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Past Events

Harlem Speaks
Howard Johnson
February 9, 2006

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On February 9, 2006, the Harlem Speaks audience was delighted by a tune on the tuba performed with a Sidney Bechet recording by Jazz Museum in Harlem’s special guest Howard Johnson. Although he is best known as a top tuba player in jazz, Johnson also plays the baritone sax, other reeds and trumpet.

Johnson, now a Harlem resident, discussed his upbringing in Massillon, Ohio, and his early exposure to music, where even in elementary school he was exposed to great instruction in music appreciation. His first instrument was actually the drums, but he wasn’t very good at it, so a junior high school music teacher recommended that he take up the baritone sax. He noticed similarities in the fingering of the bass horn and his sax, and began to play that instrument, earning a spot in the high school band. He was rated #1 soloist for three consecutive years while in high school. After a not-so-pleasant experience in the military, he met drummer Tony Williams, then 14, in Boston. He was amazed and inspired by Williams’ power and craft at such a young age.

He spent a short while in Chicago, moving then to New York in 1963, where he worked with Charles Mingus (1964-1966), Hank Crawford, and Archie Shepp. He started a 20-year association with Gil Evans in 1966. In the late '70s, he formed a tuba band called Gravity that has recorded two CDs on the Verve label. Howard Johnson has also recorded with Jack DeJohnette's Special Edition, Jimmy Heath, Bob Moses, George Gruntz's Concert Jazz Band, and frequently with Evans' orchestra, among others. During the ’90s, in addition to work with Gravity and J.J. Johnson (The Brass Orchestra in 1996), he played in Spike Lee's film soundtracks for School Daze, Mo' Better Blues Malcolm X, and Clockers.

In the small town of his youth, folks used to criticize his desire to be a professional musician. As outlined above, his career provides a rejoinder to their claim that, “You’ll be back working in the steel mill.” Success was the best revenge, when in the early 1990s he played a concert with a high school band in Ohio and said: “I’m back, but the steel mills aren’t!”


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