It was on boyhood visits to his uncle’s house that Howard first became enchanted with live music. “He lived over a juke joint, and if I spent the night and slept on the floor, I could hear the bass line very well,” he remembered in a 2017 interview for Roll magazine. “And that was very satisfactory.”
A gifted student, he learned to read before he was 4 and skipped a grade in school. His first instrument was the baritone saxophone; after receiving just two lessons from his junior high school band teacher, he taught himself the rest. A year later, he learned the tuba entirely by watching other players’ fingerings in band rehearsals. He would wait until everyone had left the practice room, then tiptoe over to the tuba and try out what he’d seen.
In the high school band, he thrived on a sense of friendly competition with his fellow tuba players. Many of them were receiving private lessons, but left to his own devices Mr. Johnson blew beyond what they were being taught, stretching the instrument far past its normal range and maintaining a graceful articulation throughout.
“I thought I was playing catch-up — that all the stuff that I taught myself to do, the others could already do it,” he told Roll. “The ones who were the best in the section were kind of like role models, I wanted to play like them someday. But by the end of that school year, I could play much better than they could. And I could do a lot of other things.”
After high school, Mr. Johnson spent three years in the Navy, playing baritone sax in a military band. While stationed in Boston, he met the drummer Tony Williams, a teenage phenom who would soon be hired by Miles Davis, and fell in with other young jazz musicians there. Mr. Johnson met Eric Dolphy, another prominent multi-instrumentalist, one night when Dolphy was playing in John Coltrane’s band at a Boston club. When he mentioned that his range was as great on the tuba as it was on the baritone, Dolphy urged him to move to New York.
“He said, ‘If you can do half of what you say you can do, you shouldn’t be waiting two years here, I think you’re needed in New York now,’” Mr. Johnson recalled. “So I thought, ‘It’s February, maybe I should go to New York in August.’ I thought about it some more, and I left six days later.”