When news spread yesterday of Howard Johnson’s passing, I reflected on how he was in many ways the consummate musician. If all he had ever done was evolve jazz tuba to an unprecedented level, his place in the history books would be secure. But there was so much more – brilliance on the baritone saxophone, skillful work on multiple other brass and wind instruments, visionary bandleading, capacity to thrive as a soloist or as a supportive ensemble member across a vast range of styles. And the couple times I had the pleasure to hang out with him a little confirmed why I’ve literally never heard a single person suggest he was anything but a joy to be around, which is a major part of the gig too.
In the interest of covering a lot of ground, I had to make some tough choices here and omitted noteworthy music by David “Fathead” Newman, Carla Bley, James Taylor, Charles Mingus, Andrew Hill, Archie Shepp, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Bob Moses, George Gruntz, Joseph Daley, and many others. Here are ten of my personal favorites, in chronological order.
1 ) “Next Time You See Me” from After Hours by Hank Crawford (1966)
I agonized a bit over this, as HoJo is not technically a soloist here (though his honking baritone saxophone doubling of the boogie-woogie styled bass line is quite prominent). But his low end is such an important part of, by my count, ten (!) of Hank’s soulful albums over a 30 year stretch.
2 ) “Cakewalk Into Town” from Recycling the Blues & Other Related Stuff by Taj Mahal (1972)
My first exposure to HoJo was seeing these two perform this song on “Night Music” when I was in high school, and their duo recording of this cheeky blues tune from nearly 20 years prior is still my all-time favorite example of a tuba blues bass performance.
3 ) “Thoroughbred” from Svengali by Gil Evans (1973)
I first got into this album as I was obsessively collecting albums featuring Ted Dunbar (an important mentor of mine) and HoJo’s wonderful solo follows Ted’s, though his ensemble work on this arrangement of a Billy Harper tune is also not to be missed. Indeed, this is just one among the many lovely examples of Howard enriching Gil’s writing over a nearly 20 year span.
4 ) “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” from The Last Waltz by The Band (1976)
The live version of this song is one of my favorite rock performances. I’ve always attributed that to Levon Helm’s transcendently soulful vocals, but then I tried to imagine this without the fat-bottomed tuba line and I just couldn’t do it.
5 ) “Kram Samba” from Remember Me by Frank Strozier (1976)
Howard’s tuba blends wonderfully here with the trumpet of Louis Smith and the important but oft-neglected saxophonist Frank Strozier, and all of them (as well as recently-departed piano giant Harold Mabern, Frank’s longtime collaborator and fellow Memphis native) contribute fiery solos – I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to be able to burn like this on tuba, but he does.
6 ) “Monk’s Mood” from Album Album by Jack DeJohnette (1984)
HoJo’s tuba and bari are vital parts of the ensemble work (alongside John Purcell and David Murray) throughout this underrated and truly gorgeous album. He solos wonderfully on both axes throughout the album, including his tour de force baritone saxophone feature on this lush arrangement of the classic Monk ballad.
7 ) “African River” from African River by Abdullah Ibrahim & Ekaya (1989)
On this album, Howard (characteristically enough) plays multiple instruments in the horn section alongside John Stubblefield, Horace Alexander Young, and Robin Eubanks. His gnarly baritone saxophone solo here is a highlight of the record.
8 ) “Tell Me A Bedtime Story” from Right Now by Howard Johnson and Gravity (1996)
An ensemble revolving around low brass? Why not? And if someone would have the equity with other tubists, it would be HoJo, hence the formation of his awesome group. This arrangement of the Herbie Hancock classic is full of tuba delights, though Howard himself soars over the top throughout on pennywhistle.
9 ) “Light in the morning (Many thousand gone)” from News On the Rail by Marty Ehrlich (2004)
Marty’s lush, creative textures lean heavily on Howard’s artistry and versatility throughout this album – I picked this tune for how it features his work on bass clarinet.
10 ) “Fly With the Wind” from Testimony by Howard Johnson and Gravity (2016)
On this, from the most recent Gravity album, Howard pays homage to pianist McCoy Tyner, on whose albums he played in both mid-sized group and big band settings. He solos here on, of course, tuba, alongside solos of low brass co-conspirator Dave Bargeron and pianist Carlton Holmes.