TommyEarly this morning I received the telephone call I hoped I would never get telling me the news that Tommy Johnson had passed on. This is a huge loss to the tuba world and a deep personal loss to me.
I began studying with Robert Marsteller in 1951. Soon after these lessons began he told me of another of his students, a wonderful student; his name was Tommy Johnson. As boys, our heroes, of course, were William Bell and Arnold Jacobs. In the early 50s both these men represented the state of the art in tuba playing. I heard William Bell every Sunday afternoon in the weekly New York Philharmonic radiobroadcasts, which I never missed, and I listened to Arnold Jacobs and the Chicago Symphony as those spectacular recordings were beginning to emerge in from that period.
Tommy and I quickly became friends, and for more than fifty years Tommy has been the big brother that I never had and an extraordinary example of a tubist, musician, teacher, and human being. What wonderful luck that my formative years in life could be with the influence of a man like Tommy; musically, tubaistically, and life in general he showed me a direction more than any other person.
At the same time we were competitors. Without the competition we shared, I have no doubt whatsoever my musical accomplishments would have fallen far short. To have a friend, a colleague and a competitor like Tommy was a gift.
Through much of the 50's we would meet almost once a week and play duets; I heard extraordinary things in his playing I was not hearing in my own. We talked; we shared thoughts, ideas and discoveries that accelerated the musical growth of both of us. It was as if we were a two-man tuba forum, with questions, and discussions; perhaps we were the first tuba chat group! I grew learning that this was what competition was all about. It caused the traction and support that enabled us both to move faster and further.
Soon we found ourselves frequently working together, from the Disneyland Band to Hollywood studios to the Los Angeles Philharmonic and, of course, when youve worked with someone for that long there are stories to tell. One of my favorites is when he attached his new alarm wristwatch to my tuba where I couldnt see it and it went off during a performance of the second movement of the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto . And kept beeping for the rest of the performance! When I came off stage Tommy was very eager to try my tuba! I didnt find out for a few months that that beeping was Tommys watch on my tuba.
Tommy, of course, was the most heard tubist in the world with thousands of films, television shows and recordings. Almost everyone everywhere has heard Tommy play, and what a player he was. But Tommys greatness didnt stop just as a tubist; he was an extraordinary teacher, which can be seen and heard by his students, many of whom hold playing and teaching positions around the world. Perhaps more importantly though, he was also a truly great man and was an example for me and countless others, of wisdom, kindness, and character; everyone who knew him adored him.
I talked to Tommy two days ago; he was clear, humorous and talked about when he got out of the hospital he was going to stop playing and go to Arizona and visit his son. He was an example to the end, even showing us how to die.
Saying goodbye to a loved one is so difficult. Tommy Johnson was my best and oldest friend. He was my hero both as a person and as a tubist; I will miss him more that I can say.
Goodbye Tommy, goodbye my dear friend.
Tokyo, October 17, 2006