Howard Johnson’s Hornspiration: There’s Always Room for Something New

by Kay Cordtz

Update January 11, 2021. Sad news arrived today that Howard has passed after a long illness. He was one of a kind!

Updating Howard’s Event Schedule:
On January 29, 2017, Howard will appear at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem as part of an extended celebration of his 75th birthday.
Melissa Slocum (bass), Yayoi Line (piano), and the great Newman Taylor Baker (drums) join the fun. More Info here:

Howard new CD: Howard Johnson and Gravity – Testimony
2017 CD is soon to be released on Tuscarora Records
Until then, you can check out 2 cuts from the CD on SoundCloud here.

Howard Johnson is a foremost tuba, baritone sax and cornet player who has recorded and toured with an all-​​star roster of musicians for more than half a century. He got his first break from Charlie Mingus, was mentored by Gil Evans, became (and still is) a longtime cohort of Taj Mahal and Levon Helm, and spoke with John Lennon on the night he died.  He leads Gravity, a first-​​class tuba choir, and a German-​​made tuba bears his name. Recently he sat down for a lengthy interview with ROLL magazine in his Harlem apartment.

How did you come to be a tuba player?

I have a thing for low pitches — the bass voices in our church choir, the sounds that came through the floor at my uncle’s place. He lived over a juke joint and if I spent the night and slept on the floor, I could hear the bass line very well. And that was very satisfactory. When I was in the junior high school band in Ohio, trying to be a percussionist, the tubas and the sousaphones had their bells pointing to where I was and I could hear what they were playing. I liked it a lot. But I never thought of playing the tuba, it just didn’t occur to me. Actually, it was totally by accident that I ever started to play the baritone sax.

The bandleader suggested I try it. He definitely didn’t need me in the percussion section, clanging around on cymbals and stuff like that, which he considered clowning. But he had a schedule that left him in our junior high school for about an hour-​​and-​​a-​​half with nothing to do. He said that he would teach me to play in that time, since I had a study hall that I was glad to get out of. But then the long-​​asked-​​for change in his schedule came through, so he had only two opportunities to get with me. In those two days, he taught me how to handle the reed on the saxophone and he taught me two scales. It was around April so he said, ‘Take it home and see what you can find out about it.’ So I effectively taught myself to play the baritone sax that way. I was about 12 at the time, but I was a year ahead in school so the rest of my class was 13.

Howard Johnson's Tuba by Catherine Sebastian

Howard Johnson’s Tuba by Catherine Sebastian

How did you progress from baritone sax to tuba?

After about a year, I was in a different junior high but with the same band leader. I noticed that the baritone sax parts in a concert band are like tuba parts and the reason they’re probably like that is that if you don’t have any tubas in your band, you’re gonna make one of your saxophone players play the baritone — hopefully the one who doesn’t play as well as the others so that the notes are covered. It’s not the majesty of the tuba, it’s more kind of oinky than that. So it’s oink oink instead of oompah.

I noticed that not only are the parts similar, but some of the fingering was similar between the brass instruments with three valves and the saxophone. I thought that was pretty interesting. Whenever there was a note coming up that I didn’t know the tuba fingering for, I’d stop and watch them and learn what that note was – just out of curiosity. I learned a lot of things that way. It occurred to me that maybe I could play a chromatic scale on the tuba since I had the knowledge of the fingering. So I tested it out, but I had to do it surreptitiously because you weren’t allowed to touch other players’ school-​​owned instruments and that band director was very strict about that. So I waited until he left the room and I played my chromatic scale on the tuba, down and then up and I was about to do something else when I looked up and he was there and watching me. It was already May at that time, just a few more weeks left in school and I thought, ‘I’m going to get detention until the end of the year.’

The band director said, ‘How long have you been playing the tuba?’

I said, ‘I’m very sorry and I’ll never do it again.’

He asked me how I learned, and I said I learned the fingering from watching the tuba players. He asked how I managed to get a tone.

And I said, ‘I don’t know, do I have a tone?’

He said, ‘Yeah, you really do. People play that instrument for weeks, sometimes months, without being able to get a solid tone. And you just played a chromatic scale.’

He said, ‘You’re going to go to the high school band next school year and they are not only going to do halftime shows at the football games, they’ve been invited to the Tournament of Roses parade in Pasadena. There’s a lot of competition among the drummers and you were never that good. They don’t march a baritone sax but they’re graduating five seniors from the tuba section so they need somebody and it would give you the best chance of making the band. I’d say your only chance.’

So did that convince you?

Actually I put my mind on something else, because all I really got out of that conversation was ‘no detention.’ If he didn’t give me any detention, I was cool. But the next day I got a call to go to the high school and speak to the band director. What I didn’t know was that my band director called the high school one and told him he had found a kid who could play the tuba. The other band director asked when I learned to play .

Well, he says he just started today.’

The high school band director couldn’t believe it and that’s why I was summoned to go down there. But I didn’t know what was going on.

He said, ‘Mr. Reed says you can play the tuba.’

I said, ‘I just was trying out on some kid’s horn and he caught me.’

He asked what I had played, and I said that he must have heard me play a chromatic scale, and he asked me to play one for him. He put a sousaphone on my shoulder and I did what I had done the day before. And he looked at me and looked very suspiciously. I was just a ninth grader, but not emotionally a ninth grader, since I just turned 13 in August.

He asked me to articulate the scale in triplets, so I did that. It was a bit rocky coming back up, but I did it. Then he gave me a piece of music – a march or something like that – and I played that. All of a sudden, he slammed his hand down on the desk and said, “Who’s been teaching you to play? Tell me right now!’

He couldn’t believe that I could have just started yesterday and be able to play that well. And I said, ‘Well I did it, but I ain’t doing it no more!’

Howard with fellow Washington High School Marching Band member Margret Steffens, Massillon Ohio, 1958.

Howard with fellow Washington High School Marching Band member Margret Steffens, Massillon Ohio, 1958.

After he got me calmed down, he said I might be able to make the high school band if I played the tuba. I didn’t know there was anything unusual about what I did. I didn’t know that people did struggle and didn’t want to play it and weren’t motivated. The way I put it is: There’s not much I could have done in my life to avoid becoming a tuba player. It was on its own track by the time I got on it.

So you were a born tuba player?

I have a certain kind of thing with my visual input that other people don’t have. I literally did learn to play by watching the others, because what they were doing meant something to me on an unconscious level. It’s just a total coincidence that I did what I did at that moment and not when the director was safely out of the way. But it’s the same brain system that allowed me to read when I was 3 ½ because my sisters would read things to me that I memorized and I would take the books and pretend I was reading. And I knew it said ‘Hickory, dickory, dock’ but I hadn’t studied them consciously. One day I had a comic book and noticed that in the dialogue balloons, there were a couple of words that I knew.  I was started to scan for words I knew and suddenly, I knew them all! That just happened during the scan and it didn’t seem strange to me at all because it was so natural. I thought that’s how it is. You’re not able to tie your shoe properly and then one day you can. I thought reading must be like that.

You had something special right away?

There was only one other person who was even trying to do what I was doing, and he was getting over even though he was not very good. He was just a year older than me although we were in the same class.  But he acquired a tuba, and I was so envious. I had been playing around with the baritone sax, but I kept telling people I was a tuba player. Their idea of what a tuba player does was what this other guy did. And it was frustrating to have to say, ‘I don’t play like that.’ His whole physical approach to it was totally wrong — he was a guy with a big overbite in his jaw and a big gap in his teeth and he played the tuba with his teeth clenched. But if you listened to what he played, he had good ideas and real soulful conception but he was just not able to execute. And he had the same idea as a lot of people – after all, it’s a tuba! What do you want?

The first year that I played, I rapidly developed a really powerful upper range. I thought I was playing catch-​​up — that all the stuff that I taught myself to do, the others could already do it. There was a dynamic in the band between the kids who learned in school and the ones who took private lessons. And I didn’t even learn by the school route. The ones who were the best in the section were kind of like role models, I wanted to play like them someday. But by the end of that school year, I could play much better than they could. And I could do a lot of other things.

Like what?

I developed as an arranger because I was already listening to jazz and I had a little band.  I was surprised to find out that if you have a band, you can’t just go out and buy the music. There were stock arrangements but I didn’t really know what else to do. I would think, ‘My part should go like this, and the melody should go like this, and for these two other voices I can find some good notes in between.’ I’d never heard of an arranger.

When we were coming back from the Rose Bowl on the train, I talked to an older guy who had his own band. I told him about my little kid band and what we played and he asked about the instrumentation, and who was the arranger.

I said, ‘We don’t have one of them.’

And he said, ‘Wait a minute, where does the music come from?’

I said, ‘I write out all the parts,’ and he said, ‘So you’re the arranger.’ I had never heard of that before.

What drew you to jazz?

I was listening to everything. I listened to not only the Grand Ole Opry but to WWVA Jamboree from Wheeling, West Virginia, Friends and Neighbors, and there were radio stations that had gospel programs. The jazz programs would be like Duke Ellington, and Count Basie, but there was a new station that was a bebop station. They had Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon and they were very exciting because their music sounded like they were taking chances. They were being very much in the moment and the notes came out as they would. Finally I developed favorites. I still liked all kinds of music, but my favorites tended to be on the bebop station – Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, some of the west coast people too. I found out later that I mostly liked the west because it was simpler stuff and I could learn more about it but after a while I couldn’t dig the west coast at all except for a couple of players. But I decided that I was gonna go as far as I could in that music. I felt like I had something to offer. There was always room for something new in that scene and there was quite a lot of support in it.

Howard Johnson by Catherine Sebastian

Howard Johnson by Catherine Sebastian

When did you start playing professionally?

My older sister Terry was a dancer. At first, she was not encouraging about me being a musician because she had some friends who were musicians who were like starving artists. But after she decided that I might be good enough to make it, I was doing most of my gigs with her. She’d come to a party where they rented a hall and she did a 20-​​minute dance thing that was kind of exotic. They called it “exotic dancing” but that didn’t mean what it does today. You had to be dancing, not just wiggling. People really liked it. And if I went with her, I could save her a lot of time by dealing with the band and being in her show. If I was there to help her, she could maybe book three gigs in a night, although we mostly did two.

One night she asked me if I thought I could handle myself with some ‘real’ musicians. So I sat in with this friend of hers in Cleveland. I did a couple of really clumsy things. Like there’s a tune called “Midnight Sun” and I didn’t know the bridge, the middle part. I didn’t know the bridge to anything, I didn’t know you had to learn that part. They decided to close the set with an ‘up’ tune. I agreed, but I didn’t know they meant up-​​tempo. They started the tune and I was like, ‘oh shit’ so I blew a couple of choruses of the blues and bailed out of that. I don’t know what it sounded like to any of them, but it was kind of safe. I knew these notes could work but I didn’t know if any of it was getting across. When they came off the bandstand, I was very contrite and I wanted to go hide but I just sat there and owned up to it.

I said, ‘I don’t want you to think that I think that’s how I should play.’

And he said, ‘You got the wrong idea! You come in here, you’re in tune and you’re all fired up and you bring a lot of spontaneity to the bandstand. That lets us know that however well you say it, you’ve got something to say.’

In those days, if they really wanted to compliment a guy, that was the biggest compliment: ‘That cat is saying something. He’s not just holding his horn, he’s not just running his notes, he’s saying something.’ So that was major encouragement. They could have used that same incident to slam me. But they were particularly encouraging and so I kind of had that like a protective cloth. I could go out and play with anybody within reason.

What I was doing on the tuba was not being done in jazz or anywhere else. There was a prescribed role for it in classical music that was maybe interesting and challenging, but it wasn’t like jazz where you can just go everywhere and really tap into your expression.

How did you get to NY?

After high school, I was in the navy and sent to Boston. There I met the great jazz drummer Tony Williams, who was about four years younger than me. I was 18 and he was 14 and he was already the baddest drummer in Boston. And between him and the best cats in Boston and the guys who were going to Berklee School of Music, like Chick Corea, Skip Beckwith, I had a pretty good environment to develop. But I didn’t think I was ready to go straight from Boston to NY after I got out, so I had an idea to spend two years in Chicago, being around some good cats to be able to develop and also be able to buy a tuba, because I didn’t have one! When I had been there three or four months and working in a Montgomery Ward warehouse, I went to see John Coltrane at a club. He had Eric Dolphy with him and I started chatting him up. He was very interested in what I had to say about the tuba because he thought it had a lot of problems. And I said I could pretty much play on the tuba whatever I could play on the baritone sax. He said, ‘You don’t mean like up tempo.’  I didn’t have this deal where I’m gonna become a tuba innovator, I just wanted to be a jazz musician. I wasn’t thinking about that, but it started coming out like that at certain points. So he said: ‘If you can do half of what you say you can do, you shouldn’t be waiting two years here, I think you’re needed in NY now.’ So I thought, ‘It’s February, maybe I should go to NY in August.’ I thought about it some more and I left six days later.

When and how did you finally get a tuba?

Howard Johnson by Catherine Sebastian

Howard Johnson by Catherine Sebastian

A couple days after I arrived in NYC, I went up to Manny’s on 48th St. to start looking around for tubas. They all cost over $1,000. A guy who was actually a painter had this really big tuba and I tried to play it but I was just hopeless. He sent me to Walter Sear, who had one that was $900. So I said I’d like to try it out. I was so excited to have a tuba in my hands, I didn’t warm up or anything. I just started blowing all the shit I knew and he was knocked out. He said he’d like to see me play his horn because he designed it too. Actually he modified it, it was a basic Belgian manufacturer’s design but he changed a lot of things on it. And he let me have it for cost, which was $450. So I did what I had to do to get the $450 together and the next day I went to a jam session. In those days, people who could play — even great people — came to jam sessions and that’s how I met Roland Kirk (Rahsaan Roland Kirk), Paul Bley, Carla Bley, Joe Albany, Jimmy Wormworth, and I played until I just couldn’t play anymore. My chops were sore and I couldn’t play in my usual register so I said, ‘Ok, I’m started.’

What was your first big break?

I guess the big break came about a year and a half later. I was coming from somewhere and I had my tuba and wanted to stop into the Five Spot on the corner of 4th St. and the Bowery. I went to hear Charlie Mingus’ band and I was trying to be unobtrusive, trying to look small in the back in the dark. I heard the band coming out from the back and Jaki Byard played piano in the band and I sort of waved to him. Now In ’64 Mingus had a triumphant concert at the Monterey Jazz Festival. That was in September, and this was late October. He had it recorded and pressed and sort of out in the world by mail order. He took some musicians from the east but he also used some who live out in California, including his first bass teacher Red Callender, who was also a tuba player, a very good tuba player. They’d just done the Mingus in Monterey thing and they wanted to do that same music at Birdland here. Red Callender was supposed to come out and play the tuba part. Mingus was mad at the two New York tuba players who purported to be jazz musicians, but he had just gotten a call from Red Callendar saying that he couldn’t come east, he couldn’t get away from his studio commitments. So Mingus was pretty unhappy about that because rehearsal was supposed to be the next day. Jaki Byard was from Boston and I had met him before but he didn’t really know my playing on tuba, he just knew I was a good baritone sax player. He told Mingus, ‘There’s your tuba player back there.’

Now Mingus called every group he had The Jazz Workshop. One of the reasons was it gave him license to do anything with the music and the musicians on the stage. When he addressed the musicians, he did it on the microphone. When Jaki said, ‘There’s your tuba player,’ he went on the mic — he always had a built-​​in suspicious look, his brows were always knitted — and he said, ‘You mean that kid back there?’ By this time, the audience was looking around and Mingus said, ‘Well, he seems to have a tuba but can he play it?’ And Jaki said, ‘Yeah, I think he’s pretty good.’ And Mingus said, ‘But does he play behind the beat like other tuba players?’ and Jaki didn’t want to commit to any more so he said, ‘Why don’t you ask him?’ So now the audience is fully engaged, right? And he looks at me with that suspicious look and he said, ‘What tunes do you know?’ Now I didn’t understand this question, because what tunes do I know? I know everything I need to know! I’m a jazz musician, right? I knew the bridge to everything by then. So when he said what tunes do you know, I was confused. I wanted to answer so I said, ‘Well, what tunes do you want to hear?’ And the audience went whoooa…and I’m like, oh shit, what did I do? And Mingus was known to punch people out. It wasn’t really true, but he was known. But he said, ‘Oh, you bad, huh? Come on up here and let’s see about this.’ So it was Jazz Workshop and he auditioned me right there. I wasn’t too worried about that because I knew that even if I didn’t play that well, it would exceed expectations. But he started getting really detailed.  We started off with some blues tune and when he stopped the band, he said, ‘In your last chorus, you started doing some doubling up,’ in other words, not playing eighth notes, playing 16th notes in my improvisation, in my solo. So he said, ‘You couldn’t play an up-​​tempo tune like that, could you? You couldn’t play a tune like ‘Cherokee’?’ That was a standard fast tune for jazz musicians in those days. And I said yes, so we counted off ‘Cherokee’ and I did a couple of choruses of that and he stopped the band again and said, ‘Ok, you’re hired. Rehearsal is here at the Five Spot tomorrow at 2.’

So that was your ticket.

Howard Johnson by Catherine Sebastian

Howard Johnson by Catherine Sebastian

Playing at Birdland, I got to know a lot of people. No one knew anything about me at all but even just playing Mingus’s parts, they were hearing something they had not been hearing before. That’s where I met Jerome Richardson — he took down my number for studio work — John Coltrane, because he was on the bill, and an unknown comic named Flip Wilson, his first gig of that type in New York. Mingus didn’t take the big band everywhere, but in November we were going to play that same music in Toronto, Canada for the CBC. Mingus had gotten work visas for the other New York guys and he called and said he wanted to bring his new tuba player. They said, “It’s not possible, you’ve already got six Americans and even if all the rest are Canadian, it’s too many visas.’ He said, ‘Ok, just find me a Canadian who can play tuba and baritone sax.’ So I went to Canada, my first time out of the country.

In 1965, Mingus had written a lot of new music and he also had done a reductive score of some of the Monterey music. He was working with a new band, which wasn’t a real big band but it had three trumpet players — all specialists — his usual alto sax player and the great Julius Watkins on French horn. There were six horns altogether, bass and drums. We did a couple of weeks in each of the summer months at the Village Gate. The first one was opposite Thelonius Monk and his Quartet, the second one was with Cannonball Adderley’s Sextet and the third one was with the Les McCann Trio, so these were pretty great shows.  I think it probably cost $6 to get in. Even in 1965, that wasn’t too much. So that was my first couple of years in NY.

Got any Thelonius Monk stories?

One time Mingus came in the room, and Monk stood up with a big smile on his face and said, ‘Hey Ming, what’s happening baby?’ They were obviously very fond of each other.  Monk was holding a cigar box and he came over and shook Mingus’ hand and he said,  ‘Hey Ming, ya wanna get high?’ And Mingus was not any kind of druggie but this was an example of pure peer pressure. So he said, ‘Yeah, Monk’ and Monk said, ‘Me too!’ And he opens this cigar box and he has a variety of colors, sizes, shapes of pills and he reaches in, takes a handful, doesn’t even look but throws them in his mouth and chokes them on down. And he says, ‘Yeah, Mingus come on.’ And Mingus was looking to identify something, and finally took a handful and threw them down too. I was like oh shit! Mingus says, ‘Man I don’t know what that shit was, I don’t know what it’s gonna do to me. You guys keep an eye on me and take charge if I start getting too far out.’

Did you ever get to play with Miles Davis?

I did occasionally. But the day that I came to NY, I called Tony Williams — we left Boston the same week: I went to Chicago, he went to NY — and woke him up. — And he was hardly awake but he said come on over. So I go over and when I got up there he was putting his coat on, and when we got on the sidewalk he said, ‘Man, I’m about to explode. Something happened that I can’t tell anyone about. You’re the only one I can trust with the information.’ I thought he was going to say he had cancer or something, but he said, ‘I’m opening at the Vanguard Tuesday with Miles Davis.’ Now this was his dream job from the time I knew him when he was 14, he wanted to play with Miles. The previous year, we’d been hanging out with Jimmy Cobb, Miles’ drummer, all week. Tony wanted to sit in with Miles, but Miles never acted like he was interested at all. Finally Jimmy Cobb said, ‘I don’t want to discourage you, but Miles said the last thing in the world he wants to hear is some 16-​​year-​​old kid fucking up the drums.’ So Tony went backstage to talk to him about it and Miles wouldn’t talk to him. He said [in Miles’ voice — HJ: Most people do his voice when they quote him]  ‘Sit out there and listen.’  And Tony said, ‘But I just…’ and Miles goes, ‘I said just sit down there and listen.’ He said, ‘But can’t I…?’ and Miles is like, “Motherfucker did you hear what I said? Sit out there and listen, you might learn something.’ And that was going to be it for Miles. This was less than a year later, and Tony said, ‘I don’t want anything getting back to Miles that I’m saying I got the gig or anything like that, that will ruin the deal. And I said, ‘I won’t say nothing to nobody but I’m going to be in the front row at the Vanguard on Tuesday.’ So that was beginning of a long association with Miles for Tony. The only things I ever did with Miles in those days were studio presentations, and Tony was on those.

Later that year, I got invited to the second annual Berkeley Jazz Festival at UC– Berkeley with Gil Evans. Miles’ people had put this whole thing together without talking to Gil about it, and Gil was miffed about being handled like that so he didn’t want to do it. I huddled up with Darlene Chan, who put on the festival, she was a junior that year. I’d played that festival a year earlier with Gerald Wilson’s band from LA and I knew that Darlene was totally competent. And I wanted to go and play with Gil! So I got Gil and Darlene together on the phone and they worked everything out. And that was the first time I played with Miles.

Is there one of these musicians who you consider your mentor?

If we’re talking mentors, I have to say Gil Evans. He came to a gig that Mingus had and I thought, ‘Oh wow, Gil Evans, here’s my chance to meet him.’ I took my horn in the back and when I came out, he was gone! What I didn’t know was that he had asked Mingus for my number. He called me a few days later for a gig. And for the next 22 years, I did most of what he had to do.

Who else did you play with in your early days in New York?

I did a lot of playing with Archie Shepp, and also Hank Crawford, the great Memphis alto player who played with Ray Charles a lot. He played baritone sax and then moved to alto and was section leader of Ray’s first big band. He had a nice band, playing real soulful stuff. I was in the high-​​energy avant garde band of Archie Shepp when out was really “out.” I went in there with this thundering headache and had to play high-​​energy tuba and just not even let up for a good hour and a half. I found out that when I was blowing the tuba, the pressure equalized and the headache abated. And as soon as I was taking a breath, it would come crashing back in. And so I started blowing again. As long as I kept blowing, that headache was gone. And the guys in the band said, ‘Man, you were furious tonight!’ I never had another headache like that and I rarely have one now. When I say rarely I mean maybe two in the last four years.

Did you live anywhere else before settling in New York for good?

I went to LA at the beginning of 1967. I had a two-​​year plan then too, but I only lasted nine months. And I tried living in LA another time in 1972 and I said I’d give myself eight months this time, but I only lasted two. It’s not the place for me. When I was living in LA, I practiced a lot and developed my high register even more and I realized that if you’re in a big band and in the trombone section mostly you don’t have to play as high as what I was playing. I started thinking about a tuba choir.

So that was the beginning of Gravity?

That was the beginning of Substructure, my first tuba band. Dave Bargeron, when I had last seen him, had just started playing the tuba. He had a couple of kids and kept teaching jobs to help him stay out of Vietnam. He spent a lot of time playing that E flat tuba. I knew Jack Jeffers was starting to play tuba so I thought I could probably pull together some New York players. It was the spring of 1968 and I had met Bob Stewart by then. I went into one of the old banjo clubs — Your Father’s Moustache — where I used to play, and saw they had a black tuba player! I wondered who he was, it turns out to be Bob and we started hanging out. So I decided now is the time to get this ensemble together. The first time we heard the sound with these instruments playing harmony we realized: There’s nothing like that. There’s been nothing like that, ever. The sound seemed to get inside you and vibrate along with your body.

At first we just had four and there was always one guy who wouldn’t show up and I’d need Bob to help out. I couldn’t put him in the band because I wanted to have regular rehearsals and I couldn’t ask him to come from Philly. But he asked if I would mind if he just showed up anyway. I said, ‘If you feel you want to but there might not be anything for you to do.’ Well, there was always something for him to do. And he did it better than expected. I was staying in a loft in Chelsea and Bob would drive in from Philly on Friday and then go back home and drive in again on Saturday to play those two nights. So I let him stay with me and we did a lot of playing. I could see that he was able to do anything but hadn’t asked himself to do some of it. I kind of pushed him in a couple of directions like that and he responded very powerfully. But a record, that didn’t happen until 1996 with Gravity, a long way from 1968.

Gravity, 1977  -  Photo by Armen Kachaturian

Gravity, 1977 — Photo by Armen Kachaturian

You have quite a long history with the Woodstock area.

The first time I went to Woodstock might have been when we were rehearsing the horn section for Taj Mahal’s The Real Thing—the record with the horns and the tubas — in January of 1971. We went out to a house called Pooh Corners on 212 out in Shady. As it evolved into an east coast/​west coast band, the west coast cats all stayed up in Woodstock. Of course there were some Woodstock residents in the band — John Hall, Greg Thomas, and John Simon. Later in 1972, I had a nice place in New York but thought I’d like to find a cheap rental in Woodstock. Turns out it was possible in those days, so I took over a place up there and kept my NY situation too.

When and how did the connection with Taj come about?

That was in 1970. There was a guy who wanted to manage me — he had heard the tuba band and decided it could really be popular and wanted to get in on whatever we were gonna do. He’s one of the guys who thought Taj would be interested. Another friend of mine also knew Taj in Massachusetts where he was going to school brought him down to a rehearsal we were having. I had no reason to think that he would be interested in us at all. He got very excited and energized and said ‘I’d love to have the sound of the tubas but I don’t know if we could make a whole show.’ So then I got excited and started encouraging him. I said, ‘Well, some of us can play other instruments and we can get a lot of sound varieties with these same guys because I also play saxophone and tuba guys are very good trombone players. Bob Stewart and I can get enough out of our flugelhorn playing, we wouldn’t have to turn into Dizzy Gillespie or anything, we just have to play these parts.’

Then Taj went on tour to Europe and he stayed over there after the tour was over. He hung out on Ibiza and sent me these seemingly cryptic letters about what we’re going to do in the future with the horns and I’m saying ‘Yeah, man, we’re going to do that’ and sometime in December he called me and said – breathless as he always was – ‘How long would it take to rehearse before we could do an actual gig?’ And I said, ‘With my guys, two weeks tops.’ And he said ‘Well, we should probably start rehearsing on Jan. 1 because we open at the Fillmore East on the 15th and we’re playing the 15th and 16th and then we’re going to go open for Little Richard in Pittsburgh and then we’re going to the west coast to play the Fillmore and the whole west coast Fillmore circuit.’

I’m like, ‘wow, that’s really great!’  But the thing is, not only was I not ready to do it, I didn’t have a band! The guys were all doing other things, in fact Joe Daley and Earl McIntyre were not even in my band. We just played together every week. We had gigs sometimes — we played the Fillmore that summer, but didn’t go out on tour. One of the guys had become an assistant conductor on some Broadway show. Another one had one of those Johnson Administration War on Poverty gigs that he was not going to leave until that money was gone. Bob Stewart was teaching school. I just didn’t have the people!

Earl and Joe had come to rehearsals and they did very well on their tubas and I knew both of them already as being able to play the trombone. Earl was only 17. He was a kid bass trombonist, and a well-​​developed player. I called Bob Stewart and he said, ‘That would have been great, but here I’m stuck with the Board of Education.’ So the only one I could rely on was Dave Bargeron. I called Dave and he said, ‘Well, I guess you heard the good news!’ And I said, ‘What news?’ And he said, ‘I just went with Blood Sweat and Tears.’ And I said, ‘Oh shit, man.’ And he said, ‘What kind of reaction is that?’ And I told him and he said, ‘Man, that would have been great!’ but he’s making big money with BS&T. So I had nobody. And just as I was about to fall into a deep depression, Bob Stewart called back and said, ‘I’m in. We’ll let the Board of Ed figure out what it wants to do, but I came here to play.’ So that made me feel a little better.

I still had to chase down Earl and Joe. Earl had just started at Mannes School of Music and he had just finished his semester. I thought this would be a great time to take a break from that, go out on the road, make a little money, have some fun. But because he was only 17, I had to get around his mother. So I talked to her and she wasn’t downright suspicious, but she didn’t want anything to be going wrong. Not only was he not 18, but she had no idea what he’d be facing with us (everybody in the band was in their 20s. I was on the far end of that.) So I was talking and tap dancing and she kept saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s all very fine’ and I said, ‘He’s gonna have nine big brothers looking out for him.’ And she said, ‘That’s all fine what you say, but if anything goes wrong, he’s coming home.’ So we kind of had Earl. And I went and found Joe. Joe was thinking about not playing tuba anymore because he didn’t think he did very well when he came and played with us. But it’s a very specialized ensemble and nobody’s just going to walk in and cut everything right away. Nowadays, with a tuba ensemble, people have a better idea of what sound they should shoot for. But ours was the first one ever, so people had to find their place in those notes however they could.

Howard Johnson plays at a Midnight Ramble, photo by Paul LaRaia

Howard Johnson plays at a Midnight Ramble, photo by Paul LaRaia

You rehearsed in Woodstock?

I was making arrangements on the fly, I never wrote anything down. I taught the guys the parts I wanted them to play and put it up to them to memorize it for the next time. I told them, ‘Listen, we’re playing trombones and flugelhorns, we have to have mics in front of us and playing tubas we’re gonna have mics over us. So I’m not going to bring any music stands or paper or anything you can knock off. I want people to be able to see us and hear us without all of that.’ They agreed to it. And I’d go over certain passages I’d given them to play to fit in with the rhythm section.

The bass player was the great Bill Rich who’s still with Taj playing bass. John Hall was the guitar player, with Greg Thomas on drums. And we had an African drummer from Ghana named Kwazi. We did that string of gigs and David Rubinson, who was working for Bill Graham’s office out in San Francisco, said ‘Let’s do a live recording with this.’ And that’s where The Real Thing came from. I guess we did three tours and three appearances at the Fillmore.

What did you think about Taj?

I didn’t know what to expect from Taj, but I wasn’t ready to be impressed. I took him too lightly when he was talking about what he wanted to do with us. And after I kind of pulled that out of the fire by getting the band ready for the first Fillmore gig, I understood that Taj generally means what he says. And he’s more focused and resolute than I ever knew. But he’s always been ahead of every curve, you know? He’s political in that way. He’s not a political activist but he’s a political guy in that he checks out what’s going on. And for instance, when we were touring with The Real Thing, he was telling me about something called reggae and that it was built on ska and gave me an example of the kind of beats and I went, ‘Well, ok that ain’t going anywhere.’ [He laughs}

And he was the first one to tell me about this banda music that’s current in Mexico that uses tubas. It uses lots of horns of different kinds and uses a tuba for the bass and I thought ‘Oh, isn’t that nice?’ Because traditional Mexican stuff has a polka quality to it. He said, ‘No, these guys are playing some hip stuff.’ And when I finally got around to hearing it, it was really a revelation. Those guys are so good, they don’t sound individual at all, it seems like one guy is doing everything — one great guy — they just have real high standards like that. But I heard about it for two years before I ever came across any banda music. So he’s always a forward-​​looking guy — as I would like to think of myself — but he’s on top of it more than I am.

How do you rate him as a musician?

He’s a very intuitive musician, there’s nothing he turns his hand to that he can’t really do. On The Real Thing, listen to how much harmonica he plays, and how he plays the fife. That was where I got my pennywhistle concept from, but I can’t make that transverse embouchure so I have to do it on the pennywhistle that has another kind of mouthpiece. But that’s totally Taj, like the difference his banjo playing makes to other banjo players. With the banjo, you can’t change a lot of keys and he’s figured out all the ways to use those keys — especially with that one ringing G all the time — and he’ll write a lot of things that just fit that. We did a duo on the record called ‘Tom and Sally Drake’– tuba and banjo — and that G is ringing throughout the whole thing although it changes through several keys. And he plays his National steel guitar, fender electric guitar and all of this is on that record — he changes it up. He’s just a pretty amazing guy all around. Those concerts we did in ‘71 they seemed to have a big impact on a lot of people. Nobody expected to see anything like that — ‘What about those tubas? What’s this gonna be?’

How did you make the connection to The Band and Levon Helm?

John Simon was in the band, and he was the connection to Levon. When Robbie Robertson said he wanted to do a horn section for Rock of Ages, John, who had played horns on the record he produced, said, ‘Let’s get some real guys, let’s get these guys,’ putting it on me to put the horn section together and get Allen Toussaint to do the arrangements. We started doing those rehearsals late in December 1971. The Rock of Ages record was done in about five days, the last of which was December 31 going into 1972. So we came down a little earlier than that to rehearse Toussaint’s arrangements.

At this point, I didn’t know what The Band was really about. I hadn’t paid close attention to the lyrics, which I came to love, and I just thought they were a bunch of Canadians trying to sound like hillbillies. And so I wasn’t expecting too much. But when we came to the first rehearsal, it was revealed that Toussaint, when he was writing the arrangements, had a cassette player that had weak batteries so he wrote everything in the wrong key. When we started to rehearse, we realized there was a problem immediately because we were playing a tune that was supposed to be in G and we’re playing it in F# because that’s what’s on the paper. We all recognized immediately that there was a problem, but the guys in The Band said, ‘Well look, can we get this recopied overnight? For the rest of this rehearsal, we’ll play it in your key.’ Now, to move something that you’re used to playing in the key of G to the key of F# is more than just moving down a fret. After all, with two piano players, they had to do a whole different thing in a whole different way and you don’t find many rock bands who can transpose like that. You don’t find that many musicians who you can count on to just change the key of something that they know. So I started getting impressed. And then I paid a little closer attention to the lyrics and found out that the drummer really was from the Ozarks, or thereabouts, and that he had a fat beat. A lot of guys who came up in that background, they’re just kind of pattin’ the drums to keep everybody on the right beat. But he’s saying something, he’s making a statement and driving the band from that chair. So that was a lot better experience than I was looking forward to. In fact, I’d say it was beautiful.

Did you stay in touch between Rock of Ages and The Last Waltz?

In those days, me and The Band didn’t see much of each other except at the Grand Union or somewhere…the ones that shopped. So I didn’t really come in close contact with Levon again until The Last Waltz tour. Most people don’t know there was a tour for that. We played some great concerts — we played in NY, Philadelphia, Boston, Austin TX, a few around the west coast.  Earlier in 1976, when they were playing in New York, Robbie asked me to come up and talk about putting a horn section together for The Last Waltz. And I said, ‘Instead of just rehearsing it, why don’t we have horns on the tour?’ I would say things like that, unaware of the realities of the financial thing. But Robbie and Rick said and it would be a good idea, and we did it. It’s the same kind of attitude that made Levon put a full horn section in his Ramble band. Whatever money we made, he could have been putting in his pocket. And there were those who thought that by our very presence we were taking money out of Levon’s pocket. But Levon was doing that sound that he wanted to promote. I think these days the attitudes are different, but not many people can understand that. I don’t know how many gigs I’ve done where managers were saying, ‘What do you need all these horns for? The Rolling Stones don’t have any horns.’  Many have the feeling that horns are expendable.

Were you aware of the drama that was going on with The Band during that time?

Some of the individual members had problems of different kinds — you know, substances and drinking and there were some rocky moments for some of the people. You had to make an effort to get people onstage every now and then. But we didn’t see any real internal strife, we saw it much like it was portrayed in the film. There was a lot deeper stuff going on that never made the film. But I wasn’t terribly aware of that. They knew what to do. I think it was one of those occasions that everybody rises to.

Then you kept playing with Levon in the RCO Allstars.

When Levon started talking about having the RCO band, I didn’t necessarily think that was going to happen either. But he wanted to keep his own momentum going, and in 1977, he pulled it off with the people he wanted. He had this really super band but I don’t know how much the audience knew who Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn were because their biggest gigs were not on the Fillmore circuit —they were on the chicken circuit with Booker T and Percy Sledge and Otis Redding. They also had Paul Butterfield and he had during a certain time been identified with the blues scene but the straight-​​up rock people hardly knew him. We recorded first. During that time, I was in Woodstock and I could drop over to the barn but it would be sort of momentarily. We did a Japanese tour in July of 1978.

Had you become friends at that point?

Howard Johnson by Catherine Sebastian

Howard Johnson by Catherine Sebastian

I’d have to say no, we didn’t become close friends. We knew and appreciated and admired each other but it didn’t translate into hanging out or anything like that unless it was for sushi. But I wasn’t doing the rest of the stuff that he was doing anyway and we didn’t get really close until I started playing with the last band. He knew that I was a cancer survivor and he feels very close and protective of other cancer survivors. He often spoke about how we’re still going on against all odds. And that was some kind of cachet that other people didn’t have with him. So between that and our musical history, we were a lock. I was the last one to join the horn section. That was about 7 or 8 years ago. When I got there Larry (Campbell) was there and so was Jimmy (Vivino). Jimmy and Mike were doing Conan but they were mostly there all the time. It’s meaningful that a guy like Jimmy Vivino thought that was a worthy endeavor and put as much into it as he did. The Rambles were, quite simply, a blessing.

Howard Johnson plays with Levon Helm at a Midnight Ramble, photo by Paul LaRaia

Howard Johnson plays with Levon Helm at a Midnight Ramble, photo by Paul LaRaia

Did you realize how sick he was?

We all wanted him to take care of himself better. He wouldn’t and he couldn’t. He did everything he could to keep that same ball rolling until he just really couldn’t anymore. By the time he really submitted to the idea that he needed to take a look at his situation more closely, and I think he did, he was really too far gone. But it was impressive to me that he got off coca-​​cola. He never gave it up completely but before he was chain drinking. It isn’t often that I can look at people who are destructive in a way and say, ‘Well, he was doing what he wanted.’ But that’s what I say about him. He did what he wanted to do and he carried it as far as he could. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have been meaningful at all to be given a few more years of life without having something to it. And that includes the band, that includes the whole idea of the horn section and everything.

Tell me about your time with John Lennon.

Between the thing with Taj and The Last Waltz I did a record with John Lennon. He had this idea that horn players and jazz players were ‘real’ musicians instead of like, rockers, who just didn’t have the skills. I don’t subscribe to that, I think that everybody can contribute when they’re in the right setting. Yeah, there are some cases where people are just trying to be popular and not trying to have anything to say but John was never that crass. He got Steve Madeo, who had played trumpet in Paul Butterfield’s band, and Steve called me to play baritone. Bobby Keys was already on board because he played on ‘Whatever Gets you Through the Night.’ So it was Steve, Bobby, an alto player named Ron Aprea, a real special tenor saxophone player named Frank Vicari and me. It was John’s idea that we would just go into the studio and listen to the track and make magic happen. Now I was a little suspicious of one or two of them for doing stuff like that and we were there for nearly six hours and got nothing. We couldn’t decide on anything and John was getting very frustrated. I think he was about to boot us all out. I finally spoke up although I didn’t want to say anything because some of those guys didn’t appreciate anyone taking over and saying ‘let’s do this’ so I was kind of cautious. But I finally said, ‘Listen, at this point I know the track pretty well and I have some very definite ideas so if nobody minds, why don’t we try my ideas?’ And before anybody could answer Lennon said ‘For God’s sake, yes!’ So I did much like I did with Taj’s people – you know, you play this, I’ll play that, and that worked pretty well. There was some strain on me doing it that way and John, after said, ‘Come back tomorrow at the same time and we’ll work on it some more.’ At the end of that night, May Pang handed me a cassette with the rest of the tunes that he wanted horns on. But she said ‘You can’t let this get out.’ And I said, ‘How would this get out?’ And she said there were people who would sell it— the basic tracks for John Lennon’s new record! Who would want to do that to him? So we finished it that way and without too much trouble.

We ended up doing, I think, seven tunes for Walls and Bridges, probably his worst-​​selling John Lennon record but the one that he liked the most. He said it was the most musical thing he’d ever done on his own. Those are my horn arrangements. On a tune called ‘I’m Scared,’ John even gave me a baritone sax solo. Coming back from a gig that we did upstate recently, I played it in the car with Tony Leone and Jay Collins and they were pretty knocked out listening to it from that perspective. John was very pleased with my work. He said, ‘You’re gonna get an arranging credit on this.’ But I said,  ‘I was actually thinking about that, and I wouldn’t like it to say ‘Horns arranged by Howard Johnson.’ And he said, ‘Why not? It could do you a lot of good.’ I said, ‘This isn’t the way I would have done it. I do have a slight career as an arranger, but I would have done this differently.’ He asked what I would do and I said, ‘For one thing, I would have worked more closely with you because some of the best ideas really came from you.’ There’s a line that sounded something like God Bless America and when it came to that, he would sing God Bless America and we voiced it and incorporated it into the horn section. But he said, ‘I’m going to have to acknowledge it in some way.’ So when the record came out, I was very pleased with the acknowledgment I got. It said: ‘Special thanks to Howard Johnson for his hornspiration.’ I like that, he coined a word for me.

What were your impressions of John Lennon?

He’s a person who’s very kind of correct, I would say, probably because he can afford to be correct. He doesn’t have to shout people down or fight for his views. He was just a really nice person and I had the feeling, especially when I got back with him years later, that we were probably going to be friends. He had great ears, but what he didn’t know how to do very well was voice harmony. If a chord had a name and he knew the fingering for that chord name, he was fine. He would put up two fingers on each hand and play the notes of the chord with those four fingers on the piano. Then when the chord changed, he would bring all four of those fingers up to where the other chord was. So he didn’t voice anything. And I asked him, ‘Is that how you wrote all your tunes?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I don’t know how to voice. ‘And I said, ‘You can learn this in about 45 minutes. It’s all very logical and it follows the same rules as the chords you know on the guitar. There’s a reason for where the fingers are placed where they are, for the convenience of your fingers.’

John was a great rhythm guitar player. That instrumental ‘Beef Jerky’ is kind of a celebration of his great rhythm guitar playing. He wasn’t George Harrison, but he really could put something into the thing. On ‘Beef Jerky,’ listen to what he’s playing on the guitar — that’s some nicely set-​​up stuff. On that song, there are no words, and the stuff that I put in became part of the conversation. I spoke for co-​​authorship and he had about a 30-​​second freak-​​out and then said, ‘Wait a minute, you’re right.’ His first reaction was as if I had somehow manipulated something and that I had a hold on him somehow. And then he said, ‘You’re right, but I want to tell you one thing: The government is already trying to throw me out of the country for having been busted for marijuana in Canada. I got bad immigration problems, Yoko is gone, that whole part of my thing has been destabilized and I don’t know what the future is going to hold. The Beatles are all fighting each other and Allen Klein is in the mix trying to get his and if I put this in with your name on it, you will get exactly nothing except a bunch of lawyers’ bills that you’re going to have to pay fighting off people like Allen Klein. You don’t want Allen Klein in your life. You don’t want Paul McCartney in your life, not in the middle of this.’ He said, ‘Listen, I know what you did and if things ever start coming out right for me, we’ll definitely do it’ and we shook hands on it. We did almost a formal British handshake to seal the deal. The next time I saw him in 1980, when we did the horns for Double Fantasy, we talked about a lot of things and that never came up. I didn’t remember it. I didn’t remember it until a few weeks after he died.  And I thought, there’s probably no way I can ever get this straightened out. But I am going to try at some point. Probably make a lot of people hate me, because people love to say ‘this guy is pulling a fast one’ but I’d like to put it in the hands of Yoko, who I do trust. I think if she listens to what I had to say about it, I’d count on her to know the difference. I saw her a couple of times after John died because I did her records—Season of Glass and another one. She was the one who called me for the horn section.

Howard Johnson by Catherine Sebastian

Howard Johnson by Catherine Sebastian

I guess it had been a few years between your projects with John.

We hadn’t seen each other in six years. One day John and I were in the booth just kind of talking and I asked him, ‘What label is this record gonna be on?’ and he said, ‘We don’t know.’ And I said ‘What do you mean you don’t know?’ And he said, ‘Well, we’re going to make the record and then look for a label.’ I said, ‘What? What about all that stuff hanging off you – Apple Records and EMI and Allen Klein and Northern Songs and the rest of the Beatles? And he said ‘It’s all cleared up. It’s all completely taken care of. I own 100 percent of my ass for the first time since I was 17.’  I said, ‘How did you do it?’ And he said, ‘I did nothing. I stayed home with the baby and Yoko did everything.’ And I said, ‘Well, what did Yoko do?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know and I don’t care. She did it! There isn’t anybody else on earth who could have done it.’ And I was shocked because he had told me about all the tangled up shit he had going on. She dealt with the immigration thing and all the business.

When I went in for the Double Fantasy dates, I was also rehearsing for a tour with Paul Simon. Another story I like to tell is when John said, ‘Tell me, what kind of show is Paul doing? How is he setting it up?’ John hadn’t toured in I don’t know how long. And he said, ‘How many tunes do you know?’ and I said, ‘Just the ones from this film that’s coming out One Trick Pony.’ We’re doing the standard hour set, 15-​​minute intermission and then another hour set.’ And John said, ‘Two hours? Paul’s doing two hours?’ And I said, ‘That’s kind of standard.’ And he said, ‘Really? We used to go out and do big stadiums and do one 40-​​minute set.’ And I said, ‘A 40-​​minute set? That shit went out with the Beatles!’ I laughed and he laughed and the rest of the group in the booth (who didn’t know me yet) was like, ‘Who the fuck is this guy?

When did you last speak to John?

I spoke to him the night he died. I was going to bring John and Yoko a recording I had of Pam Windo — she’s married to a saxophone player named Gary Windo and she sang, frankly, something like Yoko did. She and her husband and another tenor player from her hometown of Bristol in England had a way of playing unison parts —the same notes but having it sound very strange because the pitches were dirty on one or both of them but their phrasing was exactly right. So it just ended up being a great sound that I thought John would like because these guys could also play in tune and John had talked to me about taking a horn section on tour. So I called the studio. Yoko answered the phone and passed it to John. I said, ‘I brought that record with the tenor players I’d like you to hear, should I bring it up to the studio?’ And he said, ‘We’re going to leave a little early tonight, bring it in tomorrow in the afternoon.’ And I thought, ‘Well, that’s good’ because I wanted to watch Monday night football. And Monday night football is what told us that he had been killed.

From Charlie Mingus to Paul Simon! What made you want to play with such a wide range of musicians?

I only did things that resonated with me. And I wouldn’t have done any of it if I didn’t believe in what we were doing. I’d rather have people —especially young people — listening to that music than some of the stuff we encountered. We opened for bigger name bands that could hardly play, in our estimation. Musicianship is more than genre or how many feathers they’re wearing. In that pattern, we also found some bands that were really happening. We met people like Mississippi Fred McDowell and Papa John Creech, who was just dazzled by our band. Some people were surprised that I was doing the stuff that I was with the rock figures because I’m supposed to be a stone jazzman, and people divided up their territory. But there’s always more music, more ways of expression.

Featured image; Howard Johnson by Catherine Sebastian

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