “Escalator over the Hill”.
His tuba gluttony with four instruments also had a spectacular effect when the blues musician Taj Mahal performed in the legendary Fillmore East in the early 1970s. Thirty years later, Johnson recalled these performances with the recordings “Gravity !!!” and “Right Now!” And played one of the most atmospheric interpretations of Thelonious Monk’s classic “Round Midnight”.
After brief engagements in popular productions by John Lennon, Marvin Gaye, The Band and BB King, Howard Johnson returned to jazz in the mid-seventies and joined George Gruntz’s orchestra for the scenic oratorio “The Holy Grail of Jazz and Joy ”in Graz and shifted the focus of his activities more and more to Europe, where he worked with Peter Herbolzheimer, recorded records for labels such as ECM, ACT and MPS, was heard at many festivals and for five years from 1991 to have been a member of the NDR big band in Hamburg.
Howard Johnson was the leading jazz tuba player, but began his career as a baritone saxophonist, which brought him together with the most important representatives of the most diverse styles – bebop, cool, funk jazz and free jazz – and caused a sensation on this instrument too; 1985 at the Jazzfest Berlin with his all-star ensemble for baritone saxophonists. Johnson, who was from Alabama, died in New York on Monday at the age of seventy-nine.