I hope that this list of her dedicated efforts will cause others to add their own stories. I encourage you to explore the musicians you haven’t heard before, listen again to the ones you have and share, share, share.
April 1 · Marvin Gaye would have turned 77 tomorrow, April 2. For many of us, his album "What's Going On" has been a fixture on our best-ever lists for decades. Unfortunately, it continues to be pertinent social commentary. Howard still seems a little surprised and awestruck that he was called to play with Marvin Gaye, a stand-out gig in an outstanding life in music.
April 2 · Howard Johnson introduced me to Tessa Souter's music early on in her career. When it comes to recommendations, as they say in "Blazing Saddles," "Howard Johnson is right!" Tessa Souter's birthday is April 3, and she'll be celebrating through the week with gigs at Cornelia Street Cafe.
April 3 · Since we're talking about Howard Johnson and movies, let me remind you that Howard toured internationally with Paul Simon and wrote the horn parts for "One Trick Pony," which eventually made it to the big screen (without Howard).
April 4 · Today is the birthdate of one of the greatest of the electric bluesmen: Muddy Waters. Howard Johnson certainly got his mojo workin' in Muddy Waters' band.
April 5 · Special thanks to Keith Walton for forwarding this link to Howard, who passed it on to me.
Gato Barbieri in Rome, 1974 (despite what the video says), with Howard Johnson on electric bass and tuba.
April 6 · Howard Johnson had a long and interesting relationship touring and recording with Levon Helm, from Woodstock to the Delta to the Midnight Rambles, creating many happy memories for all concerned.
April 7 · Had a chance to talk with Howard Johnson just now about trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, who would have been 78 years old today, April 7. When the two first met, Freddie explained that certain tunes were just too hard for a tuba, and seemed to think that Howard couldn't play, since he didn't know such a basic "fact."
April 8 · Since so far this week I've mentioned Levon Helm, Muddy Waters, and Howard Johnson's connection to certain movies, today seems like the day to reveal that Howard Johnson played with The Band, as documented in their film "The Last Waltz."
April 9 · If you saw the Chet Baker bio pic, one of your first thoughts was probably "Wonder if the great Howard Johnson ever played with this guy." And the answer, of course, would be yes!
April 10 · While we're on the topic of movies... hearing interesting things about "Miles Ahead." And yes, Howard Johnson did share the stage with the renowned trumpet player.
April 11 · A while back I mentioned that famous quote from "Blazing Saddles": "Howard Johnson is right!" That's certainly the case when he's singing the praises of other musicians, such as bassist Melissa Slocum, a mainstay with Howard's band the HoJo Five.
But don't just take Howard's word for it: Melissa has also played with Art Blakey, Leon Thomas, Hank Jones, Dee Dee Bridgewater, the Diva Jazz Orchestra, Frank Wess, Woody Shaw, Melba Liston, Charlie Persip and many others.
April 12 · Howard was in great form when we talked on the phone a few days back. He told me about the time he and Bob Stewart took their tubas up to Ungano's to jam with B.B. King. Just the presence of that much low brass was enough to cause a stir, and right before they went on, Jimi Hendrix arrived with a group of women. The audience was distracted, buzzing and cracking jokes, not knowing what to expect.
Howard and Bob took to the stage, one on either side of B.B., and showedeveryone they know their way around the blues. Though there were no mikes, they made themselves heard, with power to spare. Afterward, Jimi sought out Howard to say, "You brothers just did the god damnedest shit I ever heard! Ain't nobody laughin' now!"
Hendrix played baritone horn in school, and had been quoted as saying he only did it so he could get into football games for free. However, Hendrix told Howard that wasn't true -- he really liked playing the instrument, he confided.
The great Gil Evans had made plans to record with Hendrix and told Howard Johnson he wanted him in the studio, too. Unfortunately, Jimi didn't live long enough to make the gig. But Howard eventually got to have his say on one of Jimi's greatest tunes, "Voodoo Chile," and has also been known to play a lovely, tender version of "Little Wing," on pennywhistle.
April 13 · Mike Spengler mentioned Warren Smith (4/12 post), which brings to mind something else from my recent chat with Howard Johnson: The multi-tasking multi-instrumentalist confirmed that he played with the Fugs, a political/poetical band of 1960s boundary pushers.
Howard recalls that Warren Smith was brought onboard to write charts, hire some horns, "and just generally be the grown-up in the room." Howard was set to go on the road with the band, but the tour was canceled for fear that the Fugs might get arrested in the hinterlands for some of their lyrics.
What about rumors that Howard Johnson recorded with the Fugs? "Might have," he says.
April 14 · Vocalist Catherine Russell's jazz roots are generations deep: Her father, Luis Russell, was a pianist, bandleader, and musical director for Louis Armstrong. Catherine's mother was the legendary--and inspirational!--bassist, guitarist, and singer Carline Ray. Cat's grandfather, Elisha Ray, graduated from Juilliard and played low brass with jazz pioneer James Reese Europe. Howard Johnson has toured and recorded with Catherine.
April 15 · There's a new Liberation Music Orchestra recording coming out late spring/early summer. Looking forward to hearing it. In the meantime, I'll give a listen to the band's earlier albums, including the first one with Howard Johnson in the lineup.
April 16 · Saxophonist/flutist Carol Sudhalter is playing at Cleopatra's Needle tonight, April 16. Last week she sent me a very sweet story about Howard Johnson and the influence he has had on her life: "Howard Johnson was responsible for motivating me to come live in New York.
" I met Howard in 1972, when he was playing with Gil Evans. I went to a Gil Evans concert in Rotterdam, and saw on the program the name of my first boyfriend in life (when I was 13 and he was 17), trumpeter Stan Shafran. I went streaking backstage as I'd lost track of Stan over the years. He was sitting with Howard, and casually turned to him and said, "This is the girl I was telling you about, that we went necking in our teen years in the car and got stuck in the mud!" What an introduction! We three hung out. I went back to Boston and soon afterward, Howard showed up at my parents' house and sat down at the piano, determined to show me that I had a talent for improvising and that I should really be in New York (me on flute). Sometimes I think Howard is an angel sent to us all.
"That opened my mind to the idea. I started playing sax a few years later, and joined a Latin band called Imperio Latino. One night Larry Harlow's band was playing opposite us. He liked me and offered me the tenor sax chair that Jeannie Fineberg had just left, in his wife's all-women band, Latin Fever. I rushed to New York, auditioned, got in, and moved down immediately. And never regretted it!" --Carol Sudhalter
April 17 · Continuing the movie theme...Howard Johnson played on several Spike Lee movie soundtracks, including "Malcolm X," "Clockers" and "Mo' Better Blues."
April 18 · Today's installment of the Howard Johnson 75th birthday tribute...Howard often speaks fondly--and respectfully--of working with saxophonist/composer/arranger Oliver Nelson.
April 19 · Howard Johnson played on the legendary Gary Burton album "A Genuine Tong Funeral."
April 20 · Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe Howard Johnson has some gigs with Carly Simon in his deep past.
April 21 · Howard has performed and recorded with well over a dozen NEA Jazz Masters, including trombonist J.J. Johnson, with whom he recorded "The Brass Orchestra."
April 22 · And speaking of great bass clef players named Johnson... I've seen/heard Howard onstage with Aaron J. Johnson many times.
April 23 · In case I haven't mentioned enough talented people named Johnson in the past few days, check out multi-instrumentalist/composer/singer Nedra Johnson. Can't think of too many people who have the power to make themselves heard with this many tubas, and when she's not singing, Nedra's playing one herself with Howard Johnson and Gravity. Hard to say who's prouder of the other--the father or the daughter.
April 24 · Happy belated b'day to Erik Lawrence. He and Howard Johnson were longtime bandmates for Levon Helm's Midnight Rambles.
April 25 · 99 years ago today the great Ella Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Va. In 1966, Howard backed her up on baritone on a gig at the Riverboat In New York. I'm sure a good time was had by all.
April 26 · Yesterday, April 25, marked the 93rd anniversary of the birth of the great bluesman Albert King. Besides being among my all-time fave guitarists, he had that remarkable suede-like voice. Like B.B. King (no relation), Albert was born in Indianola, Mississippi.
Howard Johnson played with Albert--electric bass, I believe. Howard also played with B.B., as documented here a few weeks back. Wonder if he ever played with Freddie King, the third great blues guitar slinger to share that last name.
April 27 · No list of Howard Johnson's adventures in music is complete without mentioning that he appeared on A Prairie Home Companion with his multi-tuba band, Gravity!
April 28 · Tomorrow, April 29, marks the anniversary of the birth of tenor saxophonist George Adams. He and Howard were part of the Gil Evans extravaganza that took place every Monday night at Sweet Basil back in the day.
George was very proud of sharing a birthday with a very significant jazz figure, but you'll have to wait till tomorrow to find out who that is (and whether it's someone Howard played with).
April 29 · Howard Johnson has played with a slew of impressive, talented and renowned musicians. (And the Fugs.) But he sounds especially proud and excited when he talks about getting the call to sub for baritone saxophonist Harry Carney in Duke Ellington's Orchestra.
Duke Ellington was born April 29, 1899. Besides being a great composer, pianist and the definition of suave elegance, the legendary bandleader was also quite adept at dispensing compliments with the utmost sincerity.
April 30 · Howard Johnson worked with saxophonist David Fathead Newman.
May 1 · Hard to believe a quarter century has gone by since the great pianist and composer Don Pullen passed. I'm sure a month never goes by without me listening to some of the wonderful music he left with us. Howard Johnson and Don Pullen each spent time playing with Charles Mingus, and shared the bandstand with other greats. They also shared some traditions and humor from their Southern childhoods. Any day you listen to either/both is bound to be a good day.
May 2 · Clarinetist Frank Perowsky and Howard have played together for years in ensembles great and small.
May 3 · Bassist Ron Carter turns 79 years old on May 4, and Howard has shared the stage with the iconic bassman over the years.
May 4 · While we're on the subject of drummers, Howard Johnson had a long association with Dannie Richmond, Mingus' drummer of choice. Howard has high praise for Dannie's chops and versatility, as well as his of-the-moment fashion sense.
May 5 · Happy birthday to trumpeter Jack Walrath! Howard Johnson says he did gigs with Jack "now and again...But the best for me was when I was in the NDR Big Band in Hamburg. Jack brought in great charts of his tunes, and played great too."
May 6 · Since I mentioned all the other members of the George Adams-Don Pullen Quartet in posts in the past week, it's only fair to point out that Howard Johnson also played with the great bassist Cameron Brown, who rounded out that illustrious foursome.
May 7 · Today, May 7, is the birthday of one of the most distinctive alto saxophone players of all time, Arthur Blythe. Way before they were on the Gil Evans band together, Arthur and Howard (among others) shared a house in L.A. Howard recalls hearing footsteps passing his room every morning, followed by a burst of music--Arthur warming up. "That was my wakeup call," Howard says.
May 8 · Howard Johnson played with alto saxophonist Dave Sanborn, check them out on this Gil Evans track, the first alto solo is by Dave.
May 9 · This one was a surprise for me: Howard was in the band of the truly legendary singer/dancer/actress Josephine Baker. Though a few years (ok, decades) have passed, Howard still remembers her costume and feathered headdress in detail.
May 10 · Today is the anniversary of the birth of the great drummer/composer/arranger/band leader Mel Lewis. And yes, Howard Johnson did play with him.
May 11 · Jane Bunnett mentioned the other day that Howard Johnson did a great version of Don Pullen's "Big Alice"... which reminded me of the mashup Geoff Muldaur did of "Chevrolet" and "Big Alice" on his album "The Secret Handshake." According to the liner notes: "So, one day I'm telling Howard Johnson that I have a great idea for a jazz-style hambone piece--a bebop hambone--but Howard breaks the news that my great idea had already been done. Charles Mingus' piano player Don Pullen had written one called 'Big Alice.' "
So here's Muldaur's "effort to unsettle folk audiences," featuring Muldaur on penny whistle and you know who on tuba.
May 13 · May 13 marks the 104th anniversary of the birth of composer/arranger/pianist Gil Evans. Howard Johnson ranks Gil Evans alongside Charles Mingus as "the other person who really stretched me beyond my own concept. I've gotten some things from Gil that I didn't even know were doable."
In an interview we did in the '90s, Howard told me Gil had asked him to play "a light sound that really projects," while working on "Falling Water," during a 1968 Miles Davis/Gil Evans session.
Howard continued, "There was one part that was very difficult for me, and I had to play it with Ron Carter, who was playing with a bow. When my phrasing or my pitch or something wasn't with him, he'd shoot me a look. That was kind of daunting, you know. On about the sixth take, I was concentrating on the phrasing, the notes, the pitch. I knew this wasn't going to be the final take, so I kind of played it in a way that would just guarantee that I got everything right at least, then I could maybe interpret later.
"When I heard the playback on that, the way I fit with Ron was so beautiful, in a way that I wasn't even going for, and it was clear and astonishing to me."
Gil told Howard that was the light sound he was looking for.
According to the liner notes for "Miles Davis/Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings," there was a killin' band on hand for the session, including Wayne Shorter on tenor sax.
May 14 · Today is percussionist Warren Smith's birthday, May 14. He's among the percussionists on Gil Evans' "There Comes a Time," which I've listened to about four times in the past two days. HoJo's on the gig, of course, along with an amazing lineup of others.
May 15 · Drummer Billy Cobham's birthday is tomorrow, May 16. Check out this great version of "Stone Free," featuring Billy, plus lots of closeups of Howard Johnson.
May 17 · Happy b'day, Taj Mahal! I mentioned Taj Mahal a couple of months back when I started this daily endeavor, so how 'bout if I mention someone else who played on the great album, "The Real Thing," so many great names to choose from ... how about the guitarist John Hall, who was also a member of Orleans (and a NY congressman).
May 18 · Bassist Cecil McBee's birthday is tomorrow, May 19. I'm pretty sure I've seen him and Howard on the same bandstand more than once.
May 19 · Howard Johnson has some good stories about being on the road with the trombonist Eddie Bert, who would have been 94 years old on May 16. Lots of talented people were born on that day, including Billy Cobham, and the amazing Betty Carter.
May 20 · Geri Allen, David Murray and Terri Lyne Carrington play Birdland through Sunday. Howard Johnson knows all three, of course, and played with two of them: He and David Murray were together in Jack DeJohnette's band Special Edition, including the great "Album Album." Howard Johnson and Geri Allen played "Big Alice" together at Don Pullen's memorial.
As far as Terri Lyne Carrington, "I didn't know about her until she was 10 or so," Howard says. They've never played together, "But that would be great, I'd love it," he adds. Somebody, please let Terri Lyne know!
May 21 · In case you haven't guessed, Howard played with the great drummer Jack DeJohnette.
May 22 · This Thursday, May 26, marks the anniversary of the birth of Levon Helm. Howard Johnson performed with Levon many times over the years, so this week I'm going to focus on some of the other people who were in Levon's various bands at the same time as Howard. For example, slide trumpeter Steven Bernstein, who told me last fall that every time he was on a gig with Howard it felt like a master class.
May 23 · Howard and guitarist Steve Cropper were both in Levon Helm's band, the RCO All-Stars. Steve was a member of Booker T. and the MGs, which was the Stax label's house band, backing up people like Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Albert King and many others.
May 24 · It's Tuba Tuesday. Howard Johnson and Clark Gayton are among the low brass players on Levon Helm's "Electric Dirt." They played together at many a Midnight Ramble, in Woodstock and on the road.
May 25 · Donald Fagen, perhaps best known as the cofounder of Steely Dan, guested with Levon Helm while Howard Johnson was in the band. A good time was had by all!
May 26 · Today, May 26, marks the anniversary of the birth of Levon Helm, a real icon of American music. Celebrate this day -- and treat yourself -- by listening to some of the great music he created, from the Band to the Midnight Rambles, with some interesting sonic side trips in between.
May 27 · Here's a Grammy-winning Muddy Waters album recorded in Woodstock in 1975, with Levon on drums and Howard on a variety of instruments, with a knockout band that included Pinetop Perkins on piano.
May 28 · It not possible to recognize all the great people Howard Johnson and Levon Helm played with over the years--though all of you are invited to pitch in to try! But the week can't go by without mentioning Amy Helm, Teresa Williams and Larry Campbell. (I had a twofer last week, and now a three-fer!)
May 29 · Howard chose Earl McIntyre for today's post, after spending the afternoon listening to Earl's CD "Brass Carnival & Tribute." Earl played with Howard's multi-tuba band for the first time when he was 17, but they met about five years earlier.
"Earl was only about 12 and he was playing bass trombone," Howard recalls. "He was so young, I wasn't sure he could reach seventh position."
May 30 · Howard came over for a Memorial Day bbq, and I had such fun putting together a set of Gravity alumni to listen to. Besides Earl McIntyre's "Brass Carnival & Tribute," Hazmat Modine's new one, "Extra-Deluxe-Supreme," featuring Joseph Daley on tuba, was in the rotation. Sounded great!
May 31 · Looks like alumni of Howard Johnson's multi-tuba band Gravity will be the focus this week. Velvet Brown is a Gravity mainstay, what an amazing player!
Stay Tuned for Part 3!