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Tuba Virtuoso Howard Johnson Dies At 79

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Howard Johnson could make a tuba sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOWARD JOHNSON AND GRAVITY'S "BIG ALICE")

KELLY: Johnson died yesterday at age 79. He'd been unwell for some time with an undisclosed illness.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Johnson played a range of instruments from the tiny tin whistle to the hulking baritone saxophone. But he's best known as the foremost exponent of jazz tuba.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOWARD JOHNSON AND GRAVITY'S "BIG ALICE")

CORNISH: This is from a tune called "Big Alice." Howard Johnson played with many jazz greats. And he also led the band of six tubas heard here called Gravity.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY: In early jazz, the tuba was considered a supporting instrument. But in the 1960s, the self-taught Howard Johnson showed up in New York. His particular set of skills landed him gigs with Charles Mingus, Gil Evans and trumpet virtuoso Dizzy Gillespie.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOB STEWART: He was like Dizzy Gillespie on the tuba.

CORNISH: That's fellow tuba player Bob Stewart.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEWART: Who could play higher than anybody else, just like Dizzy could. He could play faster than any other tuba player. Harmonically, he could hear all the things that he was playing, not unlike Dizzy Gillespie.

CORNISH: Jazz was not Howard Johnson's only style. He played with The Band on "The Last Waltz," with blues man Taj Mahal on "The Real Thing" and with the first "Saturday Night Live" band. He even accompanied James Taylor on "Sesame Street."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

JAMES TAYLOR: No one can tell me I'm doing wrong today.

CORNISH: That's him on the penny whistle.

KELLY: Howard Johnson, a man of many sounds, chief among them the tuba. He died yesterday at age 79. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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