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VALLEY WEEKEND

The Rodney Dangerfield of the Band

The poor tuba--it never gets any respect. Members of Gravity are out to change the stereotypes.

September 12, 1996|ROBIN RAUZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A choir of tubas with not an oom-pah among them, that was Howard Johnson's vision.

It's not been an easy concept to sell, Johnson will tell you. People have tuba misconceptions, you see. They think the instrument is slow, plodding, capable of little more than . . . well, oom-pahs.

With his jazz ensemble Gravity--six tubas plus a rhythm section--Johnson is out to emancipate the tuba from such stereotypes. Gravity makes a stop Wednesday at the Performing Arts Center at Cal State Northridge on its way up the coast to kick of the Monterey Jazz Festival on Sept. 20.

"Oh, don't get me started," said Johnson, 55, of the tuba's burden. "One time at a performance, I had [comedian] Garrett Morris come and give a rhetorical liberation speech that could fit almost any minority group, but it all fit the tuba. It's lazy, it's shiftless, it can't do this, it can't do that. It's funny, it's just been severely prejudiced by, I guess, other instrumentalists who want to think of their instruments as superior."

Trumpeters and the like might be humbled by the display of tuba dexterity on "Gravity!!!"--the group's first album, released in May by Verve. Most of Gravity's players--nine worked on the record--can cover a five-octave range. In Thelonious Monk's " 'Round Midnight," virtuoso Carl Kleinsteuber hits an E-flat--the one at the top of the treble clef. The ensemble playing on tunes like Don Pullen's "Big Alice" or the gospel number "Be No Evil" has the full sound of a group twice Gravity's size.

Johnson's manager Suzi Reynolds, who co-produced the album, was particularly concerned that "Gravity!!!" not be perceived as a gimmick record. The musicianship had to be at such a level, she said, that no one would say, "Cute idea, but the music is just so-so." Gravity is having no such problems. The group played at the Montreal Jazz Festival in June, and the album has been on the Gavin charts--which measure radio airplay on jazz stations--for 23 weeks, peaking at No. 12.

What surprised Verve Records' Senior Vice President Chuck Mitchell wasn't the quality of the music--the players were all well-established. "Despite the group's name and concept," he said, "it has such lightness and swing to it. That was the surprise."

The music on "Gravity!!!" is indeed light. It has wit but isn't remotely laughable. And at moments, like Johnson's solo on " 'Round Midnight," it can be remarkably gentle. "You've seen those 'National Geographic' things where you see a hippo swimming underwater?" asked Gravity member Bob Stewart. "That's what the tuba can be."

At moments, it seems as if Johnson has been waiting his whole life to share with the world the true wonders of the tuba--which, in a sense, he has. He convened his first tuba jazz group in New York in 1968. When the five first played their tubas at the same time, he said, the sound was shocking.

"It made me dizzy. I was really floored," Johnson said. "Something that really doesn't come through on the recording is that when you're in the room with these instruments there's a sensual thing that happens in the air. You feel it in your skin. I don't know exactly what it is, but it creates some kind of excitement that's not quite accounted for in the music."

Born in Alabama, Johnson spent most of his childhood in Massillon, Ohio, where his father worked for the steel mills and his mother ran a beauty salon out of their house. He played the baritone sax for a year in junior high before picking up the tuba. His band director caught him belting out a scale--Johnson was just fooling around--and suggested he give the tuba a try. Football and band were a big deal in Massillon, so Johnson's parents didn't object when he brought the huge instrument home. He was, however, banished to the backyard to practice on occasion.

Johnson moved to New York in the early 1960s and started an incredibly eclectic career that included steady gigs with Charles Mingus, Gil Evans and Dizzy Gillespie; organizing the original "Saturday Night Live" band; arranging and playing for the Band and Taj Mahal; and playing on the soundtracks of four Spike Lee films, including "Mo' Better Blues" and "Clockers." Recent years have been spent playing with a big band in Hamburg, Germany, where he was signed by Verve's Motor Music arm.

Throughout, Gravity existed, though years might pass between get-togethers. Stewart, a member of the original 1968 group, remembers driving to New York from Philadelphia for rehearsals and gigs at a club called Slug's, and late-night tuba jam sessions followed by soul food breakfasts. Johnson, he said, took him in and showed him everything that he'd learned about the tuba.

"It was almost like passing a baton, while at the same time it was a challenge," Stewart said. "It was like, 'Here's this thing, now what are you going to do with it?' "

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