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'Jaws' Tuba Player Tommy Johnson


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'Jaws' Tuba Player Tommy Johnson

by Claire Noland


Tommy Johnson

LOS ANGELES, California -- The opening notes, low and ominous, send a chill up the spine of anyone sitting in a darkened theater. The great white shark is near, cutting through the water in pursuit of its prey. John Williams composed the music and the mounting tension it conveys for the soundtrack of the movie, "Jaws."

Tommy Johnson, the tuba player who lifted those relentlessly accelerating notes off the page, giving voice to the shark while bringing terror to the movie audience, died on October 16 from complications of cancer and kidney failure at UCLA Medical Center, said his wife, Patricia Johnson. He was 71 and had been working until a few weeks before his death.

Johnson was a "first call" studio musician who played tuba on thousands of film scores over nearly 50 years. The first movie Johnson played on was "Al Capone," with a score by David Raksin. That 1959 film was followed by a seemingly endless list highlighted by "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," the "Indiana Jones" trilogy and the "Star Trek" movie series.


Bill Murray (left) and Tommy Johnson during a coaching

session for a scene in the movie, 'Charlie's Angels' where

Murray had to play a sousaphone.

Other films included "The Godfather," "The Thin Red Line," "The Lion King" and "Titanic." But it was "Jaws" in 1975 that best showcased his film work. "What I had in mind were the lower instruments of the orchestra, those capable of plunging the sonic depths . . . that would represent the shark in music," Williams said in an interview with The Times.

"The tuba was one of the instruments that could create that atmosphere," Williams added. "It's a difficult tuba part, and players need to be on their toes to do it. Tommy played it with great facility and ease, from where I was standing on the podium, as he always did. He was an outstanding instrumentalist."

Johnson called "Jaws" his most memorable experience in the recording studio. Stuck in traffic on the 405 Freeway during a rainstorm, he arrived late to the session. "When you're late like that, you're just really all upset," Johnson recalled in a 2004 interview with tubanews.com.


Tommy Johnson and John Lowe with his E-Flat contra-bass sax

recording for the film, 'Taps'

"So as I sat down and barely got the mouthpiece in the tuba," Johnson continued in the tubanews.com interview. "I happened to open the book and the first cue is this big, long tuba solo. This solo kept recurring in almost every cue. I found out later that was the theme for the shark."

"I asked John Williams later why he wrote that so high for the tuba," Johnson added. "I wondered why he didn't write that for the French horns since it was in the perfect range for them? He said, 'Well, I wanted something that was in that register but I wanted it to sound a little more threatening.'"

In addition to working on film, television and music recordings, Johnson performed with many local ensembles, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Pasadena Symphony, the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and The Academy Awards Orchestra. He also taught music to junior high school students in the Los Angeles Unified School District for nearly 20 years.


Tommy Johnson

For most of his career, Johnson taught advanced tuba players individually and at USC and UCLA. Among Johnson's former students are Norm Pearson of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Alan Baer of the New York Philharmonic and Gene Pokorny of the Chicago Symphony

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