Howard Johnson, Tuba Man With The Band, Taj Mahal, Dies

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Howard Johnson

Howard Johnson, perhaps the best-known tuba player in contemporary jazz for the past several decades, died January 11, 2021, at his New York home, following a long, unspecified illness. His death, at age 79, was confirmed on Facebook by Nancy Olewine, who described herself as Johnson’s “beloved partner of many years.”

In addition to Johnson’s work in the jazz field, he was utilized by numerous rock, R&B and pop artists, among them The Band (1972’s Rock of Ages album) and Taj Mahal, on the bluesman’s self-titled 1968 LP and 1972’s The Real Thing. On the latter, recorded live at Fillmore East in 1971, Johnson led a lineup that consisted of four tuba players in total.

Watch Johnson perform with Taj Mahal

Johnson’s other rock-related appearances included John Lennon’s Walls and Bridges and Double Fantasy. He also served as a member of the horn section on The Band’s The Last Waltz.

Related: Celebrating The Band’s Levon Helm

It was primarily in the area of jazz that Johnson made his reputation, however. Born Howard Lewis Johnson in Montgomery, Ala., on Aug. 7, 1941, the musician—who also played baritone saxophone and other horns—first gained recognition in the late ’60s, employed as a sideman by the likes of Hank Crawford, Charles Mingus, Archie Shepp, Gary Burton, Charlie Haden, Gil Evans, Pharoah Sanders and other jazz luminaries.

Mahal was the first rock-related performer to give Johnson a featured role, making the horn man his arranger on the 1971 concert that would become The Real Thing. Working with three other tuba players—Bob Stewart, Joseph Daley and Earle McIntyre—Johnson provided a unique backing for Mahal and his other band members. Although The Real Thing only peaked at #84 in Billboard, it became the highest-charting album of Mahal’s career. Later that year, Johnson’s association with The Band began when he was hired to accompany the group for its New Year’s run at New York’s Academy of Music, resulting in the #6 live album Rock of Ages.

Related: 10 great albums recorded at the Fillmores

Johnson also served as the conductor of the Saturday Night Live house band during the program’s early years.

Johnson continued to find work as a sideman—others who utilized his tuba talent included Miles Davis, Jaco Pastorius, Marvin Gaye and Muddy Waters—but he also formed bands of his own. It wasn’t until 1994 that Johnson released his first album as a leader, Arrival: A Pharoah Sanders Tribute, followed by three others: Gravity!!! (1995), Right Now (1998) and Testimony (2017).

In Olewine’s Facebook post, she wrote, “During his remarkable life, Howard dedicated himself to creating a distinctive jazz legacy, and to advancing the stature and versatility of his signature instrument, the tuba.”

Watch Johnson play “Rag Mama Rag” as part of a tribute to The Last Waltz in 2016

Jeff Tamarkin

3 Comments so far

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  1. Ramblerhowdy
    #2 Ramblerhowdy 15 January, 2021, 19:36

    Anytime I hear his work with Taj Mahal
    I play it LOUD then LOUDER.

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