Tuesday, January 12, 2021

I will never forget you Howard Johnson!

I think it was 2005 when I called Howard Johnson and told him I was coming to New York and wanted to take him out for lunch. I have never been really good at remembering years or dates and I guess I am a bit of a liar too as I bought my plane ticket to New York after he agreed to have lunch with me. 

If I jump forward a bit; there I was in the studio in Toronto with Howard and my Hornband featuring Lina Allemano and Quinsin Nachoff.  Howard was telling me to play the banjo more like Taj Mahal. I am listening to that record right now as I collect my memories of my time with Howard and I don’t think I ever quite satisfied his request. 

I had done my research before I met Howard Johnson that day in New York but none of it quite seemed real until I was there. He was pointing out the restaurant across the street where he was supposed to meet John Lennon the day after John was murdered to talk about the new horn section he had arranged for John’s upcoming tour. 

We hit it off right away that day with lots of laughter and Howard was comfortable enough to try some of the seafood off of my plate as well. I told him that I hadn’t confirmed where all the money was going to come from as of yet for the record. He made me feel better by saying not to worry about it; “we are going to make something happen,” he said. 

It seemed like almost no time passed and here he was in my house, meeting my wife Julie and my young boys Dylan and Leo. He loved my family. He always felt like part of the family as he would stay at our house when he was in Toronto. Howard wasn’t picky but he had a few food items that he really liked so we made sure we always had them. Julie spoiled him whenever he was in our house and he knew how to flatter her to get what he loved. “I love the way you make those eggs Julie!” He would say. She saw him coming for miles but always treated him with big time love and respect. 

We rehearsed in my living room for that record and had the funniest experience on our first day (maybe our only day) of rehearsals. We were on a break and we were getting some fresh air in our back yard. I look towards the park that our yard borders-on and there is a guy sitting in the corner playing the tuba. This was a first. I had no idea who he was or why he was there. I love synchronicity and I had to go to talk to him. I introduced myself and told him that I was rehearsing with Howard Johnson in my house today. He said, “Howard Johnson is in your house, right now?!” Without any further questions he was running with his tuba, uninvited at this point into my house. Howard loved the tuba more than anyone I know loved their own instrument. So, anyone who played the tuba was his friend. I know that Howard stayed in touch with this musician over the years but I never got his name. I believe he went-on to get a job in an American symphony. 

I am still listening to our first Hornband record we made together as I write this.  I had forgotten how much guitar I played on this record. I think there are things about this record I like even more than the second album; Banjo Hockey. There is a naive quality to it for me that is attractive. 

I am not sure Howard ever loved my banjo playing (I am a much better banjo player today than I was back then) as much as my guitar playing. He used to say I could have a great career as a guitarist. He was always very supportive. 

To jump forward again, this reminds me of being at a jam session in Pori Finland with him. Our sax player Quinsin Nachoff was sitting in and Howard basically stopped the whole jam to let people know who Quinsin was. Howard loved Quinsin and Lina very much. Over the years he always wanted to know what they were up to.  

We had a great time in Sweden and Finland thanks to our friend John Nugent who helped make all that happen. He also booked us on an amazing sold out concert at the Rochester Jazz Festival. 

I have a photograph of the first show I ever did with Howard, Lina and Quinsin. It was at Mike Hansen’s art studio on Spadina ave in Toronto and it was organized in part by my pal, the late, great Ron Gaskin. 

We played lots of fun shows in Canada too. We played the outdoor jazz tent at the Toronto Jazz Festival. We played at the Vancouver Island Music Festival (still one of my favourite festivals in the world) We played the Ottawa Jazz Festival after a tornado or hurricane-like storm that scared away most of our listeners but for a few diehards and close friends. 

One of our special concerts together was headlining the Friday night at the Blue Skies Music Festival. It was another great storm and the power was out. We decided to play anyways, without a P.A. and people gathered close around the MainStage with their umbrellas to hear our music. There was a magical connection. Suddenly near the middle of the show the power came back on. All of a sudden the music was amplified and people came out of their tents and we rocked the crowd including an encore. 

One of the songs on our first CD is called 50% Pure Wool. I am listening to it now and it’s reference and musical leaning towards a Quebec folk style reminded me that we also had a great show at the Montreal Jazz Festival at the Contemporary Museum of Modern Art. 

Howard plays some great penny whistle on this track. Everyone knows him as the artist that changed the way the tuba is played however, he really was a multi-instrumentalist. 

If you look at his album credits he played many instruments with many people. Last I checked he played on close to 500 records. Of course he played with Taj Mahal, John Lennon and the Band but it is truly amazing what he did in his life as a musician. 

I used to try and stump him by mentioning top artists and asking if he had worked with them. He would usually reply by saying yes and telling some sort of great tale about their experiences together. One time I finally thought I stumped him by asking if he ever performed with Frank Zappa. He said, “Okay, you got me this time Tim. I never performed with Frank but I stayed at 

Frank and Gail’s house for a week while I did the rehearsals for a European tour they had coming up.”

We made a second record called Banjo Hockey. This was partly inspired by something Howard told me his Mother would say when she didn’t believe something; “Horse Hockey!” (Not sure of the true spelling)

It was fun getting Howard and Lina and Quinsin to hold hockey sticks for the great photo Anne Zbitnew took of us. (Anne is a friend and neighbour and a great photographer and she took the photos for both our records)  I am not sure any of them had ever held hockey sticks before that day.

I was obsessed with Howard’s tuba playing when I first met him. I knew he wanted to play some baritone sax on both records and in hindsight I am so glad he did. He is such a great Bari player too. 

I think one of our funnest gigs was our week we spent in St. John’s Newfoundland for the Sound Symposium. Howard had never been to Newfoundland before and he was really excited by the idea. He brought his partner Nancy with him which was great as we all got to know each other a little better. 

As the years passed I stayed in touch with Howard. I would call him on his birthday or whenever something came up that I knew I had to share. I still wear the hockey sweater he and the band bought me when we were in Finland. It was a great surprise gift that he spearheaded. 

The last time I saw him was at the Guelph Jazz Festival playing with Jane Bunnett. He was barely able to hold his own horn but when it was time to play he gave everything and sounded great. I knew it would probably be the last time I saw him and I took it all in. It was beautiful and inspiring. 

Howard was was a great man, a great musician and a great friend. 

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